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`Still pictures are not still…’ Fore-seeing the effect of visual images

by Rahnuma Ahmed

`Still pictures are not still…’ said Mahasweta Devi. She was in Dhaka to inaugurate Chobi Mela V, and, fortunately for us, had expressed her wish to put up with Shahidul Alam, the director of Chobi Mela. Having Mahasweta Devi, and Joy Bhadra, a young writer and her companion, as house guests, was a `happening’. I will write about that another day.

Mahasweta Devi consistently used the words stheer chitro (exact translation is, `still images’). Still pictures, she went on, inspire us. They move us. They make us do things.

However, I thought to myself, many who are working on visual and cultural theory may not agree. Some would be likely to say, things are not as simple as that.

The effect of visual images needs to be investigated

The debate about the power of visual images has become stuck on the point of the meaning of visual images, on the truth of images. This, said David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, doesn’t get us very far. He was one of the panelists at the opening night’s discussion of Chobi Mela V, held at the Goethe Institut auditorium (`Engaging with photography from outside: An informal discussion between a geographer, an editor and a curator/funder of photography’, 30 Jan 2009).

David went on, it is much better to focus on the effect of images, on the function of images, on the work that images do — and that, is how the debate should be framed. At present, attention is overly-focused on the single image, and what we expect of the single image. By doing this we have invested it with too much possibility, we place too much hope on it’s ability to bring about social change. The effect of visual images needs to be investigated, rather than assumed.

nick-ut-associated-press-pulitzer-terror-napalm

Amy Yenkin, another panelist in the programme, and head of the Documentary Photography project at the Open Society Institute asked David, Why do you think this happens? Is it because people look back at certain iconic images, let’s say images from the Vietnam war that changed the situation, that they try to put too much meaning in the power of one single image..? David replied, `In a way, I am sceptical of the power of single images, a standard 6 or 7 in the western world, that are repeated all the time. I was personally affected by the Vietnam war images, by the image of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm bomb, but I don’t know of any argument that actually demonstrates that Nick Ut’s photograph demonstrably furthered the Vietnam anti-war movement.’ He went on, `Now, I don’t regard that as a failure of the image, but a failure of the interpretation that we’ve placed on the image. It puts too much burden on the image itself.’

The discussion was followed by Noam Chomsky and Mahasweta Devi’s video-conference discussion on Freedom (Chobi Mela V’s theme), and I became fully immersed in watching two of the foremost public intellectual/activists of today talk about the meanings and struggles of freedom, and of imperialism and nationalism’s attempts to thwart it in common peoples’ lives.

But the next day, my thoughts returned to what David had said, and to the general discussion that had followed. On David’s website, I came across how he understands photography, `a technology through which the world is visually performed,’ and a gist of his theoretical argument. I quote: `The pictures that the technology of photography produces are neither isolated nor discrete objects. They have to be understood as being part of networks of materials, technologies, institutions, markets, social spaces, emotions, cultural histories and political contexts. The meaning of photographs derives from the intersection of these multiple features rather than just the form and content of particular pictures.’ .

In other words, to understand what happens within the frame, we need to go outside the frame.

Abu Ghraib photographs: concealing more than they reveal

A good instance is provided by the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse photographs taken by US military prison guards with digital cameras, which came to public attention in early 2004. The pictures, says Ian Buruma, conceal more than they reveal. By telling one story, they hide a bigger story.

Images of Chuck Graner, Ivan Frederick and the others as “gloating thugs” helped single out, and fix, low-ranking reservist soldiers as the bad apples. As President Bush intoned, it was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values”. None of the officers were tried, though several received administrative punishment. As a matter of fact, the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations specifically absolved senior U.S. military and political leadership from direct culpability. Some even received promotions (Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, Col. Marc Warren, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast).

