Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.
After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.
In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.
And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.
Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.
Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.
The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).
That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).
Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.
Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used.
The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967. Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead.
LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.
In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.
Since 1941, Ho Chi Minh had been rebelling against the French colonial rule in Vietnam. Sixty years ago, that struggle reached its climax at a broad vale known as Diên Biên Phu. The French, fifty thousand of whom ruled over the colony of 20 million people, grossly underestimated their enemy’s strength and capabilities, initially unaware that the Vietnamese had been supplied with anti-aircraft and heavy artillery by Red China. In fact, as the first French paratroops were dropped into the valley in November 1953, the French government hoped for a swift victory that might just win back public support for the war in Indochina.
It turned out to be a heroic, if foolhardy, last stand. Generals responsible raised doubts whether a defense was feasible as early as January 1954. President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about warring, privately despaired that the fort was indefensible. But media coverage was almost mythic. Paris Match called Diên Biên Phu ”the capital of heroism”. For Time magazine, the attacking Vietnamese general was a ‘Red Napoleon’, and as it was during equally bleak sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore, Christian iconography was invoked. French papers frequently termed the fort a ‘calvary’. Geneviève de Galard, the only female nurse inside the garrison, became an ‘angel’ (and found herself plastered all over magazine covers [below, middle] and honored with Légion d´honneur and Congressional Medal of Freedom).
Meanwhile the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control. A group of firebrand paratroopers took over combat operations from the camp’s reluctant aristocratic commander General de Castries and were becoming de facto leaders of the camp. By mid-March, Vietnamese artilleries encircled the camp and made the airstrip unusable. By the end of that month, all supplies had to be made without landing. The garrison, however, stood for further forty days, before falling on 7 th May 1954.
An international peace was quickly drawn up: Vietnam was to be partitioned and granted independence. The end tally was bloody. The battle cost France sixteen battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. Some 12,000 French soldiers were imprisoned for a few months in camps where mortality rates exceeded 70 percent. On the Vietnamese side, the losses were above 20,000: many perished even before the battle began to hurl up cannons into the mountain pass; “death volunteers” threw themselves at French defenses with TNT strapped to their chests.
The defeat at Diên Biên Phu was seismic for both Paris and Washington and put them en course towards bloodier conflicts. In France, the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power. Soldiers from France’s African colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal who fought at Diên Biên Phu and saw the imperial power brought low returned home to begin their own independence struggles, and France decided to quietly withdraw from Africa. The French military, however, took the setbacks in Vietnam – and two years later, in Suez – bitterly. It would soon defy both public and political opinion to mount a scorching war in Algeria.
As for the United States, the war was an unsettling development. Its policy of containment could not work if newly independent countries were to choose Moscow-educated leaders, as with Ho in Vietnam, Nassar in Egypt, and Lumumba in the Congo. Diên Biên Phu itself was a symbolic domino, chosen precisely to cut off the Communists from entering the neighboring kingdom of Laos, and its fall was alarming. But coming as it did so soon after an inconclusive conflict in Korea, there was not much political will in the Congress for yet another foreign entanglement. An especially vocal critic, the one who argued against letting the French use American air fields, was an ambitious senate minority leader from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.
The siege of Diên Biên Phu was widely covered in the French press; L’Aurore on 24 March published the first photos, which were sent back with letters and evacuatees. The most extensive coverage was in Paris Match, France’s equivalent of Life magazine, which published 144 photos from Diên Biên Phu between 20 March and 15 May, and devoted five front covers to the battle. Its headlines were equally grand: ‘L’épopée de Diên Biên Phu (The Epic of Diên Biên Phu, 8th May); Le Calvaire et la Gloire du Général de Castries (The Sacrifice and Glore of General de Castries, 13th May); and ‘La Tragédie des blesses” (The Tragedy of the Wounded, 22nd May).
Match had an inside man, literally. Its photographer, Daniel Camus, was doing military service with an army cinema unit when he was parachuted into the garrison. His photos covered about the action of the siege and the desperate intimacy of the besieged, as was in the above photo of the paratroop “mafia” of young airborne officers who had effectively taken control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, Touret, de Seguin-Pazzis et al). Camus and another photographer Jean Péraud sent back photos from inside the siege until the garrison fell and they were sent to a reeducation camp. During the 300-km march to the camp, Péraud was killed when trying to escape with paratroopers’ commander Marcel Bigeard. Camus was released four months later from the camp.
