A powerful novel’s vision of a dystopian future shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy
A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important environmental book ever written. It is not Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago, and it will change the way you see the world.
Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot. Some years before the action begins, the protagonist hears the last birds passing over, “their half-muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl”. McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.
All pre-existing social codes soon collapse and are replaced with organized butchery, then chaotic, blundering horror. What else are the survivors to do? The only remaining resource is human. It is hard to see how this could happen during humanity’s time on earth, even by means of the nuclear winter McCarthy proposes. But his thought experiment exposes the one terrible fact to which our technological hubris blinds us: our dependence on biological production remains absolute. Civilization is just a russeting on the skin of the biosphere, never immune from being rubbed against the sleeve of environmental change. Six weeks after finishing The Road, I remain haunted by it.
So when I read the UN’s new report on the state of the planet over the weekend, my mind kept snagging on a handful of figures. There were some bright spots – lead has been removed from petrol almost everywhere and sulphur emissions have been reduced in most rich nations – and plenty of gloom. But the issue that stopped me was production.
Crop production has improved over the past 20 years (from 1.8 tons per hectare in the 1980s to 2.5 tons today), but it has not kept up with population. “World cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s, and has since slowly decreased”. There will be roughly 9 billion people by 2050: feeding them and meeting the millennium development goal on hunger [halving the proportion of hungry people] would require a doubling of world food production. Unless we cut waste, overeating, biofuels and the consumption of meat, total demand for cereal crops could rise to three times the current level.
There are two limiting factors. One, mentioned only in passing in the report, is phosphate: it is not clear where future reserves might lie. The more immediate problem is water. “Meeting the millennium development goal on hunger will require doubling of water use by crops by 2050.” Where will it come from? “Water scarcity is already acute in many regions, and farming already takes the lion’s share of water withdrawn from streams and groundwater.” Ten per cent of the world’s major rivers no longer reach the sea all year round.
Buried on page 148, I found this statement. “If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two-thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.” Wastage and deforestation are partly to blame, but the biggest cause of the coming droughts is climate change. Rainfall will decline most in the places in greatest need of water. So how, unless we engineer a sudden decline in carbon emissions, are we going to feed the world? How, in many countries, will we prevent the social collapse that failure will cause?
The stone drops into the pond and a second later it is smooth again. You will turn the page and carry on with your life. Last week we learned that climate change could eliminate half the world’s species; that 25 primate species are already slipping into extinction; that biological repositories of carbon are beginning to release it, decades ahead of schedule. But everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: “If it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?”
On Saturday, for some light relief from the UN report (who says that environmentalists don’t know how to make whoopee?), I went to a meeting of roads protesters in Birmingham. They had come from all over the country, and between them they were contesting 18 new schemes: a fraction of the road projects the British government is now planning. The improvements to the climate change bill that Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, announced yesterday were welcome. But in every major energy sector – aviation, transport, power generation, house building, coal mining, oil exploration – the government is promoting policies that will increase emissions. How will it make the 60% cut that the bill enforces?
No one knows, but the probable answer is contained in the bill’s great get-out clause: carbon trading. If the government can’t achieve a 60% cut in the UK, it will pay other countries to do it on our behalf. But trading works only if the total global reduction we are trying to achieve is a small one. To prevent runaway climate change, we must cut the greater part — possibly almost all — of the world’s current emissions. Most of the nations with which the UK will trade will have to make major cuts of their own, on top of those they sell to us. Before long we will have to buy our credits from Mars and Jupiter. The only certain means of preventing runaway climate change is to cut emissions here and now.
Who will persuade us to act? However strong the opposition parties’ policies appear to be, they cannot be sustained unless the voters move behind them. We won’t be prompted by the media. The BBC drops Planet Relief for fear of breaching its impartiality guidelines: heaven forbid that it should come out against mass death. But it broadcasts a program – Top Gear – that puts a match to its guidelines every week, and now looks about as pertinent as the Black and White Minstrel Show.
The schedules are crammed with shows urging us to travel further, drive faster, build bigger, buy more, yet none of them are deemed to offend the rules, which really means that they don’t offend the interests of business or the pampered sensibilities of the Aga class. The media, driven by fear and advertising, are hopelessly biased towards the consumer economy and against the biosphere.
It seems to me that we are already pushing other people ahead of us down The Road. As the biosphere shrinks, McCarthy describes the collapse of the protagonist’s core beliefs. I sense that this might be happening already: that a hardening of interests, a shutting down of concern, is taking place among the people of the rich world. If this is true, we do not need to wait for the forests to burn or food supplies to shrivel before we decide that civilization is in trouble.
