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Pre-Taliban Afghanistan, Power, Democracy and Other women by Satish Sharma
Pre-Taliban Afghanistan | Image © Author(s) | Source: Internet

Power, Democracy, and  ‘Other’ Women

By Satish Sharma

Forget about the Power that, according to Mao, flows from the Barrels of Guns!

A lot more power actually flows through the matte black barrels of Lenses. Camera lenses!  And this is a power that flows a lot more silently. And, most of the time, it works its magic very subtly. And a lot more successfully.

Very rarely do pictures explode on the media scene like the now infamous cover picture on the August 9th, 2010 issue of Time magazine. Very rarely do pictures present us with such a questionable and ‘teachable’ Moment about Photography and its political  uses. Very rarely do photographs become such a powerful peg for discussions that go on and on. Discussions that need to go on because we have to understand, dissect and discuss the spaces that Photography occupies in contemporary society. Spaces that seem to be hardly any different from the times when photography was a medium controlled by the Political and Security Department of a 19th century colonial British Government.

Photography, we have to remember, was invented at a time when Colonialism was at its height, and was used as a major tool in the Colonial Power Game. British Army cadets, who were to be posted in the Colonies, were specially taught photography. And, as the many captains and colonels amongst the list of 19th century photographers prove, they used it well.

Photography is a powerful language. It is a valuable visual Voice of Authority for the Authorities. One has to understand how they use it.

A “Writing with Light”- Photo Graphy is becoming more powerful than any other human language. It is more than just the world’s first universally understood language, one that needs no translators and appears to have no word language limitations because it is a form driven by newer and newer technologies which give it a reach and power that no language has ever had.

The endless flow of camera-constructed pictures is, today, increasingly constructing our social and political landscape. Constructing us, actually, by manipulating the mental spaces that we live in. Defining our Drishti – our perception and very sense of self! There are, after all, more photographs shot every year than there are bricks in the world. And photography, in its different camera-lens-based avatars (film and television, for example), is what makes us what we are – who we are manufactured to be.

Cameras construct our worlds in ways that word-oriented languages never could, because the visual language they present us with is perceived to have credibility, a visual veracity and a connection to objective truth that words did not. Pictures are becoming the bricks that construct our contemporary, increasingly visual world. A world that can no longer just ban the making of pictures as it once did or tried to do. A world in which technologies drive the move away from the Word-driven and language-driven cultures towards vast visual Information Landscapes that are increasingly becoming part of real information wars. Wars that are, says the Project for a New American Century, about “Full Spectrum Domination.” A Domination that is blatant about not allowing any challenges – “military, economic or cultural.” Domination that seeks “control of all international commons including Space and Cyberspace, culture not excluded.” Domination that is driven by never-ending Wars that see whole societies as a battlefield. A battlefield where – in the language of the US Marines’ ‘Fourth generation Warfare’ – “the action will occur concurrently – throughout all participants depth , including their society as a cultural and not just as physical entity.  

Special “Human Terrain teams” now working alongside the American Armed Forces handle that cultural domination. These anthropologists, ethnographers etc are uniformed cultural warriors armed with more than just rifles. They are, very problematically, working in battlefields to better understand and subvert cultures and peoples. Humanity is now just a Terrain to be controlled. As a Major Ralph Peters, of the US Military put it   “The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault.”

It is against this background of militarised ‘Perception Management’ and cultural assault that one needs to look at the Time magazine cover. It was its founder, after all, who first projected the idea of the 20th century as ‘An American Century’!

Henry Luce used his media empire to project his agenda.  Time, Fortune, Life and even the March of Time film series served to mediate his Synarchist ideas of corporate control of political power.  That he was a member of Yale University’s secretive Skull and Bones society like so many other prominent American leaders, only adds to ones suspicions of the hidden agendas of not-so-hidden hands.

Interestingly enough, Luce first used the term ‘American Century’ in a publication that is iconic in its use of photography. The words appeared in a 1941, Life magazine editorial. The celebrated manifesto which began The American Century made the case for American global leadership when Luce urged his country men to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Born in China, (a country which has interesting links to both Synarchism and the Skull and Bones Society) he was the son of an American missionary and wanted the United States to be more missionary in the global and universal projection of its power beyond its territories. Go beyond territorial control, into the control of ideas and ideologies.