There is currently a fascinating exhibition going on in Paris at oft-overlooked Musée de l’Armée. “Indochine: Des Territoires et des Hommes, 1856-1956” follows a century of French colonial rule and runs through Jan. 26.
Many who criticize the communist regime in Cuba compare it with the halcyon days before the Revolution. However, Cuba of Col. Fulgencio Batista was no picnic either. In 1952, when he staged a coup, Cuba was relatively prosperous country, whose GDP per capita was roughly equal to that of Italy. However, the society was deeply unequal — as it is often the case in many one-crop economies. Landlords, plantation owners, and union bosses controlled all the wealth and power. Batista tackled the problem by introducing a service economy in the form of legalized gambling. Havana became a centre of gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Meanwhile, Batista was never coy about his own extravagance ; he used a gold-plated telephone presented to him by the United States. He and his wife were exempt from all taxes.
Fighting this capitalist system was a group of guerrillas in Sierra Maestra mountains, for long a bed of insurgency; their leader was a bearded, bespectacled figure largely unknown to the outside world. Fidel Castro was an illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, who had already spent time in jail for an attack on a barrack. As Cuba’s press was censored, Castro contacted foreign media to spread his message. After 1957, his fame was on its ascendant; a New York Times journalist came to interview him for a story which would become widely publicized.
Also in Castro’s hideout was a young photographer from Madrid. Enrique Meneses spent a few weeks in Havana unsubtly asking about the rebels before finding someone to take him to the rebel-occupied area. He spent a month photographing the rebels; a young woman, smuggled his film out of Cuba to Miami in a petticoat. His editors at Paris Match were pleased. On the cover on the magazine on April 19, 1958 was a gun-toting Castro, taglined “the Robin Hood of the Sierra” and “Le Maquisard” (a French resistance fighter during the Nazi Occupation). Batista and his feared secret police were less pleased; they arrested and tortured Meneses.
But his sultanistic regime was now in its final months. The U.S. government ceased supplying him weapons. General strikes surrounded him, and many of his soldiers had defected to Castro. By November, the rebels controlled half of Cuba. On New Year’s Eve, Batista fled, taking with him $300 million from the treasury.
Enrique Meneses died in January 2013. His work was credited with introducing the world to the Castro Brothers, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution.
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For six months in 1942/43, Nazi Germany waged a total war on the city; over 1,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the city in the initial assaults alone, reducing Stalingrad’s city centre into rubble. These scenes of devastation were covered by Emmanuil Evzerikhin, among whose most memorable photos was that of Barmaley Fountain, a miraculously intact statue of children playing in front of a destroyed city square.
Evzerkhin was a Soviet Jew who had already been disgraced once, for a surreal Soviet offense. In 1939, he was purged for staging a photo: while photographing factory workers, he wrote down that he took photos at 1 p.m. However, the time on the clocks suggested 7 a.m. By “staging” the clocks, Evzerikhin was guilty of subverting the system: the purpose of his assignment was to prove that all workers were already at their places at 7 a.m. When the war with Germany began, he was rehired as a war photographer. His poignant photos from Stalingrad — such as a musician saving his instrument (below) and a girl sheltering in bombed ruins — were widely printed in the press; he received an Order of the Red Star and “For the Defense of Stalingrad” medal.
After Stalingrad, Evzerikhin went on to document Ukrainian and Belorussian fronts. He saw the liberations of Minsk, Warsaw, Konigsberg, and Prague. On his return to Russia, however, he found opportunities fast evaporating. He was after all, a Jew; soon afterwards, he demoted again in anti-Semitic purges .
Russians viewed and remembered the Second World War differently, not in sallow faces of Holocaust survivors or the horrors of concentration camps freed, but in sieges endured, and fathers, husbands, and sons lost. Victories at battles of Moscow and Stalingrad were refashioned as truly ‘Russian’ victories, as opposed to Soviet victories. Soviet Russia did not suffer total occupation, as had the Baltics, Belarus, or Ukraine, nor was it much marked by the Holocaust compared to Ukraine or Belarus. This distance from the horrors of the Holocaust was to deny Russia certain lessons; when the war ended, Stalinist antisemitic pogroms were just around the corner.
