Forget about the power that, according to Mao Zedong, flows from the barrels of guns. Far more power actually flows through the matte black barrel of the camera lens – and this is a power that flows far more silently and, much of the time, works its magic very subtly. But rarely do photographs explode on the media scene like the now-infamous cover of the 9 August issue of Time magazine. Rarely, too, do photos present us with such a questionable and teachable moment about photography and its political uses.
Photography, both still and film, is a powerful language. It needs no translators and is technology-driven, giving it a reach no language has ever had. But one has to understand how it is used. Today, the endless flow of photographs is increasingly constructing our social and political landscape – constructing us, really, by manipulating the mental spaces in which we live, defining our very drishti, our sense of self. Cameras construct our worlds in ways that word-oriented languages cannot, because the visual language they present is perceived to have credibility – an automatic connection to an ‘objective truth’ that words do not. Images are thus becoming the bricks that construct our increasingly visual world, a world that can no longer simply ban the making of pictures as was once the case.
This new world is one in which technologies drive the move away from language-riven cultures towards vast visual ‘information landscapes’ that are increasingly part of an information war. According to the Project for a New American Century (a US-based conservative think-tank), this new war is about ‘full-spectrum domination’ – domination that is blatant about not allowing any challenge to American Power, be it military, economic or cultural. This, says the Project, is a domination that seeks ‘control of all international commons including Space and Cyberspace’, and is driven by never-ending wars that see whole societies as battlefields. In the language of the US Marines, these are battlefields where ‘fourth-generation warfare’ takes place, where ‘the action will occur concurrently – throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural and not just as physical entity.’ ‘Full Spectrum Domination’ is not just about control of their lands and resources, but about control of people, their cultures, ideas and ideologies.
It is against this backdrop of militarised information control that one needs to look at the recent cover of Time magazine. It was Time founder Henry Luce, after all, who first projected the idea of the 20th century as an ‘American century’ – and he subsequently founded a media empire to project his agenda. Time, Fortune and Life magazines and even the ‘March of Time’ film series served to mediate his conservative ideas of corporate control of political power. Interestingly, Luce is said to have used the term ‘American century’ in a 1941 editorial in the now-defunct Life, a publication that remains iconic for its use of photography. Born in China, the son of an American missionary, Luce wanted the United States to act more missionary-like in the global and universal projection of its power beyond its territory. Go beyond territorial control, he seemed to be suggesting, into the control of ideas and ideologies. Is it any wonder, then, that the photographs from Life magazine of the Vietnam War that I saw in my teens seemed to glorify that war?
Cog in the system
The 9 August issue of Time came out less than two weeks after the release, by the Internet whistleblower clearinghouse WikiLeaks, of tens of thousands of documents related to the US involvement in the war in Afghanistan. The introduction to that issue, written by Time editor Richard Stengel, made it very clear that the magazine was aiming to counter the information provided by WikiLeaks. ‘The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war,’ Stengel wrote. ‘Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.’
The Time cover photograph does indeed offer an insight, but not in the way that Stengel seeks to impress. Instead, it becomes a telling peek into the workings of corporate media, and hot it mainstreams its messages. The cover is, for all practical purposes, a political poster, and the accompanying text – ‘What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan’ – a pointed statement rather than a question. Of course, this photographic statement is meant to be a push for the US military to remain in Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that the mutilation of the woman in the photograph – Bibi Aisha – in fact occurred last year, at a time when the US-led forces had been in the country for nearly nine years. Furthermore, a US-approved government has been in place for that entire period, a government that hardly gives women any real authority.
The cover image itself is a cynical attempt to photograph a desired future. It closely echoes the well-known Steve McCurry photograph of a young, green-eyed Afghan girl, which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. That then-unknown girl had represented the sad state of Afghans under Soviet occupation. Both covers, though, presented young and good-looking women, with whom a Western audience would be comfortable and find it easier to ‘connect’ – even as, in this instance, they took in Time’s larger pro-war message.
