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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.19: Do local photographers have a distinctive eye?

Do local photographers offer a distinctive perspective on their worlds?

That question was prompted by reading Patrick Witty’s interesting account of a photography workshop held in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq earlier this month. The workshop was organized by Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency, and sponsored by Washington-based IREX International. Witty writes that the workshop was “the brainchild of Stephanie SinclairSebastian Meyer and Kamaran Najm,” and that he was one of four instructors, along with Kael AlfordNewsha Tavakolian, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Interestingly, the venue was the Amna Suraka, the national genocide museum, which offers an account of the ‘Anfal’ campaign waged by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in the late 1980s. (The museum is the subject of an interesting project by British photographer Ben Hodson). With regards to the Anfal campaign – which included the infamous gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 – it is vital to recall that Saddam Hussein was then a US ally and the US was well aware of Iraqi chemical weapons capabilities. None of that stopped the US later – in the run-up to the 2003 invasion – hypocritically citing the Halabja gas attack as proof of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity.

Back to the workshop – Witty’s account and the enthusiastic comments of the participants testify to the value of the event. As the headline suggests, we benefit from seeing “Iraq through Iraqi eyes.” The gallery of images from the workshop showcase some interesting images, with Gona Aziz’s photo feature here one of the ones that stood out for me. But I’m sceptical about the idea that a person’s national identity offers a naturally distinctive eye.

Can we say categorically that local people would be better storytellers? To me that assumption has as many problems as the reliance on the international photographic elite it seeks to replace or supplement. Are “local people” a single, homogenous entity with only one voice? Surely they are as diverse, plural and conflicted as our own societies, so which local voices are going to get to tell their stories, and which local voices are we going to pay attention to?

The issue of greater attention to and work for indigenous photographers is an important issue of labour justice and political economy. There are many talented non-European photographers in this world whose work deserves greater play, and initiatives like Majority World are important in redressing the economic imbalances. And nobody could object to more assistance and training for locals to tell their own stories.

But the idea that their work, simply because they are non-European, offers a fundamentally different and automatically better visual account of the issues and places they cover is as sweeping a generalization as that offered by the stereotypical images that dominate our media.

It is also getting to hard to clear divide from “the local” from “the international,” and this Iraq workshop is an example of that. Some of the participants already work for international wire agencies, and the instructors are global, both personally and professionally, and the skills they are passing on come from the global image economy.

None of this is to criticize the organizers or instructors. All of them deserve credit for creating an important opportunity for Iraqi photographers. They are not necessarily making the general claims I am highlighting. Being ‘local’ means potentially easier access to ‘home‘ and can thus be the starting point for original stories. But being ‘local’ is not in itself the basis for a unique perspective. Originality and context come from sources other than national identity.

Photo: Copyright Gona Aziz – A portrait of Ashti Abdulrahman, from the series, “Women,” from TIME Lightbox 23 June 2011.

 

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility

 

 

This photograph of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic after his arrest was (as Tom Keenan observed on Facebook) too long in coming but nevertheless still satisfying.

In many ways its hard to equate the pathetic visage on display here with the barbaric deeds Mladic’s forces committed in the Bosnian War between 1992-95, with the genocide at Srebrenica the most appalling. For anyone who doubts the enormity of the crimes committed under the leadership of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the prosecutor’s indictment in Case No. IT-95-5/18-I should make salutary reading (thanks to @martincoward for the link). Mladic deserves a fair trial, and whatever the limitations of the ICTY in the Hague, the trial he will receive there will be infinitely fairer than the vengeance he wrought on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian War was something that preoccupied me for much of the 1990s, and I researched the issues it raised for years before publishing a book, National Deconstruction, on the subject in 1998. I subsequently conducted a detailed investigation of the controversy surrounding the media coverage of the Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in the Prijedor region, which was published in 2002. It is the case that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes, but I have no doubt that the nationalist programme of Karadzic and Mladic – backed by Milosevic in Belgrade – resulted in the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (To those who might want to redirect responsibility for the atrocities in comments, don’t bother, they won’t be posted. I’ve done my time trying to debate revisionists who want to diminish the suffering inflicted by those who partitioned Bosnia, and I’m no longer willing to engage people who are impervious to evidence).

The Bosnian War was a seminal event in the photographic visualization of atrocity, and one that exposed the limits of visibility. Because it took place on Europe’s border, was shown nightly on television, and widely pictured in the press, you might think that the abundant images of innocent victims would have provoked a major response from either Europe or America. The war was certainly a major media story. And there was much diplomatic activity and many grand statements by concerned leaders. But the fact is that no amount of visual evidence form the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of other cities, moved countries to offer more than under-equipped UN forces distributing inadequate care packages. When NATO did eventually act with limited air power towards the end of the war, it only secured the partition of Bosnia along lines that rewarded ethnic cleansing.

The idea that photographers, broadcasters and journalists could produce a just political response through the power of their imagery came up short in Bosnia. We still have much to learn about how pictures work and the nature of their relationship to change. In the meantime, I will take some belated satisfaction that we get to see the portrait of a man whose violent past has caught up with him.

Photo credit: Politika, via Reuters, from the MSNBC.com PhotoBlog