The gloating digital images, no doubt embarassing for the US administration, probably helped “far greater embarrassments from emerging into public view.” They made “the lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians who made, or rather unmade, the rules—William J. Haynes, Alberto Gonzales, David S. Addington, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, Douglas J. Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—look almost respectable.”

But there is another aspect to the story of concealing-and-revealing. Public preoccupation with Abu Ghraib pornography deflected attention from the “torturing and the killing that was never recorded on film,” and from finding out who “the actual killers” were. By singling out those visible in the pictures as the “rogues” responsible, it concealed the bigger reality. That the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris point out, “was de facto United States policy.”

Lynndie England, who held the rank of Specialist while serving in Iraq, expressed it best I think, when she said, “I didn’t make the war. I can’t end the war. I mean, photographs can’t just make or change a war.”

True. Photographs can’t just make or change a war. But surely they do something, or else, why censor images of the recent slaughter in Gaza? To put it more precisely, surely, those who are powerful (western politicians, journalists, arms manufacturers, defence analysts, all deeply embedded in the Zionist Curtain, one that has replaced the older Iron Curtain) apprehend that the visual images of Gaza will do something? That they will, in all probability, have a social effect upon western audiences? And therefore, these must be acted upon i.e., their circulation and distribution must be prevented.

At times, their apprehension seems to move even further. Images-not-yet-taken are prevented from being taken. Probable social effects of unborn images are foreseen, and aborted.

Censoring Gaza images, for what they reveal

All of this happened in the case of Gaza. But before turning to that, I would like to add a small note on the notion of probability. I am inclined to think that it’ll help to deepen our understanding of the politics of visual images.

As the organisers of a Michigan university conference on English literature remind us (“Fictional Selves: On the (im)Probability of Character”, April 2002), the notion of probability went through a major conceptual shift with the emergence of modernity. What in the seventeenth century had meant “the capability of being proven absolutely true or false” as in the case of deductive theorem in logic, gradually altered in meaning as practitioners searched for rhetorical consensus, and the repeatability of experimental results, leading to its present-day meaning: “a likelihood of occurring.”

What might have occured if Israel had allowed journalists into Gaza? What might have occurred if the BBC instead of hiding under the pretence of “impartiality” had agreed to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Aid Appeal aimed at raising humanitarian aid for (occupied and beseiged) Gazans? What might have occurred if USA’s largest satellite television subscription service DIRECTV had gone ahead and aired the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine’s `Gaza Strip TV Ad‘?

Could pictures of Israel’s 22 day carnage in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, have sown doubts in western minds about the Israeli claim of targeting only Hamas, and not civilians? Could photos of bombed UN buildings, mosques, schools, a university, of hospitals in ruins, ambulances destroyed, of dismembered limbs and destroyed factories have forced BBC’s viewers to question whether both sides are to blame? Could pictures of the apartheid wall, the security zone, the checkpoints controlling entry of food, trade, medicine (for over two years) make suspect the Israeli claim that it had withdrawn from Gaza? Could photos depicting the effects of mysterious armaments that have burned their way down into people’s flesh, eaten their skin and tissue away, have given western viewers pause for thought? Could the little story of Israel acting only in self-defense, begin to unravel? Could pictures of Gaza in ruins have led American viewers to wonder whether there is a bigger story out there, and could it then lead them to ask why their taxes are being spent in footing Israel’s military bill (the fourth largest army in the world), to ask why they should continue to sponsor this parasitical state, even when its own economy is in ruins?

May be.

After all, as Mahasweta Devi had said, still pictures are not still. Still pictures (may) move us. They (may) make us do things. The powerful, know this.

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First published in New Age on Monday 16th February 2009

February 15, 2009 Posted by | Photojournalism issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Un-intelligent manoeuvres: tales of censorship

rahnuma ahmed

Calling for an end to the emergency rules, editors and senior journalists of the print and electronic media yesterday protested against the interference of government and military agencies in the everyday task of the media. ..[t]he media has to work under limited rights, pressure and in fear of fundamental-rights-denying emergency rules since the president declared the state of emergency on January 11 last year.