*George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books Heat and The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Monbiot.com
This conversation took place after a screening of We will live to see these things (The Speculative Archive, 2007) at the Images Festival in Toronto, where it won the award for Best New International Video.
Naeem Mohaiemen: This was the second time I saw the film, and again [I] was struck by its pitch-perfect observational style. But one thought occurred as we watched it in that Toronto audience. I felt some discomfort during chapter four-the sequence set inside the girl’s Qur’an school. Even though there was nothing of this in the filmed image, I kept worrying that the audience was going to project its own fantasies and fetishes onto that sequence.
The Speculative Archive: In the Qur’an school section, it is possible that some viewers might see a kind of failure represented in it: a failure of secularism and Western liberal democratic values to triumph over a faith-based worldview, for instance. Yet those who espouse a society ruled by Islam might see this section as hopeful and positive.
The section in the Qur’an school, as you say, works through a kind of mismatch between the visual and audience expectation. The images of young children in the mosque-beautiful and impressionable young girls, for instance, reciting religious texts-are potent and compelling. Perhaps what provoked your discomfort as you viewed this section is the possibility that an audience, particularly a Western one, is prone to project into the future, when looking at these images, and to ask the questions: What will these children become? How will these texts shape them? Is this education good for them? What kind of force is this in the world? But rather than images of young men or boys in madrasas, or any of the other endlessly repeated representations of the threat of Islam, we focus on a more mundane view into the daily life happenings of a religious school. We chose to concentrate on the tension between moments of memorization, instruction, and devotion, and moments of kids being kids.
NM: There are five discrete films, all set in Syria (although I felt they could be other places I have known), but you very deliberately stitched them together in a particular sequence. There is a cumulative and sequential effect on the viewer. You used a similar story-in-chapters structure in It’s Not My Memory of It, although there the time and place is more scattered. But Take into the air my quiet breath also exists as a single channel piece broken out from the quintet, and Not a matter of if but when is a piece filmed in Syria around the same period, but not dovetailed into We will live. Can you talk about your method, structure, summing, and subtracting, quintet vs single piece, et cetera?
SA: The structure of We will live to see these things is, as you mention, a sequence of five discrete “films.” Each section is conceived as a separate story with a distinct approach to the image, the text, and the music. And each section is conceived in relation to the others. The thread is that each section takes up a particular way that people imagine the future in the particular place called Syria. These “pictures” of the future are: one, everything remains as is-the prevailing sense of stasis will prevail; two, a perfect leader will arrive to steer a proper course through the difficult times; three, a space for democratic politics will open up further; four, God, through the faithful, will light the way; five, the pressures from US policy in the region will bring greater chaos. These five pictures were the ones we most frequently encountered and discussed during our time in Damascus, and each became the focal point for a section of the film.
We are distributing and exhibiting the first section of the film, which focuses on a building in downtown Damascus, on its own under the title “take into the air my quiet breath.” This section works well by itself because it has a very clear voice and narrative arc. In terms of the longer film, the ways the sections play off of each other and the cumulative effect for the viewer of watching a carefully structured sequence are important.
The other work we produced out of this time in Syria is not a matter of if but when, a series of monologues [by] Syrian performer Rami Farah. We originally thought we would mix this material in with everything else, but as we edited his monologues, it became clear that this was an entirely separate work, even if some of the motivating questions and ideas behind it are shared with We will live… Our main interest in all of these works has been to develop narratives about the difficulties of thinking about the future differently in a time when so much conflict and destruction stem, in part at least, from convictions that people hold about the future.
NM: Both dialogue and text are at every point natural and unhurried. One part that’s really striking for me is the song that builds to a steady crescendo during the horse jump session. Is that really not the Bashar Assad national anthem? If it’s not, it should be. Anyway, how do you build your dialogue and stories, and that mesmerizing text sequence at the end? How much lived experience bleeds into text; how much invention comes from unconscious osmosis?
SA: The first section about the building is based on interviews with architects, engineers, and urban historians. We developed a script for the narration from both the facts and the feelings of these interviews. There is a fairly loose approach to accuracy in terms of the timeline of the construction of the building, in part because the timeline is not so clear, but also because we wanted to amplify something about the experience of time in, around, and through this building as a metaphor for the Syrian regime.