Interestingly, an earlier WikiLeaks document clarified this exact point. A March 2010 memorandum from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), called ‘Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission [in Afghanistan]: Why counting on apathy might not be enough’, presented a plan for a propaganda war designed to shore up declining public support in Germany and France – winning hearts and minds in Europe and, now America for a continued military presence. The very first line indicates the CIA researchers’ exact anxiety: ‘The fall of the Dutch Government over its troop commitment to Afghanistan demonstrates the fragility of European support for the NATO-led ISAF mission.’ Focusing, then, on Germany and France, which have the third- and fourth-largest troop contingents in Afghanistan, the CIA proposed public-relations strategies that fixed on pressure points that had been identified within these countries. For France, this was the sympathy of the public for Afghan refugees and women. For Germany, it was the fear of the consequences of defeat – drugs, more refugees, ‘terrorism’ – as well as Germany’s standing in NATO.
The CIA report had clear bullet points about retaining power, including the suggestion that ‘Appeals by President Obama and Afghan Women Might Gain Traction’. It stated: ‘Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban … Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories … could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.’ The ‘media opportunities for Afghan women’ became a simple opportunistic use of Afghan women. They fitted seamlessly into the old Orientalist views about Western, ‘humanising’ and ‘civilising’ missions, meant to liberate Oriental women from their savage men. At that time, as now, photography was successfully used to define these damsels in distress. Of course, all too often, hyped discussions of human rights ignore the human costs that actually accompany the wars waged to enforce those ‘rights’.
Jodi Bieber, the photographer, did a fine job on the photo of Bibi Aisha, aesthetically speaking. But one wonders whether she thought much about how the photo would be used – to push for more war, to use violence to promote violence, in essence. But then, it is not easy to be a W Eugene Smith – one of the best photo essayists that photography has seen, Smith twice resigned from Life magazine over how his photos were being used. Further, recent interviews with Bieber have focused on foregrounding her as a now ‘famous’ photographer. There were no questions about her empathy being used to create antipathy, or about the price that the civilian population of Afghanistan, including women and children, have been paying due to decades of continued warfare.
Much has been made of Bibi Aisha’s backstory as well. Running away from abusive in-laws following an arranged marriage, Aisha’s nose and ears were cut off for the ‘shame’ that she had brought on the family, and left to die in the mountains. But Time seems to have misrepresented the story here, too, wilfully or otherwise. While originally it was stated that the Taliban had ordered this heinous crime, it now seems as though a circle of village elders had done so after the mutilation. The picture reinforces the earlier views of Afghanistan as a country full of ‘barbarians with 1200 AD mentality’ as Erik Prince, the CEO of the infamous defence contractor Blackwater (now Xe), ‘and a broken 13th-century country’ for the British defence secretary, Liam Fox.
What is wiped from memory in such stereotyped characterisations is Afghanistan’s ancient history, and even a more recent past shown by photographs from Kabul of the mid-20th century. Recently republished in Foreign Policy along with an essay by one Mohammad Qayoumi, who lived in the Afghan capital at the time, they present a conveniently forgotten Afghanistan, one in which women wear not burqas but Western skirts and bobbed haircuts, as they attend universities and train as doctors and nurses (see pic). There is clearly more to Afghan modernity than the Western stereotypes that the Time cover tries to reinforce.
Ultimately, the recent debate again highlights how easily photography can be used as a political weapon, even as the medium itself is increasingly being denied any political space or purpose. Photography after the Second World War and during the Cold War was consciously pushed into the sanitised spaces of art galleries and museums – away from its past as a concerned, conscience-pricking tool. Sadly, it is only in advertising that photographers can even hope to make a living. The new 24-hour television news cycles cannot and do not showcase dedicated long-term photography projects. In essence, time simply moves too quickly these days, and the attention spans that television creates have no place for the quiet, questioning work that was once the potency of investigative documentary photography.
~ Satish Sharma, currently in Kathmandu, is an independent photographer and occasional photography curator.