Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
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).
After East Timor gain its independence, Indonesia’s descent into chaos continued; a shocking nadir was reached in 2001, when the Dayaks of the Borneo Island began butchering the Madurese migrants. The tribal war between Madurese and the Dayak began in late 1996, when over 300 people died in ethnic violence in West Kalimantan which lasted for six weeks. Madurese women were beheaded by the Dayaks and their heads were paraded around town. (The ancient Dayak custom claims that bringing home a victim’s head and burying it with their ancestors’ bones will ensure that the victim will be their servant in the afterlife.)
While the re-flaring of tensions only followed after General Soeharto stepped down, his coercive policies were the cause. Madura island, in east Java, is famous in Indonesia for its barren soil and as a place to leave. Soeharto continued — and escalated — the Dutch policies of transmigrating people from more populated Javanese islands to the less populated tribal lands in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan. In latter case, the government granted the Madurese logging rights and allowed them to clear forests for palm oil cultivation, even in the forests that were sacred to the animist Dayaks.
In December 2000, there was a murder in Kereng Pangi, a small village near Sampit. A group of Madurese allegedly tortured and then killed a young Dayak after a gambling brawl. The murderers, the Dayak elders claimed, bribed the police to escape justice. Decades of bitterness at the Madurese control of businesses and markets turned violent as a tribal reprisal by the Dayak followed; atavistic feelings are invoked in this ‘land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another’, as the Economist wrote. The police, as it had in East Timor, was unwilling to save the persecuted.
The iconic photo was the conflict was taken by Charles Dharapak, an AP journalist. In the photo above, Fabian Charles, a Dayak gang leader, stands in front of two Madurese settlers he said he and his gang killed and beheaded. The photo made the cover of Time magazine, whose Indonesian distributor refused to distribute it.
(For more on the collapse of plural society in Southeast Asia, read this).
Indonesia that gained independence in 1950 was an artificial state, cobbled together from an assortment of sultanates and princely kingdoms by her Dutch colonial masters. The Dutch and the succeeding elite has concentrated power and privilege in the island of Java, where half of the nation’s population resides.
Over the next five decades, secessionist movements were brutally suppressed, be they Christian Ambonese in the South Moluccas or fundamentalist Muslims in Aceh. A centralizing ‘Indonesian identity’ was forged as the country replaced the Portuguese and the Dutch as the imperial power in East Timor and Irian Jaya respectively.
In the late 1990s, this Indonesia — built on political paternalism and economic prosperity — tottered as Asian Financial Crisis hit kleptocrats and crony capitalists hard. The country’s dictator, General Soeharto, stepped down and the secessionist movements gathered momentum once more. In 1999, East Timor was allowed to vote on a referendum for independence — a feat unthinkable under Soeharto, not least because the strongman’s family owned 40% of East Timor.
On August 26, four days before East Timor was to vote for independence, violence erupted between pro-independence supporters and the Aitarak, a much-feared, black-clothed militia sponsored by the Indonesian government to disrupt the vote. In East Timorese capital Dili, the Aitarak attacked independence supporters with M16 rifles, homemade grenades, and pistols. Indonesian police waited hours before responding, even though their headquarters were nearby.
Time magazine’s photographer John Stanmeyer remembers the day:
Just then Joaquim Bernardino Guterres entered my life. He was barefoot and armed with two rocks to protect himself from the militia. He ran up to a group of nearby policemen and begged them to intervene. They ignored him. He asked more passionately, and the police began to punch and kick him. Guterres broke away and ran toward me. Just as he passed, the police shot him dead — for asking them to stop the killing. The police hadn’t noticed me, but after the images appeared in Time and on CNN, I had to leave East Timor because of potential threats. I think about Guterres nearly every day. I want to make sure that no one forgets his senseless death. He is no different from the rest of us. One day we, too, might need to fight for our basic human rights. We can only hope that we aren’t killed by the ones who are supposed to protect us.