Soon after the war, Stalin cancelled a Soviet documentary on the Holocaust, which highlighted that the “victims of fascism” were primarily Jewish. By 1953, the Soviet leadership was drafting Jewish denunciations which lifted phrases straight from Nazi propaganda. A fitting epigraph was penned by Vasily Grossman, a Jewish writer soon to be denounced; in sequel to his monumental novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, he had a Gestapo officer quip, “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.”
Not many people today remembers George Lincoln Rockwell; he should be well remembered — but not remembered well.
In the above photo taken on February 25th 1962, Eve Arnold captured a surreal scene: that of Rockwell, flanked by members of his American Nazi Party, listening to Malcolm X’s speech to black Muslims at the International Amphitheater in Chicago. It was an obscure episode in American history, when Rockwell’s white supremacists and Malcolm X’s National of Islam took segregation to its extreme ends and called for independent nations, separated by skincolour.
Rockwell was comfortable being a caricature. He believed all blacks should be deported to Africa; every Jew dispossessed and sterilised — hatreds dwarfed only by his disdain for ‘queers’. He also wanted to hang “traitors” such as former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. When Playboy sent a black journalist to interview him, Rockwell sat for the interview with pistol on the side table.
It is unfathomable today that within fifteen years from the Second World War, someone (and a war veteran at that) would found an American version of the Nazi Party, call himself the American Hitler, and brandish Nazi insignia widely in public. But those were curious days. Partly due to government efforts to exonerate ordinary folks (who were now their allies in the Cold War) and partly due to lack of widespread mass media, it took a while for people to understand the enormity of the Holocaust. Many, even soldiers who saw the atrocities first hand, believed the Nazis’ persecution of Jews as part of their general campaign for oppression and starvation in Europe.
But by the time this photo was taken, such opinions are evaporating fast. The Eichmann trial in 1961 revealed one sordid detail after another. With each passing day, America moved away from the one he envisioned. Increasingly paranoid Rockwell himself was assassinated in 1967 by a disenchanted ex-deputy. His party is still alive today and tweets. Such a discordant divide between the 21st century technology it uses and the 19th century ideology it promotes.
Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and conscience of Africa, died on December 5th, aged 95.
“It was a moment of liberation experienced around the world”, wrote Martin Meredith in his monumental survey of Africa since independence, “The Fate of Africa.” On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster prison. The world had remembered him as a heavily-built middle-aged man, but Mandala who walked out was a lean, grey-haired elderly figure.
In 1984, after eighteen years the maximum security prison on Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to another at Pollsmoor. Pollsmoor was an even grimmer facility but his long walk to freedom was accelerating. On Christmas Eve in 1986, he was given his first taste of freedom outside prison in 24 years as a prison official took him on a drive around Cape Town. Other trips to coastal resorts and fishing villages followed; he was allowed to eat in cafes and visit his warders. Astonishingly, no news were leaked and no photos were taken of these trips; in fact no contemporary photograph of him was published from 1964 to 1990.
In 1988, he was transferred to a low-security prison at the Victor Verster, where he stayed in a small farm-house on the grounds. It was from here that he was driven to secret meetings with South Africa’s Afrikaner presidents, who agreed that Mandela was a man they could do business with. On 2nd February 1990, the government declared a universal franchise for South Africa. Apartheid was over. A week later, Mandela was released.
His release was to bring him little personal joy. A scandal broke out over the criminal activities of his wife, who was revealed as the head of a notorious gang called the Mandela United Football Club that terrorized parts of Soweto in the 1980s. Moreover, she had grown accustomed to having her husband locked up in prison; she showed little interest in family life nor halted her amorous liaisons with a lover half her age. Devastated, Mandela published poignant letters he had written to her from Robben Island in his 1994 autobiography and divorced her.
Approximately an hour after he fatally shot President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald entered the Texas Theatre around 1:30 p.m. He didn’t pay for a ticket, and sat in the back to watch the second part of a double feature, Cry of Battle/War Is Hell.
It was inside here, seated at , that Oswald was found by the police. When the police arrived, Oswald behaved as a guilty person that he was. As cops approached him, he punched an officer in the face, and drew a revolver from his waistband before being tackled down and cuffed.