VOA News, May 14, 2008

My Dilemma

IN THESE times, writing or speaking in defiance of censorship is often viewed with a tinge of suspicion. There must be higher-up backing. Or else, how could she, how could he… One also comes across those who say, see, this proves there is no Emergency. Not in the strict sense of the word. This government is not like any other government. They are different.

Times must be pretty hard, I think, when a generalised suspicion passes for analysis. When sycophancy becomes second nature. The problem with Emergency is that it breeds irresponsibility. Our rulers know what is best for us. We will speak up after the government has set the house in order, after things have been sorted out. After the elections are over. After Emergency has been lifted. After this, after that – it is a list that trails off into an indefinite future.

Too much abdication, too many ifs. Not only that. Emergency breeds a culture of fear. People are more likely to keep their mouths shut, to sound non-committal, to adopt an I-mind-my-own-business attitude, to churn out uniform phrases. The recent joint statement of the editors and senior journalists of Bangladesh (May 13, 2008), speaks of continuous monitoring and interference in the day-to-day running of print and electronic media, to a point where, as Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age put it, editors are no longer able to make ‘independent’ decisions.

And the source of interference? Some newspaper reports said, the editors spoke of ‘government agencies.’ In a daily I read, ‘civilian and military agencies.’ Yet another spoke of ‘government and military agencies’. A Daily Star report went a bit further, it said the editors had spoken of ‘a military intelligence agency’ (May 16, 2008), I saw people sitting up and taking note of the series of meetings being held at the National Press Club. I heard people utter the words `DGFI’, but I didn’t see it in print. I also heard, things are going to change from now on, heavy-handedness is likely to lessen, the editors’ demand created ripples. This, however, remains to be seen.

Since the declaration of Emergency, military interference in the print media has concentrated on changing priorities, on overseeing that particular news stories get reported, that others go unreported, or under-reported. These pressures are the more visible ones. But infiltration has occurred in more devious ways. A prime example is provided by confessions of politicians who allegedly pocketed public wealth. Most of these `confessions’, made under remand, have been printed in the dailies with tremendous enthusiasm. Not only in the tabloids, in the more serious papers too, without any mention of sources. As if the confession was made to the reporter, in person. A blogger has termed this “crossfire journalism,” because of its deafening one-sidedness. The accused is not given the opportunity of self-defense, to offer his or her side of the story. Interestingly, many of those accused have contested these confessions in court, they have claimed that these were made under duress. This does not seem to have caused much concern. I say this because I have not come across any retractions, nor have confessions ceased to be published. I have other concerns too. That the media does not sift through, that it does not investigate, that it reproduces whatever it is handed-out – as long as it is from a particular source – that I find very disturbing. Of course, not all newspaper editors have equally succumbed to the army’s campaign of calling the shots, but that is a separate issue.

In the case of private TV channels, interference has focused on news programmes, live discussion programmes, and also, nightly news review programmes, hosted mostly by journalists. In the latter two programmes, members of the audience raised questions. For instance, in Ekusheyr Shomoy, a panel of journalists acted as auditors to what the experts said. Many other programmes had live, viewer phone-ins. These features, in their own fashion, contributed to creating public spaces of democratic deliberation. (Of course, not all channels have been equally courageous, but that again, is a separate issue). From the interference that they face, it would seem that these spaces are perceived as threats. What does it threaten? Who does it threaten? These questions are sidelined, the emperor’s nakedness is not to be mentioned.

Military interference of these Emergency months has included a jealous guarding of its own image, of censoring photographs that threaten its sense of honour and dignity. Mahbubur Rahman, the former army chief was assaulted by party workers last year, strict instructions were given to newspaper offices that these photographs should not be published. The army has guarded its self-image of physical supremacy most viciously, as is symbolised by the furore over the photograph known as the `flying kick,’ taken during the Dhaka University student protests, in August 2007.

