Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Whaling, Faroe Islands, 1970.

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In 1970, Adam Woolfitt captured the above image on Tindhólmur, a small island in Sørvágsfjørður fjord in the Faroe Islands. Tindhólmur itself was a surreal place, its rock jutting defiantly into the skies, and Woolfitt’s photo was equally otherworldly: skies were foreboding, boats float on a bloodied bay, surrounded by whale carcasses and children.  Dante could have penned a verse about the scene. Bruegel could have painted it.

The image, taken on Kodachrome II and printed in The National Geographic, was immediately controversial. Anti-whaling movements reproduced it. Two years later, fifty two countries voted in favor of a ten-year global moratorium (which didn’t take place because the major whaling countries were not signatories).

On Faroe Islands, whaling continued, although the hunts were often disrupted by the environmental activists. To this day, the islanders would drive pilot whales into shallow waters to slaughter them. This annual ceremony is called ‘grindadrap’ (whale hunt in Faroese), and locals insist that ‘grindadrap’ is not done for commercial purposes, as the meat can not be sold and is divided evenly between members of the local community.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 16, 2016 at 1:08 am

Posted in Culture

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Iran Before the Revolution

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Passing of an Iranian actress was good time as any to reflect on regress of women’s rights in the Middle East. 

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Forouzan’s death last month was as her last thirty-seven years had been: quiet and unremarked. Before that, however, she was one of the biggest stars of the Persian cinema. For a brief period in the 1970s, voluptuous Forouzan (whose name meant bright light) represented a liberated Arab womanhood, which has all been extinguished since at least in the Middle East.

Her death brought to fore various magazine covers in which she appeared — and other contemporary Persian magazines where Western and local models were frequently portrayed showing a bit of skin. Sophia Loren smiled wearing just a fur coat from one cover. The famed Henry Clarke posed several models at Iranian mosques in 1969 (an activity which could have gotten him into deep trouble just a decade later). One week, Forouzan appeared on the cover of Weekly Ettelaat with the headline: “Forouzan and the latest fashion; Will people of Tehran approve it?” (above).

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Iran before the Revolution was hardly a tolerant liberal democracy, but in many ways it was more relaxed socially. A woman cabinet minister was first appointed in 1968, and just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, women made up a third of university graduates. The Revolution rolled back these small accomplishments: hijab was introduced, and women were removed from the judiciary (Islam posits that women are unqualified to be judges). Because women’s role was to be at home solely, government–run day care centers were shut down, making it difficult for women to lead professional lives. In a telling brutality, the aforementioned first woman to serve in the cabinet was executed. (Only in 2009 and 2015 that Iran appointed its first female cabinet minister and ambassador since the 1979 revolution respectively). 

Forouzan herself was banned from acting again — anyway, there wasn’t much need for actresses anymore as all women were covered under hijab, including on the silver screen. Although in reality, Iranian women do not need to be covered under hijab at home, the movie censors force actresses to wear hijabs for both indoor and outdoor scenes. In a crowning absurdity, women in Iranian films wear hijabs even when they sleep in bed.

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Alas, Iran was not the only country in the region where women’s rights have regressed since the 1970s. In his grand retelling of the pivotal events 1979 ushered, Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl remembers seeing a postcard of a glamorous Afghani model posing on a grass-lawn in a dress of “1970s psychedelia and ethnic chic”. He writes:

“It was easy to dismiss the cigarette-smoking model as an outlier, a solipsistic stand-in for a superficial program of Westernization with no organic connection to the surrounding society. But this is lazy. The Afghanistan she stood for was real. She may have belonged to a minority, but it was unquestionably a growing minority that many wanted to join… This Westernizing, secular, hedonistic Afghanistan was not a phantom; it represented a genuine dream for many Afghans.”

The same could have been said of  Forouzan and her Iran.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 13, 2016 at 6:05 am

Japanese Internment, 1942

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With its combative attitudes towards Muslims and refuges, America mislearns from her young history. 