It is the fact that he foresaw the power of photography in doing that and foregrounded it in his publications that interests and intrigues me. I am not surprised that Time – the first magazine he founded –  is still used (and uses photography) to push the ideas of a New American Century promoted by 21st century Synarchists like Dick Cheney. No Wikileaks, digital world, challenge to mainstream, corporate media is to be allowed, or go unchallenged.  Not in these days of information wars and their clear cut ideas on Perception Management.

The introduction in the August 9th issue of Time by the editor, Richard Stengel, makes it very clear that the magazine was aiming to counter the information leaked by Wikileaks on the uncontrollable World Wide Web.

“The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. 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. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time. What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

The cover photograph offers an insight, but it is an insight into the workings of Corporate Media. It is definitely not about any Truth – emotional or otherwise. It is, for all practical purposes,’a political poster that you pay for’.

The accompanying text about “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan” is a statement and not a question.  It is a statement about staying on militarily, and it ignores the fact that Bibi Aisha’s mutilation occurred last year, at a time when the American-led forces had been in the country for nearly nine years and with their own puppet government in place. Had intervened in, decades earlier, to actually create the Taliban. And they now support a government that hardly gives women any real space in the new Sharia ruled Islamic Republic. An Islamic Republic that exists under American largesse.  Reports by Afghan and Womens’ Human Right groups actually show, from the times of the Taliban, an increase in the violence against women.

The cover photograph itself is a cynical attempt to photograph a projected future. It closely echoes the Steve McCurry photograph of another young Afghan girl on the cover of another American magazine.  That ‘National Geographic’ cover represented the sad state of Afghanistan under Soviet occupation. This is one actually about life in Afghanistan after decades of American intervention and a decade of actual occupation.

Both the covers, interestingly enough, presented young and good looking women – ones that a western audience would be comfortable with. Ones the women in the west could connect with more easily. It is after all, they who are the actual targets of the propaganda. They and the lobbying they represent. Lobbying that is seen as necessary to keep the other international, partner armies in Afghanistan.

It is an earlier WikiLeaks document which makes that agenda clear. The CIA’s “Red Cell Special Memorandum: Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission – Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough” presents a plan for a propaganda war designed to shore up declining public support in Germany and France. Support for a continued war in Afghanistan.

The memo is classified as ‘Confidential/No Foreign Nationals’ and presents a well thought out plan for the targeted manipulation of public opinion in the two NATO ally countries. Winning hearts and minds! This time in Europe and in America.

The fall of the Dutch government on the issue of Dutch troops in Afghanistan worried the CIA. They became worried about repeat events in the countries that have the third and fourth largest troop contingents to the ISAF mission and proposed PR strategies that focused on pressure points that had been identified within these countries. For France, it 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. Power points, actually! They are, after all, about reinforcing Power.
• “Public Apathy Enables Leaders To Ignore Voters”
• “…But Casualties Could Precipitate Backlash”
• “Tailoring Messaging Could Forestall or At Least Contain Backlash”

The CIA thought that “Appeals by President Obama and Afghan Women Might Gain Traction” and very clearly stated that “Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory.”

Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission…

The ‘media opportunities for Afghan women’ became a simple oppurtunistic use of Afghan women. They and their bodies fitted seamlessly into the old Orientalist discourses about western, humanising and civilizing missions. Missions meant to liberate oriental women them from their savage and cruel men.

This is about white knights in shining steel or modern camouflage armour rescuing dusky, eastern damsels in eternal distress. Distress that photography was successfully used to stress in the beautifully lit and textured colour of a magazine cover reduced to a campaign poster for more war. More occupation of more oriental lands in the name of the bodies of exotic oriental women.

That the real prizes were and are natural resources is not worthy of mention except when those resources might be seen by a western audience, to pay for western wars. Like the Iraqi oil was supposed to pay for the Iraq war.

Jodi Bieber did a great job – aesthetically speaking.

The cover portrait could be a professional fashion shoot! And the Mainstream Media jumped in to push her and their own messages about the need to fight on.

They asked no serious questions about how the empathy the photograph evoked was used to promote and perpetuate antipathy. Empathy used to promote more war and further the occupation of a suddenly mineral and oil rich Afghanistan.

There were no questions about the price that the civilian population of Afghanistan, including women and children, were paying in lives cut horribly  short by wars that go on and on, and seem to be designed to do just that in an unending war on a tactic that the weak use to resist stronger occupiers of their resource rich lands.

Who is terrorising whom, one wonders. And why?