No timeline for the expiration of Emergency has been announced. Not yet. I would be lying if I said, everything seems to be fine, no deception seems to be involved. If I said, why worry?

Tales of censorship

The situation was far from ideal when political parties ruled the nation. Although newspaper ownership and content was not subject to direct government restriction, attacks on journalists and newspapers occurred frequently. Government efforts to intimidate them also occurred frequently. Political cadres would often attack journalists. Some were injured in police actions. For instance, according to a 2005 human rights report, 2 journalists were killed, 142 were injured, 11 arrested, 4 kidnapped, 53 assaulted, and 249 threatened. If one used similar indices of comparison for last year, the situation does not seem to have worsened. Thirty-five journalists were injured, 13 arrested, 35 assaulted, 83 threatened and 13 sued. A media practitioner was forced to sign an undertaking, another came under attack. (New Age, January 15, 2008).

But I think the terrain itself has changed, and hence, the terms of comparison need rethinking. Threats to the industry have surfaced that bring back older memories, Martial Law memories, even though we are constantly told that we have no reason to fear. These threats are substantial. The owners and directors of at least 5 TV channels, and 5 newspapers are facing ACC anti-corruption charges. The first and lone 24-hour news channel in the country, CSB, was taken off air last year, after the August protests. The closure of newspapers and TV channels, according to some observers, has broken the backbone of the media industry. It has caused massive unemployment among journalists, and others in media-related occupations. Wages are no longer regular. According to an insider friend, those working in a private TV channel received their wages and salaries for February last week only. In 5 or 6 newspapers, wages have not been paid for the last six months or so. The severe crisis in both print and electronic media is not only a financial one. In some senses, it is one of existence too. Existence as known thus far.

Journalists have been tortured for investigating security forces (Tasneem Khalil, Jahangir Alam Akash). It is rumoured that the owner of a private TV channel was picked up by security forces. He was left blindfolded, and released only after he had agreed to sign blank sheets of paper. Guidelines for talk shows have been issued. Names of blacklisted guest speakers have been circulated to private channels (white-listed ones too!). A faxed letter on plain paper asking Ekushey to close down its highly popular talk shows (Ekusheyr Shomoy, Ekusheyr Raat) was sent in end-January. Later, a similar letter was sent to most other channels. Sending plain paper directives, minus any letterhead, to newspaper and TV offices seems to be a new tactic of the military agencies. Leaving no footprints in the sand?

Tales of ownership

For the regime, the anti-graft drive has had some useful side-effects. The intelligence services are systematically acquiring shares in private media companies, by offering the release from detention of their owners in return.

The Economist, November 8, 2007

Is this true? Is there any way of verifying what is reported in the lines above? Why should the intelligence services buy up shares in the media industry? Any guesses?

Rumours have been floating of the intelligence agency brokering deals, of buying and selling shares in the media industry. If that’s true, how would that be in the public interest?

These are common enough questions that have bothered me, and all those I know who have read the article.

What intrigues me however is, the military intelligence agency already has vast powers at its disposal, powers that enable it to control the print and electronic media in this country, be a part of the conditioning factors that have led to the industry’s severe crisis, with an almost broken backbone, both financially and otherwise.

What further powers will ownership give? Should one look towards Pakistan’s milbus (military-business) to seek answers?

First published in New Age 20th May 2008

May 21, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Keeping the lamp lit

The newly appointed education adviser has my sympathy. He had spoken the truth. With scandals emerging about departing advisers, and accusations flying about the gross incompetence of the ‘PhD’ government, he must have felt the need to demonstrate the character of the cabinet.

Having lost the Candy Man, we now have an adviser who is candid in his remarks. “Regardless of the verdict of the court, the teachers shall be freed, ” he had said. Great news for the teachers. Sad news for justice.