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As America debates over accepting Syrian refuges, opposing voices have grown louder in recent weeks. A politician was quoted as wistfully referring back to the internment of Japanese Americans. Joining that fray more recently was Donald Trump, a boorish tycoon who was improbably a front-runner for Republican nomination, who wants to ban all Muslims from the US. The Congress overwhelmingly passed a law rolling back visa-waivers to foreigners who have visited troubled Middle-Eastern spots.

As lights of tolerance slowly dimmed across the country, it is instructive to look back at the Japanese-American internment itself, now considered a dark chapter in the country’s history. Then though, in the wake of Pearl Harbour, politicians were enthusiastic to herd off Japanese Americans to internment camps. Creeping terror was unmistakable: firstly, only those who were in sensitive areas (military bases, strategic sites) were relocated, but eventually 120,000 Japanese Americans altogether were removed from their homes. Their property was confiscated, and in a thoroughly capitalist form of state violence, trademarks, copyrights, and patents they held were stripped off.

Terror was all the greater for full support it received. Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, an organisation of Californian elites who were descended from the original settlers of the state, supported it, as did the state’s Attorney General Earl Warren, later to be a liberal Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  American Legion was in favour, as were businessmen who viewed it as easy ways to get rid of their competitors. The media, which broadly endorsed the camps, covered them as if the Japanese Americans have been shipped off to a picnic. In an April 1942 article tellingly titled “Coast Japs Are Interned in Mountain Camp,” Life magazine used the term “concentration camp” but described the internees as “enchanted by scenic surroundings”.

Authorities also perpetuated this atmosphere by not allowing photographers to take pictures of the camps’ barbed wires or guard towers. All the photos also had to be approved by the War Relocation Authority, the body responsible for the internment. Only in the 1970s and the 1980s did reassessment of camps (via photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and Life’s Carl Mydans) take place. Adams did capture some barbed wires in his sprawling vistas of the camp, but he himself viewed the camps as basically harmless: “the acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the [internees],” he wrote.

As such one of the most iconic photos of the internment was taken in March 1942, when Fumiko Hayashida became one of the first Japanese American to be relocated. In the photo, 31-year old Hayashida holds her sleeping 10-month-old daughter, Natalie, while waiting to board a ferry from Bainbridge Island, Washington State which would take her to the internment camps. The photo was printed in The Seattle Post Intelligencer, one of the few papers which gave space to anti-internment editorials, but Hayashida wasn’t named. She was only as “Mystery Lady” until the 1990s, when the Smithsonian Institution tracked her down. {She died only last year}.

The internment lasted until December 1944, when the Supreme Court ruled that the internment had been unconstitutional. However, the Court however ruled that evictions had been legal. Bitter atmosphere surrounded the court before and after the rulings with many a legal mind proposing an amendment to the United States constitution which would revoke the American citizenship of all Japanese to make internment constitutional. Internees who returned home were harassed and even killed. A formal apology was not issued until 1988.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 10, 2015 at 8:04 am

14 July 1936 | Willy Ronis

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One million people marched in Paris on July 14 1936, to celebrate the Bastille holiday and celebrate the victory of Front Populaire in the general election months earlier. Willy Ronis (who took the photo above) called that “It was a party like it had never known before”; soon-to-be a famed photographer, Ronis was just 26 and the above photo was one of his first photos to be sold to a Parisian newspaper.

The photo became the symbol of Front Populaire in that summer of great hopes for social change. The Front, a coalition of Communists, trade unionists, and socialists had won the general election in May and the Socialist leader Léon Blum became the first Socialist — and the first Jewish — Prime Minister of France. He formed a government which included three women ministers at a time when women hadn’t yet gained suffrage. (Women’s suffrage was granted in France only in 1944).