The text in the second section, with the horse jumping, is written as a kind of incantation or poem, with words drawn from what we might call the general repository of expressions that have to do with desire for a leader and from the rhetoric of propaganda. The text is delivered in Arabic by an older man and in English by a young boy, and this alternation emphasizes the familial, the generational, and the historical.
The interview in the third section is an interview. There is nothing invented about it, though some viewers have asked if the interviewee is an actor. (He is not. He is Yassin Haj Saleh, a Syrian dissident intellectual.) We approached this interview in a very conventional documentary way. What hopefully shifts the ground of it, and the impact of what he says, is the way it is built into the whole piece.
The section in the Qur’an school is also approached in a very straightforward, almost vérité manner, visually speaking, but we structured the material as a story that focuses on the process through which children learn faith. The final section is the most “invented,” but draws from the rhetoric of neoconservatism and the ways in which fantasy has been articulated as policy under the current US administration. The text is structured around a grammatical motif-“I see X”-but rather than being spoken by the source of the vision, it is introduced through the voice of someone upon whom this vision has been imposed, a voice that has been forced to see according to someone else’s vision and to live with its effects.
Most of the time, we start with an idea for a visual approach. In the case of the equestrian competition, we were searching for a way to represent the desire for and the myth of a perfect leader. We worked through many texts until we found something that seemed to click in a very rough form. From there, we edited and rewrote until the section flowed and felt unforced. In general, we strive to develop texts that are emotionally resonant and contain some element of the ideas we have been discussing over the course of the project. That text [can be] ten or one-hundred steps away from where we started.
NM: Your process blends fiction and fact, archive and fabrication, document and ephemera. It’s been there throughout your work, but the new project digs deeper into a DMZ of anti-reportage. What are the research, storytelling, and political objectives in play for you?
SA: In all of our recent work, there are facts and fictions, but we call the work “documentary.” Not “experimental documentary,” not “mockumentary,” not “quasi-fictional documentary,” or any of the other new genres that point to some kind of crisis of the real. We went to Syria and we made some documents and we put them together to make a documentary-a record of a particular time in a particular place. For instance, we looked at the building in downtown Damascus and asked, “What is this building a record of? And what visions of the future are embodied in it?” It is not always possible, and maybe not even desirable, to separate fact from fiction when it comes to answering such questions.
NM: After you won the prize at Images, one of you wryly commented to me, “There is big money in this field if you stick with it”-obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that there is, in fact, not much funding for certain kinds of politically engaged work. How do we carve out supportive structures for this kind of practice, since it can’t just be made, and artists can’t just live on thin air?
SA: In the world we live in, doing anything creative that doesn’t generate a living income can be something of a struggle. The question “Why are we doing this?” comes up often. But with each successive project we have worked on, we have tried to push ourselves to a new level of craft, story, and form around a complicated set of ideas. Certainly, more than the economic rewards, it is this learning process that drives us. Somehow with each project new doors keep opening up. However utopian it may sound, we try to maintain some belief and faith that work that engages with contemporary political and social issues, and is simple, elegant, and focused, will speak to an audience and will ultimately find support.
And of course, deep down we know that as artists, in fact, it is possible to live on thin air.
The Speculative Archive produces videos, photographs, installations, and published texts. From 1999 to 2003, Archive projects focused on state secrecy and the production of the past. Current works address the use of documents-images, texts, objects, bodies, and physical structures-to project and claim visions of the future. The Archive is a collaboration of Los Angelesâ€“based artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne.
*Naeem Mohaiemen works on projects in Dhaka and New York.
Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid
“A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.”
A couple of years ago, a Saudi oil minister made what has become one of the more prophetic statements to come out of the Middle East in a long time: “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” It was a lament, an acknowledgement that a day of reckoning was coming that would change the global balance of wealth and power. The mix I created for the “System Error” show is a reflection of a series of geographic interventions that looks at that statement from the viewpoint of sound – it envisages an audio theater in the tradition of John Cage, with his 1939 composition “Imaginary Landscape,” that was the first work written for turntables, or composers like Duke Ellington with his “Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” symphony that quoted music from around the world. Essentially, this is a work that represents a practice of diaspora based on the hidden linkages in sound from a world that responds to the politics of perception. From the production processes of the information age’s collision with the values of the 20th century – mass media, mass production – to the digital ethos of the 21st century – rip, mix, burn, mass customization – the basic fact that music is a de-materialized experience for most of us that runs through everything from the Ipod playlist to the networks that people send mp3’s, videos on Youtube, or life on Flickr, brings us full circle into a world where you are what you consume. I like to think of this mix as a mirror I’ve held up to society: it’s a reflection of the way we live now. Perhaps, just perhaps, that Saudi oil minister was right.
