I’m delighted to announce that my exhibition – The Art of Getting By – will open the 8th Jersey Amnesty International Human Rights Festival where I’ll be doing some teaching and workshops.
The French, as always have a word for it. Débrouillardise. The art of getting by – resourcefulness – surviving and laughing. I heard it first in French Africa in the ‘90s and I realised that I have been trying over the last two decades (even before I really knew the word) to make it a motif in the reportage that I made in even the most difficult circumstances. It is no less than the human condition – why shouldn’t the poor, the maimed, the brutalised somehow steal a smile, fall in love? A determination to live. To be normal. To be just like us.
These images are not romantic – although I hope that some are beautiful – rather they reflect the everyday struggles of common people. They also aren’t meant as rosy depictions of poverty from an outsider and they aren’t meant to patronise. I have worked consistently in the Developing World for most of my career and that was a choice made from the low horizons of my own childhood and the desire to escape the grey landscape of a Hackney past.
I consciously sought difference but found similarity and common ground.
These images are taken from stories from many countries. They show people touched by war and poverty living as best they can. They are small stories from larger narratives and by and large show small lives but they are no less important for that.
For me, this is a kind of retrospective: photographs of what I have tried to see – sometimes forced myself to see – to remember that the world is not dark, dangerous and other, but that it is beautiful and full of life.
I had been debating for days whether to post something on Afghanistan (in light of our Great Leader’s brilliantly orchestrated ‘outburst’ about Pakistan’s involvement) when Time Magazine produced its most blatantly propogandist cover story for decades. The piece cynically manipulates Jodi Bieber‘s (a friend and ex-collegue from Network Photographers) dignified image of a mutilated woman to suggest that a withdrawl from this illegal, NeoCon war would lead to more barbarity. Presumably similar barbarity to the drone attacks killing countless civilians in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and the illegal, drug-infested, torture-soaked, Karzai government.
Let’s make no mistake here, the excuse that the brave forces of democracy are in South Asia to prevent another 9/11 is entirely spurious. Afghanistan did not attack America. The majority of those that did came from our staunch ally, Saudi Arabia – known for its robust defence of human, especially women’s rights. That a minority of Islamicists may have had bases in Afghanistan is more the result of Indo-Pak (and therefore CIA) intelligence machinations. Afghanistan has been raped and used by every invading army since the British had a go twice in the Nineteenth century. Are we surprised that such actions have spawned amongst the Pashtun tribes a spiteful and extreme Islam? I’m more surprised that it hasn’t been worse. My visits to Afghanistan (starting in 1994 to cover the Siege of Kabul for Der Spiegel) have consistently shown Afghans to be peaceful and kind – not that you’d get that from a whole generation of photographers and writers who have covered this forago ’embedded’ courtesy of the American Industrial-Military Complex. Surely they are all turban headed (‘rag-heads’ are Iraqis… obviously) women-hating, primitives. Still, if we can’t understand ’em and they don’t want our democracy, let’s bomb them, eh? Bomb them ‘back to the Stone Age…’.
According to Matthew Hob, the former US Marine who resigned his post as Political Officer in 2009, “The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies … I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.”
Some years ago I travelled to Pakistan to make a set of images about religious persecution. I lasted only a few days – for the first time in my career, I left a story because I honestly felt that my presence was putting lives at risk.
I had been invited to Rabwah, the spiritual home of the Ahmadiyya community, a peaceful minority Islamic movement that questions the finality of the Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is the only country to classify Ahmadiyya’s as non-Muslims.
In 1984 General Zia issued Ordinace XX supposedly to prevent “anti-Islamic activities”. It forbids Ahmadiyya’s to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques and worship publicly. It forbids them from quoting from the Koran, preaching in public, seeking converts, or producing, publishing, and disseminating their religious materials. To gain a passport, all Pakistanis must declare themselves non-Ahmadiyyas.
The repression is of course a smokescreen to hide Pakistan’s myriad social and political problems and the Ahmaidiyyas are a perfect scapegoat. This is not about religion, it’s about state power. As Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books in 2007:
“Back in the heart of Pakistan the most difficult and explosive issue remains social and economic inequality. This is not unrelated to the increase in the number of madrassas. If there were a half-decent state education system, poor families might not feel the need to hand over a son or daughter to the clerics in the hope that at least one child will be clothed, fed and educated. Were there even the semblance of a health system many would be saved from illnesses contracted as a result of fatigue and poverty. No government since 1947 has done much to reduce inequality”.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch told the BBC the worshippers were “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who consider the Ahmadis to be infidels. The Pakistani state is in trouble however and Ahmadiyyas are not the only minority to suffer persecution. According to Minority Rights, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Christians all suffer.
Today, I read with interest an opinion piece in Dawn by Moshin Hamid (an author whose Moth Smoke I read and enjoyed some time ago) called Fear and Silence from which I take the liberty of quoting from at length. I think it elegantly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous (attributed) quote “First they came for the Jews…”. Hamid says:
“Because the heart of the issue isn’t whether Ahmadis are non-Muslims or not. The heart of the issue is whether Muslims can be silenced by fear.
Because if we can be silenced when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.
That is the point. ”
One can only hope that all people of tolerance and faith will not be silenced.