With vigor, Blum’s government set about reforming the French state — many of the measures, good or ill, that we associate today with France where first implemented during his short premiership. He granted the right to strike and collective bargaining, two weeks of paid annual leave (which led to a boom in tourism), and reduced the working week to 40 hours. It was to begin a series of economic intervention that set precedents for the Vichy and postwar governments to consolidate France into a statist nation.

Blum himself was forced out of office in June 1937, as his government divided itself over whether to choose a side in Spanish Civil War.  Blum was briefly Prime Minister again twice (for four weeks in 1938 and five weeks in 1946), but his legacy was made during his first ministry. Despite its bravura reforms and widespread popular support, the Popular Front is now judged as inadequate leaders while Europe darkened into war: “Disappointment and failure,” says Julian Jackson in his seminal Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–1938.

Centre-left Le Nouvel Observateur was a little more enthusiastic: in 2006, for 70th anniversary of the Popular Front, it called Blum’s first months in office, 100 Days That Changed Our Life.  On the cover of that issue was Ronis’ photo taken on that Bastille Day brimming with expectations and excitements.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 12, 2015 at 7:05 am

Kim Il Sung

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In recent history, Kim Il Sung holds an unique position; dead since 1994, he remains North Korea’s official leader — an Eternal President, embalmed and ennobled in a massive mausoleum in Pyongyang. His son and his grandson who dynastically succeeded him are merely de facto heads of the country that he had led to ruination and that he remains constitutionally the de jure president.

In 1950, when his ruinous rule began North Korea’s GDP per capita was $650, compared to South Korea’s GDP per capita at $870. At his dead, North Korea’s GDP per capita was just slightly over quarter of the South’s, at $2500 compared to $9,000 per capita. [In 2014, it is one-twentieth the size of the South’s GDP per capita]. See here.

As his Stalinist experiment with Communism failed, he refashioned it into a weird mixture of politics, religion, and eugenics; the ideology — later a cult — was called Juche (and alternatively in that eponymous fashion beloved by despots, Kimilsungism), which his son and grandson further aggrandized. In this system, Kim Il-Sung was the father of the nation, his birthday a national holiday, and his name sacrosanct (it must not be split into two parts by a page break or a line break). A massive highway was built to his birthplace, which was declared a national shrine. The Gregorian calendar was replaced by a Juche calendar, where the birth of Kim Il-sung was year 1; songs were written about 10,000 battles he fought (4,000 during one particularly busy year — one every 2h10m I guess) and won.

Inconveniently for the divine narrative, Kim developed a calcium deposit on his neck in the late 1970s. Its closeness to the brain and spinal cord made it inoperable. Juche ideology scoffs at physical disability and this growth was an embarrassment. North Korean photographers were forbidden from taking photos of Kim which showed the growth. Kim was depicted from his left side to hide the growth from official photographs and newsreels (in his official portrait, he cranes his neck to the right as if to hide it). As the growth reached the size of a baseball by the late 1980s, it got increasingly difficult to hide, and photos were doctored to airbrush it out. [It got to ludicrous degree when Jimmy Carter visited; western news agencies received doctored photos from Korea News Agency.]

By the time Carter was in Pyongyang, Kim’s rule has been thoroughly discredited. Even as he clung to power as Communism imploded elsewhere — in Eastern Europe, in Mongolia, and in the Soviet Union — and as China embraced market economy, he was a lone anachronism from a bygone age. Subsidies from fellow travelling nations stopped, and his isolation was clear when soon-to-be-former-Communist countries ignored his tantrums to participate in the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea. By 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was paying a state visit to South Korea.

Yet his thuggish regime limped on, under a potent mixture of propaganda, cultist control, and downright repression, to become a nuclear power. A suitably noxious legacy for a man who nearly got two American presidents to drop atom bombs on him.

[Above it one of the few photos where the lump was in display. Most North Koreans living today (and many outside Korea too) probably didn’t even know about this. Astonishing if you think about it: Kim died only 21 years ago.]