In the 21st century, parables of warfare information control systems like George Orwell’s hyper-revisionist “1984,” have now become commonplace. In the 21st century we’re faced with a world where “newspeak” refracts what we thought about as even the origins of the Iraq conflict blur beyond any sustainable logic – weapons of mass destruction have become weapons of mass distraction in the U.S. media. Who are we at war with? Oceania or Eurasia? The Axis of Evil? Hugo Chavez? War is diplomacy by other means. It’s been said that “architecture is nothing but frozen music.” I want to reverse engineer that phrase and unpack some of the sonic issues that collage brings to the global stage – what happens when music becomes liquid architecture? Apply that scenario to info war and music, and you arrive at “System Error.” The “For Promotional Use Only (Al-Yamamah)” project that accompanies this catalog is a social sculpture of radically disparate voices: it exists in the tradition of Grandmaster Flash’s “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” or Afrika Bambaata’s “Death Mix” – classic hip hop that completely destroyed what people thought “mix culture” was about. “System Error (For Promotional Use Only)” isn’t about simply re-ordering facts and numbers – it shuffles the contemporary imagination like a deck of cards and, in the process, subverts the “rational arrangement” of systems of media. The project explodes linear narrative so that some other meanings can manifest. In the realm of “fair use” that dj culture comes out of, the “System Error” mix synthesizes a fictional realm where people like Turkey’s Mercan Dede, London’s Roots Manuva, Brooklyn’s Matisyahu, Israel’s “Subliminal and the Shadow,” Jamaica’s Mutabaruka, Iran’s Sussan Deyhim, Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Lebanon’s Clotaire K, California’s Zack De La Rocha, the minimalism of Irannian composer David Abir, or the jazz of Evan Parker’s saxophone, or the people of the hip hop diaspora like Saul Williams, DJ Shadow, Rob Swift, Asian Dub Foundation, or scribes like Arundhati Roy can coexist as data points in a constellation of digital information. All these figures inhabit a place where sound functions as a palette for creative endeavor.
How do you use the media to tell a story? At heart, “System Error” paints a tale of the last several years – of media disinformation, for example – highlighting Bush’s statements as found sound, or sampling various “maqam” songs from Iraq mixed with hip hop, which show a simple connection between how music reflects the data-aesthetics of information networks. It presents rumors of war: I like to think of it as data-bootlegs, the currency of a world economy of sound filtered through regional concerns. Think of it as contemporary art that brings you the world from fragments of sound. It’s a tableau made of soundbites collaged, dispersed and condensed into material that reflects a realm of infinite possibility. Marcel Duchamp, James Rosenquist, Jeff Koons, David Hammons, Joseph Kosuth… the list of visual artists with a relationship to “appropriation” art is almost a catalog of the major art movements of the 20th century that the 21st century has inherited. I just wanted to look at the issue from the viewpoint of acoustic space. What happens when this type of collage is applied to sound? Maybe that’s a question that Nam Jun Paik was striving to answer with his “Global Groove” mixes 30 years ago.
There are a couple of issues driving this scenario – theater, memory games, and the early Surrealist game of the “cadavre exquis.” I like to think of it as additive synthesis in a digital media context: it’s art culled from the viewpoint of collective memory. First, let’s begin with a sense of humor. This project comes out of a discussion I had with the artist/curator Naeem Mohaimen about why South Asian music blends so well with contemporary hiphop. I simply explained that the Caribbean is the central point of diaspora with this situation – its rhythms have reached back to every region of the world – from the from the Rai music of Algeria, to Bhangra and Qawwali of South Asia, from the Afro-beat of Nigeria, to the Kwaito of South Africa, to the dubstep of London, the echo of the Jamaican soundsystem ethos of tape collage and bass minimalism defines most of what we think of as “modern music” in today’s digital culture. I guess you could say that Jamaica is the “loudest island in the world” and the British Commonwealth is an echo chamber of the elements I chose to mix for this particular project. But there are other elements like, for example, the West Point Drum Corps (they don’t exactly jam with Sufi mystics like Mercan Dede everyday!). Second there’s the irreverence that children of the digital age show for historical boundaries – why not go to the Souk in Tunis and hear young kids rhyming in Arabic over Rai music remixes of Dr. Dre beats, or for that matter, listen to groups like Cold Cut sample Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza for their classic remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full?”
