Archive for April 2011
About fifteen minute west of the city of Montego Bay lies the Tryall Estate. When Toni Frissell took the enchanting photograph above at Tryall’s hilly 2,200-acre plantation, its world famous golf course didn’t exist yet. The golf course and many villas it would sprawl nearby would not arrive until 1958 — ten years after Frissell popularized the dreamlike landscape of Jamaica in her photos for Harper’s Bazaar.
Before being developed by the influential American businessmen in the 1950s, the Tryall Estate was only a storied, but forgettable outpost of Britain’s imperial past. Originally an English fort, it began cultivating sugarcane in the 1660s making it one of the oldest sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Sugarcane plantations and works were irreparably destroyed in the Slave rebellion of Christmas 1831, and the property was sold to the illustrious Anglo-Irish family of Browne. They turned the property firstly into a coconut plantation, and when it became unprofitable, into a hotel. Frissell actually was invited to take photos of the estate for its reopening after the WWII.
In the 1930s, Frissell introduced an important addition to the fashion photography. She was the first person to take models away from the confines of the studio and to photograph them in exotic places around the world. These dramatic settings and the animated poses she created would lead to a whole new type of fashion image. Although the era’s practices of using studios never actually went away, Frissell’s techniques would be soon copied by many.
Tim Hetherington, tireless and lyrical raconteur of global conflicts, is dead, a victim of a Libyan mortar shell.
Many will remember Tim Hetherington as a great photographer, but to call him such would be to pigeonhole his contributions. He himself acknowledged his changing role in a new topography of media: “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”
And he did. He covered various conflicts in West Africa and contributed to two documentaries on Liberia and Darfur. In 2007, he began a yearlong assignment documenting a battalion of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as bait to the Taliban. He published a touching book Infidel, won his fourth World Press Photo award for his coverage, and was nominated for an Oscar for his resulting documentary, Restrepo, which was all too human for it was palpably apolitical. His broad experiences were also recorded an ethereal webvideo, “Diary”.
To the very end, he was determined to reach out to as many people as possible; he began using twitter eight months ago, and his first and last tweet from Libya — posted just hours before he himself was hit — read: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO”. It was fitting, if heartrending, epitaph.
Excepted from the Times of London:
When he was hit he was with [Chris Hondros of Getty], Guy Martin, a British freelance journalist and Michael Christopher Brown, an American photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.
The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him. Hondros, who was due to marry soon, also died late last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.
What better symbol of the Chinese Colossus’ feet of clay than the baseless accusations against a lone artist, except possibly the inconvenient fact that the arrested artist was a co-designer of the Bird Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics?
On 4th April, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government as he tried to board a plane out of Beijing. The arrest was unfortunate, but not altogether shocking. He may be the country’s most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei had been the proverbial thorn in the Chinese government’s side for more than two decades.
He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square. The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “Fuck” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government earlier this year — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “fuck”.
Yet these antics belied his strong political convictions; his twitter feed, while sometimes playful, focused on disappearances and detentions of dissidents. Equally inconvenient to the Chinese government were the questions on accountability he raised in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake. Eventually, like Solzhenitsyn or Havel before him, Ai was arrested not just for his work, but also for what he came to represent: the conscience of a voiceless generation alienated by their own government.
Neither the Beijing Olympics nor the Shanghai World Expo — both considered China’s coming-of-age parties — could mask the truth that behind a faux-veneer of prosperity and development, China in 2011 was ideologically and politically no different from China in 1989 or Soviet Union before 1989 or Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Market economies, olympics and expos were introduced, with ample wishful thinking that they would alleviate some political, ethnic and religious marginalization, but the most important things last twenty years provided to the Chinese government may be tools to monitor and marginalize their population better, cheaper, and from a further, safer distance.
(Click here to sign a petition to free Ai Weiwei, which has attracted over 90,000 signatures. It would have attracted more signees if not for a hacking attack from China).
By the time Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, it had already claimed 100,000 people. Although colonial legacy, as often in such cases, was a favored villain of the conflict, the causes of the conflict between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils were more immediate. In the early 1970s, gradual disenfranchising of minority Tamils began with passing of two laws — the first which limited Tamil enrollment in universities, and the second which declared that Buddhism had ‘foremost place’ in Sri Lanka. As Tamil opposition grew, de facto segregation of two ethnic groups inside the civil service, police and army only intensified.
In 1976, the guerrilla group now known as Tamil Tigers was formed under Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and began its bloody campaign for a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern parts, that claimed 60% of the island’s coastline, and its only major port, the famed Trincomalee. For the next three decades, a spectacularly bloody civil war was fought on land, in water, in air (Tamils even had an air force) and with proxy armies, although the successive Sri Lankan governments dismissed the Tigers as a terrorist group. But what a formidable force it was. Supported by its shady business dealings, and remittances from large Tamil diaspora, the Tigers pioneered the use of suicide vests and claimed, among its countless victims, a Sri Lankan President and an Indian Prime Minister.
