Archive for the ‘Society’ 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.
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.
Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed.
Under the Japanese rule during the Second World War, Hong Kong’s population sunk below 600,000. This figure was dramatically reversed after the war; as the communist takeover of mainland China began, Hong Kong’s population jumped to 1.6 million. Shanghai, its greatest rival city, was no longer open to foreign capital, and from 1945 to 1949, financiers, merchants and industrialists fled to the British colony from Shanghai, its greatest rival city. Among the escapees was Fan Ho, a photographer who documented the street life in Hong Kong in those tumultuous years following his arrival.
Those were different days. The notorious Dalton-Douthwaite scandal (where two British soldiers murdered a Chinese girl) was just around the corner. Large immigration forced newcomers to be housed in shacks and squatter huts, built on hillsides and in cemeteries. Welfare support was non-existent, and provided only by volunteers and kaifong associations. Drug abuse was rampant; by 1959, there were around 150,000 to 200,000 addicts, an staggering number of a population of 2.8 million. This was the era of Kowloon Walled City and Triads that ruled it, and this was the Hong Kong that stared back at you from Fan Ho’s black-and-white photos. After Fan Ho took a photo, “with a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back.”
Better days too were just around the corner. In 1961 arrived John Cowperthwaite, a Classicist who was to preside over the colony’s finances for the next decade. He kept personal taxes at a maximum of 15 percent, and balanced the budget aggressively. He was an idiosyncratic man, who never released economic statistics because “once the data was published there would be pressure to use them for government intervention in the economy”, but proved an excellent administrator. Under Sir John, a laissez-faire Gladstonian, the colony’s GDP grew at an astonishing average of 13.8 percent in every year — an unprecedented rate in those slower growth days.
(More Photos Here).
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.
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.
The Great Depression looms large in the modern imagination — especially in the light of the most recent financial crises. But its scale is hard to fathom now. A crisis equivalent today would be the combination of the 1994 Mexican peso crises, the 1997-98 Asian & Russian crises, the 2000 dot com bubble, the 2007-8 financial crisis, according to the economist Liaquat Ahamed. And all these — a halt in capital flows, a collapse of market confidence, a frenzied bubble, and fall of major financial houses unfurled over a period of four years between 1929 and 1932 taking down 25% of global GDP, 25% of employment, and 40% of global bank credit.
The photo above by Margaret Bourke-White was surrounded by myths too; there are a few things it is not. It was not shot during 1929-32 crisis. It did not depict a breadline of workers laid off by the depression. The oft-repeated belief that this photo prompted Henry Luce — Life magazine’s patriarch and Bourke-White’s employer — to decide that his photographers deserved a byline was probably apocryphal too. But the photo’s absurd slogan “World’s Highest Standard of Living” — absurdly jarring when the white ur-American family with their dog was juxtaposed with the queuing black people below — propelled it to become the Great Depression photo in recent years.
The people depicted were flood victims. Bourke-White took the photo in Louisville, Kentucky during her assignment to over the Ohio River flood of 1937. The floods claimed nearly 400 lives and left roughly one million people homeless across five states in the winter of that terrible year. The flood marked a catastrophic decade in America which began with the Mississippi Floods of 1927, the Great Depression, and the Dust Flood, straining Federal and local resources. A leviathan American state was born to tackle these series of calamities.
The title of the most expensive photo ever is a dubious one. This list provides the reader with the most expensive photos ever bought, not the most expensive photo ever taken.
That latter honor probably belonged to the photo above, where the entire 12,000-strong workforce of Ford Motor plant at Highland Park where photographed in 1913 when the world’s first fully-fledged assembly line was installed at the plant.
Fittingly for a company whose axiom was “Time equals money”, the photo cost thousands of dollars. In 1913, Ford paid $2.34 a day — minimum wage then was $1 — and employed them for nine-hour working day. (The next year, he doubled the pay to $5 a day and reduced the daily work hours to eight). Assuming a working day lost because of the photo, Ford paid out $28,080 daily wages – almost equal to amount of seed money he had to found the company in 1903. To add to that, Ford lost out on making 600 cars (in 1913, Ford produced 250,000 cars annually), each of which cost $600. In total, the cost of the photo was over $9 million in 2013 dollars.
Ford himself was a grumpy, tyrannical figure. His employees were subjected to a Sociological Department, which forced them to change their hygiene, consumption, sexual, and social habits to fit in with Ford’s puritanical and health-obsessed worldview. His wage increases – today portrayed as a revolutionary act of magnanimity – was spurred by high employee turnover (370% in 1913) caused by these restrictions. Ford drove away two talented executives, Knudsen and Couzens; William Knudsen went on to turn around money-losing Chevrolet into an auto powerhouse.
When he died in 1946, Ford left behind a fortune of $ 188.1 billion (in 2008 dollars), which made him top five richest industrialists ever. When his company finally IPO’d in 1956, the company had the market capitalization of $3.2 billion (real US GDP that year was $460 billion) and its initial offering was so large that over two hundred Wall Street firms had to subscribe to it.