I want to nudge people to think about art not just as objects, but as a collective endeavor where memory is translated through the filter of sound. This kind of collage looks at the words of the singers, the sounds that I scratched into the rhythms, the beats and elements that I put in collision with one another, as a simulation of history: it’s all a soundtrack to the end of the Oil age. Loop, repeat, refract: its just modern storytelling by other means. By the way, Al-Yamamah means “the dove” in Arabic, it’s the name of the project at the heart of a recent series of scandals in the U.K. involving slush funds, oil sheiks, Swiss banks, kickbacks, blackmail, bagmen, arms deals, war plans, climbdowns, big lies, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair – it’s a scandal that has it all, corruption and cowardice at the highest levels, a festering canker at the very heart of world politics, where the War on Terror meets the slaughter in Iraq. Yet chances are you’ve never heard about it – even though it happened just a few days ago. The fog of war profiteering, it seems, is just as thick as the fog of war. This is a soundtrack that maybe, just maybe, might get you to think that another world is possible. For me, music isn’t music – it’s information: that’s what art is about – this is just a start. As information, it fits into a complex niche in today’s modern digital economy, a place where data is the most pervasive and intangible feature of the everyday world we inhabit. War is, regretfully, a system made of information control systems, and this mix is an essay on the topic of how music filters through the networks of modern info culture – it charts a cartography made of invisible flow charts, graphs, and statistical data bases (after all, sampling is a mathematical model for analyzing large amounts of information like population growth for the census, etc etc). Remember – the “System Error” mix is strictly “for promotional use only.” Think of this mix as a memetic virus, and spread the word!
For Promotional Use Only: Listen to the Podcast
System Error (Al-Yamanah mix)
by Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid
Ghost in the Shell excerpt
Intro – Mercan Dede “Sahname”
Arundhati Roy – “Suspicion of Nationalism” mixed with Clotaire K “Maqam”
Asian Dub Foundation – “Rivers of Dub/Strong Culture”
Meat Beat Manifesto “Basic Beat/Timebomb”
Clotaire K “Lubnan”
Evan Parker “Gees Bend” mixed with the West Point Drum Corps “Field Flourish”
MC W vs Guvnah Arnold
Rob Swift “Mad Bombers/Terror Wrist”
Dj Shadow “Drums of Death” /mixed with GW Bush press conference
DJ Shadow w/Zack de la Rocha “March of Death”
Matisyahu “Beat Box”
The Clash “Guns of Brixton/Return to Brixton”
Bob Marley “Soul Rebel” (Dj Spooky remix)
Badawi “Jihad” (Dj Spooky remix)
Nightmares on Wax “Summer Love”
Azeem “Bush is a Gangsta”
Evolution Control Committee “Rocked By Rape”
Dj Siraki “Azaadi”
Asian Dub Foundation “Culture Move”
Asphalt Jungle “Sensation”
Ges-E & Visionary Underground “Extaa”
Oum Kalthoum “Hob Eih” mixed with Dj Spooky “Break Beat”
Saul Williams “Not in Our Name” mixed with Tectonic “Heat Sensor”
Black Star Liner “Yemen Cutta Connection Dub”
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan “Tracery” mixed with hip-hop break beat by The Molemen
Lofti Double Kanon – “Kleb”
Navdeep “My Technique”
Subliminal & The Shadow “Divide and Conquer/Hefred U’mshol”
Coldcut featuring Roots Manuva “True Skool”
Tino Corporation “Magic Dub” mixed w/Mutabaruka “Dis Poem”
Sussan Deyhim “Meykhaneh (Wine Cave”)
Cheb i Sabbah “Violin Solo”
David Abir “Lesson 1 Movement A (Study1) excerpt”
Arundhati Roy “The World in Other Terms”
Vijay Iyer “Postlude Prayer” mixed with Susie Ibarra “Solar Drums”
Ghost In The Shell excerpt
By Shahidul Alam*, Media Helping Media, Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Twelve years ago a small working class child in Dhaka summed up the power of photo journalism. Moli, a ten year old girl was looking at a photograph taken by Azizur Rahim of the bodies of children who had died in a fire in a garment factory. The young girl had heard that the owner had taken the bodies of those who died and dumped them in the drain. “If I had a camera,” she said, “I would take his picture and put that guy in jail.”
“Every atrocity must have its images – otherwise, the world does not respond. Atrocities without photographs tend to be forgotten in our image-dominated reality – the photographer’s role remains crucial in making sure we bear witness.”