Stanmeyer won third place in the spot news stories category of the World Press Photo Contest for this photo-essay. For the East Timorese, harsher days were ahead. After the vote, where 78.5% chose independence, Indonesian army sent in militias to destroy the province’s public and residential buildings and torch its factories and plantation. About 70% of its economic infrastructure was destroyed.
(I have been backpacking in South East Asia for last few months. The region’s violent recent history is not well-covered or well-remembered. For an excellent source on Indonesia, see also The Act of Killing. Review.)
America’s current debate on its multiracial present should benefit greatly from remembering a moment from its recent past.
It was a photograph which was widely reprinted back then, but not much since; of the United States’ civil rights struggle in the 1960s and the 1970s, many iconic photos had been made, but only a handful conveys the scale of anger and hatred this photo captured on May 28, 1963.
Sitting at the whites-only counter at a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in Jackson, Mississippi were three protestors (l. to r.): John Salter, Joan Trumpauer, and Anne Moody. All three were from Tougaloo College, a historically black college which became a centre of activity for he civil rights movement in Mississippi during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. Salter, a Native American who later assumed the tribal name Hunter Bear Gray, taught sociology at the college, while two girls were students there. In fact, Trumpauer (soon to be Joan Mulholland) was one of two white students at Tougaloo.
The moment was captured by Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell, who stood atop the lunch counter to take pictures. In the photo, the trio’s peaceful sit-in to integrate the department store’s lunch counter was drowned out by the angry white-mob. The mob doused the trio in ketchup, mustard and sugar — an abuse that lasted for some three hours until the manager closed the counter for the day.
Take a good look at the young man pouring sugar over Trumpauer’s neatly coiffed hair, and then at the man smoking a cigarette, and at glaring eyes of the rest of the spectators. There were looks of anger, disdain, and apathy. Unsettlingly, they were not fighting some rearguard action for segregation. The majority of the mob were teenagers and students from nearby Central High School.
It has been over half-a-century since that sit-in. With a black president in the White House, America has indeed come a long way from those dark days, but many commentators often forget that there are many for which segregation and Jim Crow are memories, not history. For each heralded memory of marching with Dr. King at Selma, there is perhaps a hidden one of dousing sit-in girls with mustard. Misguided teens they might have been, but now many members of that mob are in their seventies. Do they still hold the beliefs they so vociferously displayed on that May afternoon fifty-two years ago? It is for them to answer — but America should ask such uncomfortable questions frequently if she hopes to become a ‘post-racial’ society.
One of the perks about having this blog is the emails I have received from famous photographers. One of them came from J. Ross Baughman, whose photos from Rhodesia and the controversy surrounding them we covered a few years ago.
Now his autobiography, Angle, is out and Ross has sent me an advanced copy. This is a man who has lived almost a cinematic life. Ross has prodigious memory, and at times, the book seems to suffer from a surfeit of minutiae – press cuttings are frequently peppered throughout – it
is nonetheless an enjoyable romp through the late-20th century photography in peace and war.
That was an age dominated by foreign wars and widespread discrimination, and Ross has almost Zeligian presence. He turns his lens towards American Nazis, Klansmen, carnival freaks, transvestites, and mental patients; early crude and grisly days of cosmetic surgery are chronicled. He befriends Robin Moore, the author of The Green Berets, and The French Connection; when Israel invaded Lebanon, his byline tantalizingly read, “North of Israeli Lines, Lebanon,” embedded as he was with Palestinian guerrillas operating out of a secret base in the hills north of Israeli positions (photo above). In Grenada, he defied the US Army’s strict embed photography rules.
All of these were among 200 or so photos inside the book; but even his vignettes about censored photos were exciting. In 1983, his photos of drug-abusing teenagers were not allowed to be published under privacy concerns. Later, Time, Inc. (which owns Life Magazine and acquired Baughman’s photos of Billy Price, a Houston industrialist and Nazi memorabilia collector) was sued by the latter for portraying him in negative light, and the photos were pulled.
The book will be interesting to aspiring photographers who want to learn more about how to become a conflict photographer, as well as to those who want to know how the sausage of photography is made – from assignments and censorship to rivalries and criticisms.
As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.
In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 20-month journey across the Himalayas. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.
Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.
Harrer was an avid photographer too. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s.
This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.
Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.
A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.
A couple of weeks ago, this blog passed a quiet milestone. I really enjoyed past five years but I don’t know what to make of this. It has taken five years, and this is the big one. There are no other milestones to hit.
A hundred years ago today, two archducal lives were cut shot in a remote barbarous corner of the world. A month later, the world was engulfed in a conflagration it could neither have imagined or comprehend. It was the last war of the pre-industrial age, and the first war of the age of assembly lines.
The war claimed sixteen million lives, maimed twenty million more. It was deadlier still when taken into account the pandoran tragedies it unleashed, from rise of the Soviet Union to economic depression to Hitler’s Third Reich. We covered that pivotal moment of June 28, 1914 back in 2009.
The black and white photo above does not to much justice to awe and terror the German advance portrayed in the photo might have caused in France and Britain. Within a month since the declaration of war, the German were almost to Paris; they wore uniforms of faint gray — a color almost impossible to identify in snipers and binoculars. (This camouflage was especially effective at the time when the French were wearing conspicuous hussar colors of dark blue and red pants). And they loudly sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland” in absolute rhythm and beat as they advanced across Belgium.
At Mons in August, the British fought their first battle in Europe since the Crimea War. It was a moral victory where an outnumbered British coups managed to withstand the German advance for 48 hours, but a strategic retreat. British propagandists swiftly compared it to Agincourt. But it would take another disastrous battle, at Marne, in September to stop the advancing Germans.
Soon winter set in. Defying financiers and economists who predicted that the war would have to be stopped when gold reserves run out, and disappointing their footsoldiers who expected to be home by Christmas, the generals and politicians dug in — literally — into four years of trench warfare.
Life delivered a clear summary of the events in New York: “Most shocking of all to the residents of Harlem was the fact that Malcolm X had been killed not by “Whitey” but by members of his own race. The country’s Negro community was suddenly faced with the possibility of a fratricidal war”.
On the very next page was an essay in words and photos by Gordon Parks — credited as “a close observer of the career of Malcolm X” – who gained unprecedented access to the black Muslim community for a photo-essay two years prior. Back then, Malcolm X was a preacher with a black-nationalist religious movement Nation of Islam, which he had a falling out in 1964. From his former movement, he received numerous death threats and finally an assassin on February 21, 1965. The assassin, one Thomas Hagan, was paroled only in 2010, serving 44 years of a life imprisonment.
Last month, a link with that frantic America which prospered Malcolm X and his firebrand philosophies was lost when Yuri Kochiyama died, aged 93. Ms Kochiyama, a long-time political activist, famously appeared in the photo above, cradling the dying Malcolm X’s head. The photo was taken by Earl Grant, a close associate of the slain preacher.
This is one of the most fascinating photo-related stories of late.
In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, found 30,000 of photo negatives at a Chicago estate auction. The photos depicted streetscenes in Chicago of the late 1950s and the 1960s, each scene meticulously dated and placed on the back of the photo. The photos had come from a storage unit the photographer had stopped paying rent on.
The photographer was Vivian Maier, a New York girl who moved to Chicago in 1956 to begin working as a nanny for various affluent North Shore families for the next forty years. Her nannying work enabled her to enjoy early morning drives on her moped, along with a Rolleiflex camera.Although Maloof could not locate her, he posted the photos to his blog. A search yielded no results until Maier died in mid 2009, and a brief obituary was printed. She had been in a nursing home.
Retrospectives followed, as did two documentaries: “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Vivian Maier Mystery”. But a lesson is somewhat lost. Vivian Maier’s photos were lost — and rediscovered fifty years later. They were fascinating — fascinating because they showed a different world and fascinating because they show it in crisp tones of a physical negative.
Currently, nearly everyone — even some of the greatest names in photographic pantheon — takes their photos digitally. They do not last and they will not last.