Two interviews with Bieber that I heard on BBC and CNN, were focused in foregrounding her as a now-famous photographer. A South African photographer now based in London, she was projected as a white, concerned woman photographer empathising with her Afghan sisters even as she (and they, the media themselves) ignored the privacy concerns of her subjects – women for whom purdah may actually be more than just a dictate by the terrible Taliban. The women who had to continue living their lives in the very badlands of Afghanistan she was showing up as evil and dangerous.

I remember that ‘privacy concerns of victims’ were and are still used to prevent the release of photographs of tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Many of whom were women. Women who were, it is said, gangraped by American soldiers. Many of the rapes were apparently photographed and it is these pictures that are now kept out of the public domain by specially passed Acts of Congress.

Even when the Abu Ghraib pictures were used the faces were carefully blurred out.  That concern for privacy and the blurring to hide the identity of a ‘victim’ – Bibi Aisha – was not necessary for the Time cover, it seems.

Dropping the family name while putting her on the cover of a magazine that sells millions of copies cannot be described as an attempt to protect her identity. Concern for the ‘rights of victims’ matter only when it might show up the ugly face of American occupation but not when it is the other side that has to be Demonised.

The real story of the mutilation is not important either. Later stories that checked out the Time story found that Aisha’s father-in-law had done the deed and then got a sanction for it from village elders. It had not been ordered by any Taliban Commander, as the Time story insisted.

Afghanistan becomes “a broken 13th century country” for the British Defense Secretary. A country full of “barbarians with 1200 AD mentality” for Erik Prince, the CEO of the infamous mercenary Blackwater (now Xe). What is wiped out of memory is shown by a collection of photographs from the Kabul of the mid 20th century. Recently republished in ‘Foreign Policy’ along with an essay by a Mohammed Qayoumi who lived there then, they present a conveniently forgotten Afghanistan. A country where women could wear western skirts and have bobbed haircuts as they attended universities and trained as doctors and nurses.

There is more to people than just the ugly western stereotypes the Time cover tries to reinforce and create anew. The freedom loving Mujahideen heroes of the Soviet era are now Talibanised as Barbaric Terrorists.

Terrorists cannot be humans. They cannot be “humanised” even in photographs that the world will see. I am reminded of the Red Cross photographs of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (wearing a white robe, sporting a long salt and pepper beard and sitting serenely) that were seen as dangerous by a former Research Director of the Combating Terrorism Centre in the US Military Academy at West Point. Jarret Barchman said  “What’s problematic for me is it (the Photograph) really humanises the guy.”  

The Other is now not supposed to be seen as a Human Being.

The history of Photography, especially in American wars, is an intriguing history. It is a story more mistold than properly told. It is a story of careful message control. A control that began after the Vietnam War. A war, the Pentagon believes, that was lost because of the freedom and unhindered access that photographers had in Vietnam and to the fast growing electronic mass media at home.

Since then, photographers and even journalists have a limited (if any) access to American battle fields. One is now embedded into an in-bed -with intimacy that makes dangerous disclosures difficult. Images that are released and printed go through a careful culling by self-censoring photographers and the editors at home. Editors who act as censors and become the controllers of what the world is allowed to see.  No dead bodies of American soldiers. Not even in flag draped coffins. Rights to privacy of dead soldiers and their families was the official Bush excuse when, actually, no one wanted a repeat of Mogadishu where pictures of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets had forced an American withdrawal.

I wonder at how easily photography is used as a political weapon even as the medium itself is increasingly denied any political space or purpose.

Photography, after the Second World War and McCarthyism, was consciously pushed into the sanitised spaces of Art galleries and Museums away from its past as a concerned, conscience-pricking tool. We were told by institutional gatekeepers like the Museum of Modern Art in New York that Photography was only about Itself. It was an Art form that was about navel-gazing photographers and about flattened formalist fields. Photography was not supposed to exist outside its own frame. It was not a medium that could be a window, looking out on to the world’s uglier face – holding up a mirror to it. Photography was to be a Mirror for a photographer to look into – see and explore his subjective self – express himself as an Artist.  An artist who never ever read what Roland Barthes says about one of the best ways of destroying the power of photography – making it a Fine Art.

But that is another story!

Satish Sharma

Satish Sharma is an independent photographer, writer, cultural critic, and curator who has published and exhibited internationally. He has worked as a freelance photojournalist for leading Indian magazines and newspapers since 1975 and as a documentary photographer for major international institutions like UNICEF.

Published on March 26, 2020


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