Trisha Ziff curator of “Hidden Truths”
“But placed in exhibition vitrines they take on a reliquary aura, like the personal effects of saints. Their glamour transfers to the pictures around them, turning visual documents into icons. Elevation to iconic status is what turns photography into art, with all the ideological privilege and power of persuasion that implies.”
“Photography walks many fine lines. Democratic and prolific by nature, it undermines old genius-at-work, precious-object ideas of art. At the same time, it keeps laying claim to art’s special powers and perks. One of its traditional selling points is objectivity. Yet it’s a medium of calculation: of measured light and chosen angles, of zooming in and editing out. These opposites define its tensions.”
Holland Cotter: New York Times: The Camera as Witness to ‘Bloody Sunday’
Both the authors refer to the same photographic exhibition, “Hidden Truths: Bloody Sunday 1972” shown at the International Center of Photography in New York. An exhibition significant not only for the history it recreates, but as “prosecution witnesses called to testify exactly how that event happened and who was responsible.”
Photographs, in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion.
The irrelevant discussions of whether photography is art, has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion.
The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred around the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more ubiquitous, and less perceptible manipulation of photographic and editorial viewpoint.
Lewis Hine had pointed it out as far back as 1909, “The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”
We now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels, newspapers, and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before. The presence of shareholders and the importance of the bottom line has changed the media business.
I will talk about my personal experiences as a majority world photojournalist trying to challenge the control that the power brokers within the media have. Conscious that mainstream media had no working class representation, in 1994, I started teaching photojournalism to ten working class children in Dhaka.
The first day we met, we sat on the veranda of their school, talking pictures. As we looked at a photograph taken by Azizur Rahim, of the bodies of children who had died in a fire in a garment factory, Moli, a ten year old girl said:
“Oh that was the fire in number 10.”
“What happened in number 10?”
“What’s there to say, the owner took the bodies and dumped them in the drain at night.”
“What happened to the owner?”
“Nothing ever happens to owners” she said.
Then, waiting a bit, she added “If I had a camera, I would take his picture and put that guy in jail.”
As a working photojournalist, I get cynical about what we actually achieve through our photography. But here was a child who had that conviction that we as professionals have somehow lost. She still believed.
Given the way the media is controlled however, I recognise that at a global level, the messages are too well orchestrated, and that putting the guy in jail, requires a lot more than having a camera.
Using the media to shape people’s perceptions is of course nothing new. “Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other rulers they could possible have.”
The date is interesting. The birth of photography parallels a move by colonizers to dominate the globe. The colonisation of our visual space became merged with two words; Development and Civilization, while a new word later joined the ranks, ‘Globalisation’. Photography is particularly relevant to this understanding, as globalisation’s reach allows photography to manifest itself.
Even the gatekeepers need to devise methods to justify their actions. Hence rules were made that allowed justification, and mind-sets created that accepted the reasoning. The silences are also part of this visual vocabulary.
The five permanent members of the security council of the UN happen to be the world’s five biggest arms dealers, and tend to do precisely as the US requests. Rarely has there been a greater ‘conflict of interests’ when it comes to promoting world peace. While the standard press photographs of UN meetings are abundant. The photographs have never been placed in this context.
Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast images characterize the typical majority world helpless victim. Huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads, “We shall always be there.” A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That “you (the majority world) shall always be there.” In that role – a passive existence deliberately maintained – we who receive aid (“the client group”) remain.
I was staying with friends in Newry in Northern Ireland. Paddy and Deborah had kindly made their five year old daughter’s room available for me. Corrina was friendly and curious and would spend a lot of time in the room. One day as I was clearing my pockets of change I had accumulated, she suddenly remarked, “but you’ve got money, but, but you’re from Bangladesh.” The family had just returned from a trip to Bangladesh. Paddy was a development worker and they had visited many of the projects. At the tender age of five, Corrina knew that Bangladeshis did not have money.
The hungry child, the woman with the shrivelled breast, the pitiful look – it is an image that has deliberately been propagated since it feeds into a new economic system, one that requires a patron-client relationship. On the other hand, some lives are cheap.
“All things considered, we think the price was worth it.” Madeleine Albright said about the 500,000 children that had died in Iraq as a result of US sanctions. Bangladesh revisited.
It was not considered ‘inhuman’ to forcibly enslave 50 million Africans. 36 million died enroute and only 12 million eventually made it. In Bangladesh, the trade of Dhakai Muslin, was stopped in favour of the Lancashire yarn and a tradition passed down from father to son was brutally crushed. Humanism had a visible face with the ‘we’ clearly defined, and of course, no photographs.