Firstly, there are hardware issues: I still have photos stored on a Floppy Disk and CDs, but my laptop does not come with drives for them anymore. The time will come when USB drives are not backward compatible anymore (already my external hard drive has issues with an USB 1.0 on work computer). USB itself might be replaced by a superior technology (as Floppies had been). But an uncomfortable truth is that CDs, DVDs, hard drives they all inevitably fail.
Then, there are software issues. Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? The Economist had a great article two years ago. Already, I don’t have a program on my computer to read the earlier ebooks (.lit), and .epubs and .mobis will go that way too. Last week, there was a popular post on Reddit that encapsulated the problem tautly, and encouraged people to start printing photos.
When it comes to photography, printing is not really a solution — prints fade and get destroyed too. Vivian Maier survived because her photo negatives survived.
Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Massacre, the nasty brutish affair resonates on …. but only outside China.
I have remembered June 5th in various ways over the last five years. With a contact sheet in 2013, with an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos in 2012. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.
I hate to keep banging on this drum but as a blogger of history, attempts to change history offends me to no end; and because of its economic power, China has gotten away with it too, aided by the biggest companies, latest being LinkedIn. In an anticipation of the 25th Anniversary, a stellar book is out: People’s Republic of Amnesia which every student of history and totalitarian regimes should read.
In a memorable passage, the author showed students at leading Beijing universities the photo above. The Chinese youngstars use many means to bypass the Great Firewall, but the black-out surrounding the history has been so effective, so total that only 15 out of 100 of the students polled correctly identified the picture!!!
So dogs may bark, but caravans have moved on. Charade continues. I will keep on blogging about this photo and the Communist Party will keep censoring it.
We will meet again in next June.
In 1942, Gordon Parks went to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. The American capital back then was a cesspool of bigotry. Parks had to enter restaurants and theatres through the back door. Even the federal government participated; the new war office then being built on the other side of the Potomac had separate eating and lavatorial arrangements for blacks and whites.
On his first day, Park took the photo of Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Park recounted how she was paid $1,080 annually (around $15,000 today), how one of the offices she cleaned was that of a white woman who had started work at the same time and with very similar qualifications, how she was raising three grandchildren and an adopted daughter on her meagre salary.
Parks remembered: “She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she (the daughter) had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been striken with paralysis a year before its mother died.”
He took the photo to his boss at the FSA (legendary Roy Stryker, who oversaw a stellar team of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans and many more at the FSA). Stryker “told me I’d gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was ‘an indictment of America.’ I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post.”
Soon, the photo came to be known as American Gothic, after the iconic 1930 painting by Grant Wood. Parks had the painting in mind when he carefully posed Watson in front of a flag-draped office, with mop and broom in hand. It was one of the first photos he took on his way to becoming the Jackie Robinson of photography.
This blog gets frequently linked from reddit, many of whose users think this photo as ‘the worst photo ever’. For this author, that photo was not even the worst photo ever taken on a hapless child dying on the ground.
The photo above, by Jeff Abelin – of whom I found very little — speaks volumes louder. This photo conjures up a world of medieval fairy tales — of Hansel and Gretel — in late twentieth century China; a world where untold millions are sacrificed at the altar of demographic dividend; a world where certain stretches of the Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide by drowning. Life magazine comments on the photo:
“A group of Americans came upon this abandoned boy on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, “You should have left it where it was.” A day later, another baby was found [dead] in the same spot, and the day after that, the first child, suffering from pneumonia and a deformed heart, died anonymously.
“This picture and the accompanying story caused an uproar, as human rights activists placed the blame for a plague of abandonment and infanticide squarely on the government’s One Couple, One Child policy. Baby girls were at greater risk than boys, who might one day be of more use in the fields: Some estimates held that more than 1.5 million girls out of the 13 million children born in China each year, were being abandoned. Though the government countered that parents with “feudal ideas” were causing the problem, it eventually relaxed the One Child policy – a little.”
Life was optimistic and included the photo on ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’. True, draconian forced abortions and imprisonments were replaced by huge fines for violators of One Child policy, but the photo didn’t change much. One Child policy still persists, some seventeen years after the photo was taken in September 1997. Today, China has 25-40 million fewer baby girls due to selective infanticides.