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Antony Armstrong-Jones

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Anthony Armstrong-Jones, society photographer and royal paramour, is dead, aged 86. 

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As royal portraits went, it didn’t get more intimate than this. In 1962, Anthony Armstrong-Jones sat on a toilet and took a photo of his wife Princess Margaret soaking in the bathtub in full makeup and tiara. His feet and hand were reflected in the mirror in the photo.

The couple was then just two years into their marriage. Theirs was the first royal wedding ceremony to be broadcast on television, and Armstrong-Jones became the first commoner in four centuries to marry a British princess. But he could never shake the perceptions that he had been Margaret’s second choice — her earlier romance with a divorcee was stopped by the establishment — and the couple separated in 1976.

This sensational divorce was also record-breaking: it was the first royal divorce in England since Henry VIII. It would set the tone for later royal break-ups of Princes Charles and Andrew. Yet Armstrong-Jones maintained close personal relationships with the British royal family post-divorce, and remained a favorite photographer of the Queen long after his marriage to her sister had ended.

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Already a society photographer before his marriage, the royal connections opened doors. He took photos of Ian McKellen, Serge Gainsbourg, Salvador Dali, Vita Sackville-West, Laurence Olivier, David Bowie, Barbara Cartland, and Marlene Dietrich among others; his portraits of J.R.R.Tolkien, previously featured at Iconic Photos here, and Agatha Christie were iconic. For Vanity Fair in November 1995, Snowdon put together a photoessay on British Theatre, photographing Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, Julie Christie, and others, in a 56-page spread—the biggest photoessay Vanity Fair had ever ran. (In a spread from that essay above, Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole share tea and private moment at the Dorchester).

An Excellent obituary from The Globe and Mail here.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 15, 2017 at 5:05 am

Silician Mafia, Letizia Battaglia

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(continued from a previous post)

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As the Italian state unraveled in ever-widening gyre of political choas, that other threat to law and order was again resurgent in the south.  In Sicily, the Commission — a central organization of mafiosos — was resurrected. Several competing factions were now preparing to fight and claim territories for protection rackets.

At the center of this was Letizia Battaglia, a journalist and photographer for L’Ora newspaper in Palermo. For eighteen years, she documented mafia murders of judges, politicians, police, and members of rival families. She would find herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. Here, she remembers taking the photo above (link)

They murdered Nerina, a young prostitute who had started drug-dealing independently from the mafia cartel, and her two male friends. Allegedly, she had disobeyed the mafia’s code of honour. Naturally, the killers were never found.

It was 1982, and I entered this little room in Palermo against the will of the police. They did not want me – a photographer and a woman – at the crime scene. When I realised there was a woman among the victims, I started shaking. More than usual, I mean. I was overcome by nausea and could hardly stand. I only had a few seconds to take a couple of pictures: there were men shouting at me to work fast.

It isn’t easy to be a good photographer when you’re faced with the corpses of people who were alive and kicking only minutes before. In those situations, I would often get all the technical things wrong. But I did my job, I photographed, trying to keep the image in focus and the exposure correct.

Since Nerina, who is slumped in the armchair, had been the main target, I found myself thinking about her. In that small room, her still body was at everybody’s mercy, more objectified than ever. My contact with her lasted only a few moments and was filtered through the lens of a cheap camera. But I saw her alone, lost in an eternity of silence. In that short time, I started to love her. I find women beautiful and courageous, and I love photographing them. They hold so many dreams inside themselves.

It was just one of 600,000 photos she took of mafia crimes; throughout her career, Battaglia received many death threats, but continued on. Her “Archive of Blood”, as she called it, grew and grew as the mafia activity spread. Judge Cesare Terranova, a member of the Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, was killed in an ambush in 1979. Battaglia remembers: “This was one of the most important men in Sicilian politics. When he was killed, I said nothing worse could happen. Nothing. It was not true.” [Photo below, graphic].

The Italian state, which had unscrupulous connections with the mafia, was slow and reluctant to respond, even when the mafia detonated a half-ton of explosives under the highway in May 1992 to assassinate a judge (who was a close friend of Battaglia). The next year, Giulio Andreotti, who had been prime minister of Italy seven times, was indicted for corruption.He had flatly denied ever meeting or having any dealings with the mafia, but among Battaglia’s archives were photographs of Andreotti and other Christian Democrat party leaders with Nino Salvo, a powerful Mafia figures who was believed to have been a principal link between the Mafia and Andreotti.

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Battaglia has recently published a book “Anthology” which recounts these haunting years. (Amazon).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 30, 2016 at 6:51 am

Posted in Politics, Society

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Living With the Enemy

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In the time it will take you to read this blog post, around 50 people in the United States would have been victims of domestic violence. For the longest time, even to the days of our parents, domestic violence was an act which not only went unreported but also simply taken for granted. The apocryphal rule of thumb — whereby a man is allowed to beat his wife so long as the rod used was no thicker than his thumb — was routinely assumed to be part of the British common law.

In 1982, Donna Ferrato was on assignment to photograph swingers for Playboy Japan at New York’s famous sex club, Plato’s Retreat, when she befriended Garth and Lisa, a polyamorous couple from Saddle River, New Jersey. On the surface, they have a successful marriage. However, Ferrato discovered a physically abusive husband who routinely beat his wife. She remembers:

I heard Lisa screaming and things breaking. As soon as I entered the bathroom Garth raised his hand to slap his wife in the face….

I said: ‘What are you doing? You are really going to hurt her.’ He threw me down and said: ‘I’m not going to hurt her — she’s my wife. I know what my strength is but I have to teach her that she can’t lie to me.’

The contact sheet shows every frame of the first fight I witnessed between Garth and Lisa. The most important thing on my mind was to take pictures to prove that what I was seeing really happened. Without a photograph there would be no evidence.

Ferrato approached her editors to publish the images, but they all refused.

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For the next decade, Ferrato went around the United States visiting shelters, police stations and hospitals, and documenting the scenes and aftermaths of domestic abuse, compiled in her 1991 book Living With the Enemy. The book propelled an oft-neglected topic into a national sensation: she was invited to the White House for a private meeting with Hillary Clinton. Her work was featured on the cover of Time twice, following the Rita Collins murder case in 1993 and on a cover story called “When Violence Hits Home,” published after O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his wife.

“Americans are confronting the ferocious violence that may erupt when love runs awry,” Time wrote then. Donna Ferrato’s photos underlining criminality and brutality inherent in domestic violence suggested otherwise.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 19, 2016 at 11:42 pm

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

Tagged with , ,

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

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

Borneo, 2001.

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(contd. from the previous post)

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).

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 17, 2015 at 5:55 am

East Timor, 1999

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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.

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(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.)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 14, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Politics, Society

Tagged with ,

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