John Lucaites felt ‘the primary reason for a photograph achieving iconic status was through presenting a strategy for managing endemic tensions.’ It was a further tool for control, another cog in the mechanism for manufacturing consent.
The image business
Businesses have been quick to recognise the capital involved in the image business. The two biggest owners of images today are Bill Gates (Corbis) and Mark Getty (Getty Images). Besides buying up huge archives, Gates is now building an underground warehouse for images. Libraries which were once browsable by researchers, students and interested public, will be buried beneath the ground, with only images that Gates et al consider ‘appropriate’ released to the public domain.
The quest for ‘development’ has become an inevitable drive towards certain goals. Those who stood in the way of this ‘progress’ were ‘backward’ and the obstacles needed to be eliminated. In the process of learning to be “fully human,” only some kinds of suffering were seen as an affront to humanity, and their elimination sought.
‘Good pain’, whether it meant amputation by a doctor, or a surgical strike from the sky, was noble. Where the ‘goodness’ of the pain was not so obvious, the images had to be eliminated. The image of the charred Iraqi soldier by Kenneth Jarecke (called ‘crispy’ by his agency Contact Press Images), slipped through the defence screening, but the media itself decided to cull the image. It didn’t fit.
The scriptwriters also had problems with the images of Bosnian Muslims protesting against the September 11 attacks. These too were culled, by all major channels. To create and nurture this ‘civilisation’, a new soldier was born, armed with camera and a satellite phone. Things had gone horribly wrong in Vietnam where the media had free reign. The new soldiers knew how to manufacture consent. They knew how ‘truth’ had to be presented. A new science was born, the science of manufacturing consent. In some parts of the world, it’s called ‘journalism’. Icons of misery sometimes replace the icons of poverty, while the photographer becomes an accomplice in a process controlled by the newsdesk. But it has to be the right misery.
A woman sued Paris Match magazine for publishing a photograph taken of her sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulder. They were celebrating France’s victory in a sporting event in public at the Champs Elysees. Her grounds for the case was simply that she didn’t want to be in Paris Match. The dying in Somalia, the starving in Sudan, the devastated in Bangladesh, are regular fodder for the glossies and the news magazines. Their choice has never been an issue.
It also has to do with the times and current sensibilities. There have been no pictures circulated of Diana dead in her car. The films had been confiscated. JFK and Martin Luther King were shown dead, but not Di. The ‘people’s princess’ was sacrosanct. No one cried ‘censorship’.
On the other hand, the orient, and its misery was being romanticised. Typecasting in Algerian postcards required little more than swapping captions under the photographs of the same model. She was after all, what you wanted her to be. Voluptuous, exotic, demure, enticing, above all she was there as a still life, ready to be consumed. Much like the rest of the ‘orient’.
Don McCullin’s photograph of a Bangladeshi refugee carrying the body of a woman dying of cholera was part of a significant body of work by a committed photojournalist trying to highlight the plight of a wronged nation. 25 years later, Paul Harrison’s image, a virtual copy, establishes the stereotype basket-case.
People at play, children dancing, tender moments at home, are images that Corrina will never see. The skeletal frame dangling from a weighing scale will make it to expensive books and museum collections. All at a time when the majority world screams out for the icons of poverty to be replaced by images of humanity, and our visual radar remains restricted to ‘terrrors’ defined by a few.
*Shahidul Alam, Shahidul Alam is one of the world’s most recognized and exciting photographers and a major figure in the public, intellectual, and cultural life of Bangladesh. The sheer versatility of Mr. Alam’s accomplishments can be gauged from the fact that he first introduced email to Bangladesh and first launched a photography gallery in the nation’s capital. He founded the Bangladesh Human Rights Network www.banglarights.net in 2001. His work in the late 1980s and early 1990s was recognized by the Mother Jones Award in 1992, the first time it had ever been awarded to an Asian. He has since gone on to win numerous international recognitions, including the Andrea Frank Foundation Award and the Howard Chapnick Award [for excellence in photojournalism], both conferred in 1998, and induction as a Honorary Fellow into the Royal Photographic Society (UK). Mr. Alam also serves as a juror for National Geographic. He founded the Drik Picture Library in 1989, the Bangladesh Photographic Institute in 1990, Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography in 1998. Pathshala brings to Dhaka visiting professors, not only of photography, but of allied fields, such as literature, art, and art history. As though this were not enough, Mr. Alam founded Chobi Mela, a festival of photography, in 2000. His own photographs have been exhibited in the leading venues of the world, including the Museum of Modern Art [MOMA}, New York, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran, and the Photographer’s Gallery in London. His photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines of mass circulation, among them Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Liberation, Paris Match and The New Straits Times. Among the latest initiatives in which he is involved is majorityworld.com, which “champions the cause of indigenous photographers from the developing world and the global South.”