The government behaved hardly better. Scorched-earth tactics, and indiscriminate killings of combatants and non-combatants alike were practically achieved through ignoring international concerns and shutting off news media. Even by these brutal standards, the fury it unleashed during the last days of the civil war was staggering; it was effective, and managed to corner Prabhakaran’s movement to a single beach in the northeast of the country by the early 2009.
Under intense international pressure, the military declared a “no-fire zone” — a de facto safe zone for Tamil refuges between the government and the rebel lines — although The Times reported that it continued shelling inside the zone up to the very end of the conflict. The Times also claimed that over 20,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the civil war, mainly as a result of government shelling, three times the official figure. While no independent observers had access to the remote war zone, The Times took the above photo of the no-fire zone while travelling with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who commented that it was “the most appalling sight” he had seen in his career.
But the UN already knew what was happening there; publicly, it blamed both sides, but its records — obtained from local contracts –showed that the majority of deaths were caused by the government which attacked hospitals, schools and the beach full of refuges. Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, has refused to allow any independent investigation into the conflict, rejected an damning UN report two days ago, and began cracking down on internal opposition. Sri Lanka is unlikely to be referred to the International Criminal Court because of its powerful allies such as China, but its victory over the Tamils will be go down into the annals of history as a tainted triumph.
(Full Times Article is reproduced here at a Tamil website, with photos. For gorier details, see Al Jazeera’s coverage below.)
For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.
Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)
If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.
That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.
Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th 2003 quickly became one of the enduring images of the war in Iraq. But it was a controversial moment; in a 2004 documentary, “Control Room”, Al-Jazeera reporters argued that the toppling was merely “a show … a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. This sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Times, citing an internal army report, and later by a New Yorker/ProPublica investigative report.
Since then, the issue had devolved into a series of he-said, she-said’s and it is hard to remember that it all happened only eight years ago, and all records are online and out there to review. Analysis of broadcast news with regards to this pivotal moment had been done before, but I would like to turn the focus here into how major news outlets covered it.
The BBC correspondent, who was in the square said, his impression was of “a newly free people” expressing their “overwhelming joy”. CNN’s coverage (in print at least) was monotonously factual: “A Marine draped the American flag over the head of the statue — a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network Al Arabiya.”
The newspapers’ coverage, perhaps because it was immediate, was effusive. The Times wrote, “It was a momentous day, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the communist empire in 1989. And no image of it will be more enduring than the toppling of that 20ft Saddam statue by a US tank egged on by a cheering, excited mob which then stamped with undisguised glee on the fallen idol.” The New York Times was equally enthusiastic: “Cheering ecstatically, a crowd of Iraqis danced and trampled on the fallen 20-foot high metal statue in contempt for the man who had held them in fear for so long. In scenes recalling the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraqis hacked at the statue’s marble plinth with a sledgehammer.” Meanwhile, the Guardian files in a confusing report.
The foreign press, according to BBC, was equally prone to sensationalism. Even the left-leaning Liberation says there were no regrets when the statue fell. Bild, too, made comparisons with the fall of other personality cults of Hitler and Stalin. Throughout the Arab World, however, TV coverage played down the fall of Baghdad, focusing on scenes of chaos and looting.
In the weeklies that were published a few days later, the tone became more tempered. The Economist noted “If the fall of a regime has a single moment of collapse, it came on April 9th.” But it also emphasized that “This was not the Berlin Wall. The crowd in the square was small.” Time magazine, too, echoed those sentiments, wryly dismissing TV stations’ more sentimental reporting.
It is my personal opinion that while the media did not deliberately exaggerate the events, its presence didn’t help either. Observation often changes the phenomenon being observed, and the toppling was perhaps a mere victim of this. While the original reportage was frenzied, I also think the subsequent accusations are equally cavalier.
The crowd was mostly reporters and journalists.
On 13 May 1981 in St Peter’s Square an attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II. The assassin, who was quickly apprehended, but not before his bullets hit the pope four times, was one Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had escaped from prison in his country.
The pope was wounded in the abdomen, left hand and right arm; “Mary, my mother,” John Paul gasped as he collapsed. Yet, he quickly made full recovery even though a 41-hour operation removed part of his intestine and replaced almost all his blood with transfusions.
The background of the assassination attempt has never been satisfactorily explained. Ali Agca, a lapsed Muslim who had links to a Turkish ultranationalist group, the Gray Wolves, never explained his motives. He suggested that the K.G.B. and Bulgarian intelligence were involved, but later retracted those claims. Investigators founded tantalizing details that seemed to support some of his assertions, but nothing was proved, and three Bulgarians and three Turks arrested in connection to the case were released.