But the candor of the education advisor is unlikely to inspire confidence in the government. He might equally have said, “regardless of the verdict of the court, we shall find Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia guilty,” or any other convenient outcome for the many flimsy cases against politicians, business people, students or any other member of the public. The fact that the government finds the judicial system irrelevant, while confirming people’s fears, does do away with their flicker of hope for justice. This was a lamp that needed to stay lit.

The anniversary party could have done without the media gatecrashers. The weeks leading up to the 11th January 2008, have been particularly difficult for the government. In August, it had taken violent protest by the students for the military presence in campus to be removed, but it is the fallout of the government’s heavy-handed response that they now need to deal with. Having closed the 24 hour news channel CSB

kakoli-prodhan-csb-news-6.jpg 24 hour CSB News TV channel after its closure. Dhaka. Bangladesh. © Kakoli Prodhan


and intimidated others with barely veiled threats, they had expected an easy ride. But they had reckoned without the spunk of Bangladeshi media. BTV has long since become irrelevant. Cheek in jowl, private channel media activists have found creative ways to get the news to the public, and an informed audience has responded. I remember the phone calls ‘from above’ that came in while a talk show was going on. The savvy presenter responding smartly toned down his own questions, letting me speak as I pleased. It was a live show, and he could hardly have been blamed for the words I was using. The phone calls to the editor, the ‘invitations to tea,’ and the physical presence of army personnel have made honest reporting a harrowing task, but the news programmes are alive and well, and while they have economic pressures, they retain a loyal following.

Even newspapers that had decided to ride in the comfort of the military train are having to make face-saving critiques of a government facing derailment. It is the government, which is on the back foot. CSB is still closed, but the phone in callers, the letter writers, the bloggers and the talk show speakers have joined in the fray. This is media at its best.

Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, made up for her initial failure to denounce emergency rule, “Amnesty believes that the government can waive some of the restrictions, even under emergency rule.” The media again had set the tone. She was far more forthright in the latter stage of her visit and pointed to the ubiquitous presence of the military in all public spheres, clearly stating that military rule was unacceptable.

I could smell the stench of decomposed flesh as I walked up the stairway of the partially demolished Rangs Building.

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Loose concrete slabs and boulders still dangle precariously from the remaining metal rods of the Rangs Building. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

rangs-building-worker-0771.jpg Even in this unsafe condition, and while the body of a security guard is still buried under the rubble, workers remove rubble from the partially demolished Rangs Building. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Rajuk administrators were themselves scared to be there, but being government officials they had little choice. They pointed me to a staircase that was relatively safe. Workers, not having my benefit of class, climbed the more dangerous ones. I wonder how it feels to walk past a deceased colleague, past the stench, the rubble, past rickety columns. What is it like to know one’s death will only matter to one’s nearest ones.

Yesterday police turned their batons on garment workers demanding outstanding wages and fires yet again engulfed city slums.

fire-in-slum-in-rayer-bazar-1712-px-600.jpg Fire in Rayer Bazaar slum destroyed around 2500 homes. January 12 2008. © Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews

sh-31.jpg Garment worker killed by collapse of factor building. © Shehabuddin/Drik/Majority World

The recent deaths of other garment workers and general demands to receive an acceptable minimum wage, all point to the disengagement from the public of a caretaker government that has failed to care.

We are in need of honest answers, and while the new education adviser revealed the government’s complete disregard for the judiciary, I suspect his honesty was the unintended byproduct of yet another exercise in spin. If on the other hand, his admission of the irrelevance of the judiciary was the beginning of a process of transparency, unpleasant though the truth might be, I welcome it. Admission of guilt does not in itself solve the problem, but it does begin to address it. Something they have so far singularly failed to do. They have blamed the ills of the nation on politicians and political parties. On bad democracy. The people are in no illusion about the improprieties of the past. But bad democracy can only be replaced by good democracy. There is no such thing as good autocracy, and pliant front men, no matter who they are backed by, can never be an answer.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, governance, media | , , , , , | 1 Comment