When Joel Stenfeld showed up at Texas Theatre in 1993 for his book, On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam, Oswald’s seat were long gone. The actual chair was removed that very day by the manager who took it home as a souvenir. Its replacement was confiscated(!) by the FBI the next day for evidence thinking it was the original seat. The book, published in 1996, was a powerful record of fifty locations in America where acts of violence were committed. (Today, the seat has golden words, “Lee Harvey Oswald, November 22, 1963″painted upon it).
The photo above was taken by AP’s photographer James Altgens. It was taken in Dealey Plaza right after the second shot — first and most controversial of three photos he took of the motorcade after the assassination. In the photo, the president can be seen with his hands near his throat, reacting to being shot (although you can’t really see him, thanks to the mirror).
A controversial fact was that one faint figure in the back by the doorway looked like scrawny Oswald. His presence there was an impossible fact if he was firing bullets at Kennedy. The Warren Commission pored over the image, called witnesses, and decided that Oswald was not in the doorway. Also in Altgen’s photo is the Dal-Tex Building, with its white fire escape in the far background; many conspiracy theories suggested a gunman fired down from the Dal-Tex at the president.
Enough ink and pixel has been spent over the assassination, so here I will just refer to stripper Little Lynn — “not just a footnote to history, but a footnote to a footnote” as Stephen King wrote in his excellent fictional account of the assassination, 11/22/63. Google her name.
Odds on a presidential assassination are very long. But to quote King again, “so are the odds on winning the lottery, but someone wins one every day.”
His spiked helmet glistened in the sun as he crossed Jaffa Gate astride a white stallion. On October 29, 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II became the first German Emperor in 670 years to enter Jerusalem. Escorted by spike helmets, bearded Prussian and Turkish cavalry, and heralded under a large Prussian cross, the Kaiser seemed as if he was heading a new crusading army. He believed he was. The German settlers in the Holy Land greeted the imperial couple as modern Templars and the kaiser visited familiar crusader haunts from Constantinople to Beirut, inaugurated a church, and praised the spirit of the Templars.
The visit was frantically covered by a large contingent of journalists and photographers the kaiser brought along. As he visited the city’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities and reviewed the honor guard under a gigantic fireworks in front of the new church he consecrated, it seemed — however briefly — that peaceful religious coexistence in the Holy Land was not beyond reach.
In fact, he came at the apex of the Ottoman peace, under which a significant degree of religious freedom was granted to non-Islamic faiths. In 1900, Christians and Jews combined made up 30 percent of the total population of the Ottoman Empire. Jewish communities thrived, especially in Baghdad (which German companies were trying to link Berlin with in an ambitious rail project. In fact, while the Kaiser’s visit was largely apolitical, he hoped to strengthen diplomatic connections with Constantinople for rail concessions). Wilhelm himself, for all his pompous penchant for Templars, was an Islamophile; he called himself ‘Hajji’ Wilhelm, and claimed he would be the Protector of Islam in a future Germanic Levant. (Punch lampooned him as answering to Saladin’s calls to save Crete from the ‘horrible’ British and French).
That dreamworld was soon to be swept away, first by the First World War and by the Scramble for Middle East that ensued afterwards. In the early 1900s, Christians made up 20% of the Middle East’s population. In 1970s and 80s, many left; today Christians make up no more than 5% of the population even as continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon dwindle this percentage even further.
In 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson set out on a tour of Southern Europe and the Maghreb; this journey with his 35 mm Leica was to be his formative tour that set out the rules of the art for not only the 25-year old photographer but also for a century of photojournalists who followed him.
In Seville in 1933, he took the photo above, later entitled, “Children Playing in Ruins”. Cartier-Bresson was always pithy in descriptions and it was not entirely clear where exactly in the city he took the photo, or how the ruins come to be. His contact sheets reveal that he chose the photos which were among the first he made on that occasion.
There is not much to write about this photo. His usual journalistic eye was at work, depicting youthful vigor sprouting out of decayed detritus. However, soon afterwards, the Spanish Civil War broke out, affecting many cities Cartier-Bresson passed through. Seville was where the first shots were fired, and the photo — with its ruined buildings and crippled children — became associated with the horrors of that war, even though it was made three years earlier.
Andre Breton, the surrealist who was among the first to use photographs in his books, used the photo to illustrate his chapter on the Spanish Civil War as early as 1937 in Mad Love. Many others followed, and even this author believed this was made in the aftermath of the war, not before it.