Ali Agca, however, received life imprisonment, and remained in prison until June 2000, when he was officially pardoned. However, he had long been forgiven by the pope, both publicly from his hospital bed, and privately when he went to visit Ali Agca in prison. On that moving occasion, Ali Agca knelt and kissed the Fisherman’s ring in a sign of respect; he did not ask for forgiveness. Instead, he said, “I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer, So why aren’t you dead?”
Over the years, John Paul, who was very mystical for a pope, had always asked himself the same question. The fact that the bullets missed vital organs by millimetres confirmed the near messianic sense of his mission on earth. John Paul always maintained that his survival was a miracle, and that he had been spared for some divine purpose.
The assassination had been attempted on the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three shepherd children first allegedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, and John Paul II credited the Madonna of Fatima with saving his life. The near fatal bullet was fitted into a jeweled crown worn by her statue. In May 2000, the Vatican revealed that the third part of the vision imparted to the children at Fatima, which was long kept secret, had been an assassination attempt on a pope.
It was a dramatic moment. The historic photo above was taken on March 1st, 1954, just two minutes after the Puerto Rican nationalists fired 30 rounds into the U.S. House of Representatives chamber; the time exposure was taken from the very same visitor gallery (Ladies’ Gallery), only 10 feet away from where four shooters stood.
At the moment picture was taken, the gang was being captured in the corridors. Rep. Alvin Bentley, most seriously wounded of five wounded Congressman, was on the floor at lower center, obscured by congressmen bending over him. Rep. Benton Jensen, a bullet in his back, had staggered out at lower right. Rep. George Fallon has been carried up aisle at center. Two other wounded representatives, Kenneth Roberts and Clifford Davis, were in the next aisle. Speaker Joe Martin was on rostrum, gaveling for order over this tableu of pandemonium.
Today, with the congress protected by anti-car bomb barriers and metal detectors, and members’ seats by bullet and bomb-proof plating, such an attack on the Capitol Hill is unthinkable but back in 1954, security guards were more concerned about cameras than guns. Although now largely (and undeservedly) forgotten, this attack at the heart of US democracy sent shock waves through the United States at the time and was front-page news for weeks. Newspapers widely speculated about a communist connection, and claimed that their weapons were supplied by Reds. The fact that the shooters’ leader was an exotically beautiful, elegantly dressed, Puerto Rico-born New Yorker beauty-queen named Lolita Lebrón also added some excitement. Immediately after the bullets had wounded five Congressmen and several aides, Lebrón unfurled and waved a Puerto Rican flag and shouted “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!”
Lebrón and her three co-conspirators were branded as “terrorists” and given hefty prison sentences; they were not released until the late 1970s. Lebrón became an iconic figure in Puerto Rico and beyond; even Che Guevara said he was inspired by “the gun-toting lady in the silk scarf, dangly earrings, bright lipstick and high heels”. Yet, the cause she championed would prove to be unpopular even within her tiny island nation which the United States had occupied since the Spanish-American war of 1898; in each of the three plebiscites held since 1967 on the island’s status, independence garnered no more than 4.4% of the vote.
For all the narrowness of his goals, Emiliano Zapata surprisingly came to represent that decade-long struggle known as the Mexican Revolution. While others were fighting for the complete overthrow of the government, Zapata originally fought merely for agricultural reform and land repatriations. When the land reforms were not discussed after the initial revolution in 1911, Zapata fought on.
Although much had been made of his bravery and strategic insight these days, the fortunes of Zapata’s ragtag band was vacillating at best. Only frequent coups and governmental disarray saved his army from being annihilated. But by 1916, Zapata’s peasant revolution was faltering; Venustiano Carranza, an erstwhile rebel who was now in power, was determined to root out other rebel efforts; Carranza found Zapata and Villa’s movements most politically embarrassing and threatening for their proximity to Mexico City.
Facing defeat, Zapata tried unsuccessfully to form alliances with other revolutionaries who he had haughtily turned down years before. In 1919, while trying to lure a government colonel to his side, Zapata fell into a trap; when he arrived at the secret meeting place, Zapata was shot and killed by federal troops. Unfortunately for the government, in spranging this trap, they created a martyr in Zapata. Outside world, which had considered Mexico’s revolution as a comic nuisance before — and since — quickly condemned the assassination of a man who give it the oft-quoted phrase, Tierra y Libertad.
His movement was weakened and localized, but continued nonetheless. Carranza publicly displayed Zapata’s remains to convince people that Zapata was truly dead. It was on this occasion that the famed chronicler of the Mexican Revolution Agustin Casasola was invited to take the photo, which was widely circulated but failed to achieve the results Carranza had hoped. The claims that he was still alive persisted long after Zapata’s death.
April Fools Alert
April marks the twenty-fourth month I started working on this blog. Today, I announce a spin-off site, Iconic Paintings. The title itself is self explanatory; like this website, the new website will discuss important and famous paintings with interesting histories.
I have already added two posts on Iconic Paintings, two great paintings I have recently saw in Venice. I will continue to add more posts there, as I divide my time between two blogs.