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 6, 2015 at 10:07 am

Posted in Politics, Society

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Murder of a Reporter | Jose Luis Cabezas

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On February 16, 1996, Cristina Cabezas posed for her husband on the beach in Pinamar. Her husband, Jose Luis, pretended to take photos, but the subjects were not his wife nor his daughter. Pinamar is an exclusive beach resort the Argentina’s Atlantic coast, visited by influential people, and also on the beach was the tycoon Alfredo Yabrán and his wife.

Reclusive Yabrán had been in news for six months. It began when Minister of Economy Domingo Cavallo accused Yabrán of being “head of a mafia entrenched in power.” Embattled Cavollo, who was about to be scapegoated for his ambitious reforms which had soured due to the Mexican financial crisis, blamed the then President of Argentina, Carlos Menem and cronyistic cadre of corrupt businessmen who surrounded Menem, of whom Yabrán was the most prominent.

Up to this point, Yabrán had been linked to only a handful of small companies, but Cavallo accused him of owning, through proxies, other major economic entities, including postal, printing, logistics, and security concerns. This network, Cavallo revealed, was used to traffic drugs and weapons.

The press did not have any pictures of Yabrán and struggled to get any: “My picture to me is like shooting myself in the forehead,” he once told an interviewer. “Not even the intelligence services have a picture of me,” he boasted. In his rare interviews, he demanded that the journalist be not accompanied by a photographer.

José Luis Cabezas got the photo, but it cost him his life. The photo was published on the cover of the magazine Noticias on March 3rd. Noticias was known for its exposes on corrupt politicians and businesses, and his appearance on the cover did not please Yabrán. Within a year, Cabezas was kidnapped, tortured, and killed with two shots to the head. The body was placed inside a vehicle rented by Noticias, and burned.

The scandal and gruesome murder that ensued led to series of events which doomed many of its participants. Menem forced Cavallo to resign; Cavallo was later briefly jailed on trumped-up charges of weapon trafficking. Menem’s attempt to run for a third term was ruled to be unconstitutional, and his party was thrown out of the office. After Cabezas’ murder, publicity forced Yabrán to come out of his reclusive lifestyle and face public scrutiny.  Under a judicial investigation, Yabrán committed suicide on 20 May 1998.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 4, 2015 at 6:23 am

The Man in the the Hathaway Shirt

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During a late night movie recently, I told a couple of friends that Nick Fury, the cyclopean leader of The Avengers is the modern Hathaway man. Blank stares greeted me — the Hathaway man has left modern culture references as quickly as it had entered them.

There once was a time he captivated the whole chattering classes. A brainchild of David Ogilvy, the legendary British ad-man whose name is still plastered on one of the world’s largest marketing firms, the Hathaway man promoted a New England shirt company which was both literally and figuratively starchy.

In 1951, when CF Hathaway engaged Ogilvy, the company has never advertised before; their budget was an ad-campaign ($30,000) was small compared to those of bigger American conglomerates. Wishing to do something unique, Ogilvy remembered Lewis Douglas, the American ambassador to UK, who wore an eye-patch after a fishing accident; he built the story around the eye-patch, creating an interesting narrative, and put the ad in The New Yorker. Within a week, every Hathaway shirt in whole New York was sold.

Ogilvy quipped, “For some reason I’ve never known, it made Hathaway instantly famous. Perhaps, more to the point, it made me instantly famous.” Indeed. For next two decades, subscribers to The New Yorker developed a habit of flipping through the magazine first thing to find the Hathaway ad; each week they were treated to a different story: the Hathaway man getting his mustache trimmed, composing music, playing chess, drinking wine, stepping off a plane, conducting the Philharmonic, etc. — typical activities associated with a debonair man of leisure. Appropriately, the man in the ad was Baron George Wrangell, émigré nephew of a White Russian general.