He can be reached at: email@example.com See also his personal blog: ShahidulNews
By Jeff Leeds, The New York Times, October 11, 2007
It was, more or less, an accident.
The chief advisers to Radiohead, the Grammy-winning British rock act behind platinum albums like ”OK Computer,” were lounging around, having a ”metaphysical” conversation about the value of music in the digital realm, when they struck upon the idea of simply releasing new music online and letting fans settle the matter themselves.
Initially, they viewed it as a way to let fans preview Radiohead’s music without the guidance — or filter — of radio programmers, music critics or other conventional tastemakers.
Instead, when Radiohead quietly divulged plans to let fans name their price for the digital download of its new album, ”In Rainbows,” it incited talk of a revolution in the music industry, which has found the digital marketplace to be far less of a cash cow than it once dreamed. Though Radiohead is in a position that can’t easily be replicated — it completed its long-term recording contract with the music giant EMI while retaining a big audience of obsessive fans — its move is being seen as a sign for aspiring 21st-century music stars.
”To put your record out for someone’s individual perceived value is brilliant,” said David Kahne, a longtime music producer who has collaborated with artists like Paul McCartney and Kelly Clarkson. While it presents obvious risks as a business model, he noted: ”It’s a spiritual model. That’s what it feels like to me.”
The Radiohead camp has been reluctant to add to the hype surrounding the album, which has been stoked by breathless blog posts and e-mail exchanges for the past week. Bryce Edge, who manages the band with Chris Hufford of Courtyard Management, stressed that the band’s tip-jar-style tactic ”is not a prescription for the industry.”
But he acknowledged that it has punctuated a debate about the fair value of music that has accelerated in the last few months. Before Radiohead’s superstar panhandle, Prince offered a free song through Verizon phones (and roughly three million free copies of his new album in a British newspaper). And Trent Reznor of the rock act Nine Inch Nails, which, like Radiohead, is effectively free from a record contract, recently encouraged concertgoers to simply ”steal” the band’s new album and ”give it to all your friends.”
Radiohead’s move comes just as a federal jury in Minnesota last week decided that a mother found liable for copyright infringement for sharing music online should pay damages amounting to about $9,250 apiece for 24 songs.
Mr. Edge summed up the pricing pandemonium simply: ”Digital technology has reintroduced the age of the troubadour. You are worth what people are prepared to give you in the digital age because they can get it for nothing.”
In another departure from convention, the band declined to send out early copies of the music for reviewers and has not settled on a traditional single to push to radio stations. As a result, programmers are improvising. In San Francisco, for instance, the rock station KITS-FM, Live 105, has the entire album on its Web site and will let fans vote to determine which songs merit airplay.
”We just want to be involved in it,” said Dave Numme, the station’s program director. ”We just want to reflect what’s going on out there and give our listeners a chance to tell us what they think of it.”
But the band is not departing from convention entirely with the new album. A boxed set that includes various extras is being sold on www.inrainbows.com for a set price of about $80. And Radiohead plans to release ”In Rainbows” as an old-fashioned CD no later than January, though it has not determined if it will return to a major label to do so.
Radiohead completed its long-term contract with EMI with 2003’s ”Hail to the Thief,” which sold roughly one million copies in the United States. The band will also tour next year.
”The final acid test,” Mr. Edge said, ”is come January, when the music has been available. Will there still be sufficient demand for a CD for us to feel that we’ve proved that making music available does not necessarily cannibalize CD sales?”
Various voices in and out of the industry have urged Radiohead to detail its ”In Rainbows” sales data, but the band’s managers declined to reveal them in an interview this week. It is not clear that the band will ever disclose how many copies of the digital album it has distributed or the average price paid, though Courtyard has been running an office pool on the results. But Radiohead’s managers did dispute rumors that more people have bought the deluxe boxed set. And they added that most fans who have ordered the download have elected to pay something.
”The majority of the public are really decent human beings who are honest,” Mr. Hufford said.
Live105.com: Listen to In Rainbows
Read a review of Radiohead’s In Rainbows from RollingStone magazine.
BBC: The value of free