The ad quickly entered the cultural landscape. Manhattan’s James McCreery & Co. department store, advertising a “girdle,” depicted a young model clad in nothing but a girdle, a halter and an eyepatch. Nick Fury himself who debuted in 1963 perhaps owe a thing or two to the baron. And modern advertising campaigns, which shows well-heeled attractive people doing improbably daring/quirky things (Old Spice’s Smell like a Man; Dos Equis’s The Most Interesting Man in the World) share a lot of their DNA with Ogilvy’s creation.

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 16, 2015 at 5:49 am

Shackleton Expedition, Frank Hurley

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The heroic age of maritime explorers come to a crushing close on a remote island in the South Atlantic a hundred year ago this month. Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew had been trapped by pack ice since February, but on 27 October 1915, his ship, the famed Endurance, succumbed to the pack’s pressure. The crew survived on a drifting ice floe for six months before decamping onto a nearby Elephant Island, and eventually sending help to South Georgia (now part of Falklands).

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He had already been a hero to many, but this daring 720 nautical mile voyage in a ketch (named James Caird) from Elephant Island to South Georgia propelled Shackleton into the pantheon of great British explorers.  The Endurance had left Plymouth in August 1914 at the First World War, and Shackleton and the crew had offered their services to the war effort. The War Office replied with a single-word telegram: ‘Proceed’. Since then, they had been out of contact with the wider world, and upon arriving at a Norwegian fueling station of Stromness on South Georgia on May 1916, Shackleton asked a question that was to elevate his voyage into an epic saga: “Tell me, when was the war over?” [The source here was Shackleton’s own panegyric account of his adventure, South!, so the story might be apocryphal].

The voyage of Endurance and James Caird was helped on their way to fame by photos of Frank Hurley, the official photographer of this expedition (and many other polar adventures). He produced both black-and-white and colour images of the expedition and later even produced a documentary film; Hurley chose unusual vantage points (climbing up into crow’s nest and yardarms) and was also not above restaging or tinkering with photos to make them grander. In order to stage icy breath and vapor come out of crew members’ mouth and ears, Hurley used cigarette smoke and rubber tubes.

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For the famous photo of Shackleton’s departure from Elephant Island, Hurley added a brooding cloudscape; the above photo of Shackleton’s crew getting ‘rescued’ and greeting the returning explorer on his ‘return’ was a photo taken at the time of Shackleton’s departure.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 13, 2015 at 5:08 am

Long Live the Queen

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Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch today. It was an awkward journey for her.

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In 1953, when it was being discussed to televise her coronation, the Queen was reluctant. She was a shy, private girl: no cameras were allowed inside the Westminster Abbey for her wedding. She was equally unenthused about having her Christmas message to the nation or her Trooping the Colour ceremonies televised. The BBC was ordered not to let camera lenses linger on her face too long.

These stories make it all the more ironic that hers is now the most famous face in the world. During her sixty plus years on the thrones – changes have been swift and transformative. Many a political entity which sent delegations to her coronation – the Soudan, the Gold Coast, Malaya, Somaliland, Tanganyika, North Borneo, Basutoland, Aden Colony, the Gilberts, the Ellices, British Honduras, Condominium of the New Hebrides, British Solomon Islands – left the empire and are now defunct. Age of television has given way to age of internet.

Elizabeth received these changes with equanimity, if not affection. Increasingly junior members of the royal family were dispatched for the former colonies’ independence (The Prince of Wales proved to be a notoriously unwilling attendant, especially after an awning fell onto his head during the Bahamas’). She was also more modern than her stiff exterior suggested: her favorite prime minister was said to be anti-establishment Harold Wilson. Long before she gamely allowed herself to be filmed for a skit during London 2012 Opening Ceremonies, she welcomed television cameras inside the Buckingham Palace for an awkward documentary. The Buck House itself was opened for the public in 1993.

The Queen truly belonged to another age, something which didn’t endear her to her subjects as she grew older. She showed more emotion on a fire at Windsor than at the death of her wayward daughter-in-law. Power too was elusive: on rare occasions when she made political noises – as during last year’s Scottish independence referendum and during Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership – she was criticized, albeit reverentially.

Yet she soldiers on. Today, she is the longest reigning monarch in British history. For me, the best moment that encapsulated her reign was fifteen years ago, on the millennium night. Her social awkwardness was in full swing as she held hands with enthusiastically populist Tony Blair to greet the New Year at the millennium dome. Wearing a faint look of disdain, she halfheartedly sang Auld Lang Syne, drank champagne, and looked positively discomfited throughout the evening.

That made my millennium night; long an anti-monarchist, I cheered, “Long Live the Queen” for the first time that night. It seems all those hearty proclamations have been answered.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 9, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Falkland Road, Bombay

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Mary Ellen Mark, chronicler of society’s sad underbellies, died last month, aged 75. An ugly world she photographed limps on.

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Altamont and Falkland Roads are just a couple of miles away from one another in downtown Bombay. However, they seemed to belong to different worlds. Magnates, celebrities, and ambassadors live in the upscale residential neighborhood around Altamont Road. Less exulted is the area around Falkland Road, known as Kamathipura, one of the largest red-light districts in the world. Frequented by lower classes since the days of British rule, the area remains a brutal epicenter of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking even in independent India. Laws and diktats of the authorities stopped outside the so-called Fuckland’s labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages.

To this world arrived Mary Ellen Mark in 1968. She would go on to become a humanistic portrayer of the society’s harsher corners — street-gangs, runaway children, psychiatric patients — and the scenes she witnessed in Bombay haunted her and she kept returning to document the district in a book that The New York Times called, “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh”.

Viewed as an interloping foreigner, she was unwelcome and the reception was downright hostile. She remembered: “Each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.” But she persevered and during a visit in October 1978, stayed in the district for two months, befriending prostitutes, pimps, madams, and transvestites alike.

That project, released as Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, was a haunting chronicle of abject lives. Girls were kidnapped from their families in rural villages. Desperate families who didn’t want female offsprings sold them off to brothels. Pimps preyed on young and attractive beggargirls. Girls as young as thirteen were forced into prostitution, and into cages to prevent them from escaping. Neglect — and worse fates — beckoned children born to prostitutes within the district. Photos, taken in vivid colors in dramatic contrast from Mark’s black-and-white usual, showed filthy mattresses surrounded by filthier walls.

Many others followed Mark’s footsteps to document the district (see a great modern expose here). The area had survived to this day, although many whose lives Mark documented didn’t, as AIDS took its toll in the following decade. Due to increased awareness, international aid organizations were allowed to set up anti-trafficking shelters and children’s homes. There are estimated 20,000 sex workers in Kamathipura today — although down for its dizzying heights (of 50,000) in the 1990s. Now the area is overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers, and the area’s recent redevelopment plans mean Kamathipura’s days might be numbered. However, the unholy network of pimps, madams, and traffickers will simply move somewhere else, with their cages and virgin auctions.

(Most of the photos from the book are on her website here).

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 2, 2015 at 6:45 am

Kings of Horror

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(Above photo was taken by Terry O’Neill on the set of the 1983 horror comedy, House of the Long Shadows, the only film which co-starred four great master horror actors: Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee.)

Christopher Lee, the world’s most interesting man and the last king of horror, died aged 93. 

There was always something rakish about Christopher Lee. His movie career — and late life affectation for death metal — proves it. But Lee’s exciting adventures began when he volunteered to fight for Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. He was soon chosen for elite clandestine outfit called ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, more commonly known as Churchill’s Secret Service. His work there is still classified (though the ministry was involved in skirmishes such as an assault that destroyed the German top secret nuclear weapons development facility in Norway) but Lee came out of the war as a highly decorated veteran to live a second life as an acclaimed actor.

For Hammer Horror, a British studio which churned out series of thrillers which luxuriated in camp and melodramatic moments, he portrayed an array of accursed protagonists of Georgian and Victorian imaginations: the Mummy; Frankenstein’s monster; Count Dracula; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and Fu Manchu. He was cast as Henry Baskerville against Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, then as Holmes, and even as Holmes’ cerebral brother Mycroft.

Later, filmmakers remember him whenever they needed to portray men of apocalyptic air and larger-than-life ambitions, real or imagined. Thus he was Pakistan’s tormented founder in Jinnah; a debonair assassin with a third nipple against James Bond; an intergalactic aristocrat in Star Wars; a misguided holy fanatic in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; a powerful wizard corrupted by evil in Lord of The Rings; and an icy, pagan-worshiping leader of a windswept Celtic island in The Wicker Man.

His colorful life intertwined with those of whom he played. As a child, he met Rasputin’s killers. One of his stepcousins was Ian Fleming, who partly modeled James Bond on Lee’s wartime experiences and who hoped Lee would play titular villain in Dr. No. Lee also knew Tolkien, and was the sole member of The Lord of Rings’ cast and crew to have met its writer. In playing Saruman’s death, Lee quipped that he knew how dying from being stabbed in the back sounded like, from his classified work during WWII.

He maintained a productive, prolific life to the end: on his last day of filming Lord of The Rings, Lee was 92.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 12, 2015 at 3:38 am

Tiananmen — The View from the Communist Party

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This is the time of year when this blog remembers the massacres at Tiananmen Square. Somebody has to. But this year, we change our tactics a bit and will recount how the Communist Party also used power of images to shape the narrative of Tiananmen.

Busy was the Chinese Communist Party in the first few days after it brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. As bloodstained cobblestones were replaced out of Tiananmen, the government stuck to an official line: a violent “counterrevolutionary turmoil” had been staged by civilians, who attacked the government institutions and soldiers.

Central to this narrative was a series of horrifying photos, which were gruesomely reproduced all over state media outlets; charred corpse of Cui Guozheng, a soldier who was stabbed to death on a pedestrian bridge and subsequently lynched from it (reproduced above), is perhaps the tamest of these photos.

Still more vivid are the accounts of the death of a 25-year-old soldier named Liu Guogeng. His burned corpse had been disemboweled and hanged from a blackened public bus, naked except for his socks and an army hat. The government’s news channel alternated between his corpse and his family while announcing in somber tones that Liu was killed, trying to rescue a man from a boisterous crowd. He became an instant martyr, while his weeping father was shown on television being consoled by the country’s leaders. (Photos are a bit too graphic too publish on the front page, but they are linked here, here, and here.)

The second link is from the government’s official history was published in a book called The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, which devoted a full two-page spread to Liu: “A group of rioters turned upon [the soldiers] ferociously. Bricks, bottles, and iron sticks rained on their heads and chests. The driver was knocked unconscious there and then. Liu Guogeng was first beaten to death by some thugs, then his body was burned and strung on a bus. Afterwards, his body was disemboweled by a savage rioter.”

Demonstrators who had been there that day told a different story. Liu had shot four people with his AK47 and was lynched when he ran out of ammunition. In fact, on the bus next to the corpse were students’ angry condemnations: “He killed four people! Murderer! The People Must Win! Pay Back the Blood Debt!”

“The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil” featured four photos of Liu, all framed in such a way as to exclude the words next to his corpse (which are shown in the last link photo above). But by then, history has been rewritten. The Communist Party stopped talking about “counterrevolutionary turmoil”. Instead, it euphemistically became “turmoil”, then “political storm”, and eventually “June 4th incident”; the party decided that outright censorship of the massacre was more effective than unconvincing lies. Just one year after the massacre, the Chinese president was on American television, telling an interviewer, the killings had been “much ado about nothing.”

(Footnote: Demonstrators indeed killed seven soldiers that night. According to the Chinese Red Cross, 2,600 demonstrators were killed — a figure confirmed by the Swiss ambassador who visited Beijing’s hospitals and claimed 2,700 had died).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 15, 2015 at 7:19 am

Posted in Politics, Society

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