Arab Spring (One Year Later In Ten Iconic Photos)

This blog hoped that 2011 be another annus mirabilis for democracy back in January 2011. A year on, let’s look back (literally) as Arab Spring passes into history books. 

By the time the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali visited Mohamed Bouazizi — the humble fruit vendor whose self-immolation set in motion the events that would culminate in the first successful revolution in the modern Arab World — both men’s fates were already sealed. Ben Ali fled the country less than 3 weeks later.


The next stop of the Arab Spring was in Egypt, the region’s most populous and most influential state. Its  ‘Tank Man’ moment arrived via an amateur photographer who fittingly posted the above photograph on Reddit, a testament to how much social media has changed marketplace of ideas and political discourse.


After a few weeks of political impasse in Tahir Square and of handwringing in many Western capitals, President Mubarak sent in the thugs on camels into the square. The White House finally decided that the Egyptian strongmen needs to step down. He didn’t flee the country but awaits a sentence that might be death.


Meanwhile, the Revolution was brutally  suppressed in Bahrain; Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graced the homepages of major news outlets from the New York Times (Global)/IHT to the Telegraph and the Times of London, from the BBC and Time magazine to Le Nouvel Observateur and El Pais. Much more handwringing ensued over the fate of a critical ally….


But international audience have short memories. After the bloody revolution was quickly suppressed (unlike in Syria and Libya, of which more anon), Bahrain demolished the Pearl Square, the epicenter of the revolutionary movement, in a symbolic move reminiscent of the Roman annihilation of Carthage. Many doctors who helped the wounded protestors were quickly indicted and sometimes killed in the violent crackdown that ensued.


In February 2011, a tone-deaf move that it would come to regret in the coming days and weeks, Vogue profiled the wife of the Syrian dictator Bahir al-Assad as the Rose of the Desert (photographed by James Nachtway no less). In a move that is both pusillanimous and disingenuous, the magazine have removed the article from its website, but the magazine was not alone. As the regimes toppled, more and more embarrassing details (LSE’s Libyan ties, French involvement in Tunisia, CIA and MI6 in Libya and Egypt) came out, revealing the “necessary-evil” nature of these Middle Eastern dictatorships.

I don’t have a protest-related picture from Syria — a metaphor for that country’s hostility towards photographers and journalists, and as an honor to those who are fighting on there.


Perhaps it is not surprising that Libya — which devolved into a full-fledged civil war and the third Arab battlefield for the West in less than a decade — produced the most iconic images of the Arab Spring. By his staunch refusal to step down, Muammar Gaddafi — that umbrella-yielding, youTube meme of a dictator –was determined to fight on and to produce iconic moments till the bitter end. At first, he seemed unassailable, even as the West acted (more or less) quickly to uproot his ramshackle regime. For me, Gaddafi’s beheaded statue and his daughter’s mermaid sofa fittingly bookended a dictator’s life.


In Yemen, the picture is more complex. Its eternal despot, President Saleh is gone, but he left behind a bitterly divided country that (like so many others in the region) seems artificially cobbled together from the carcasses of the long bygone empires. Yemen, with its low productivity caused by energetic qat-chewing, and its dubious honor as the only country in the Middle East without oil-reserves, is on quick route to a civil war or a failed-statehood.


But elsewhere too, in Egypt, in Syria and in Libya, future looks uncertain. In Egypt, the uneasy power struggle between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the protestors continues. In Syria, difficult times lie ahead for minority Christians and Muslims alike as a full uprising beckons. In Libya, if Gaddafi’s fall was somewhat cathartic, last week’s clashes proved that his malignant legacy is still unfortunately enduring.


A friend told me in January 2011 that Middle East will come to resemble post-1989 Eastern Europe rather than post-1979 Iran. I bet against her for $10, saying that at least Egypt will not be en route to democracy in a year’s time. Should I pay up now? Weight in here and to my Twitter

Photography — 2011 in Review

Iconic Photos bid fond farewells to those we lost in 2011.

The big photography news of the year was deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros during a mortar attack in Misrata, but among the Arab Spring’s other unfortunate victims were a few photographers: Lucas Dolega, who died from injuries sustained on day of Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia; Ali Hassan al-Jaber, the Qatari photojournalist who had the dubious honor of being the first foreign journalist to be killed during the Libyan war, and Anton Hammerl, who was abducted and executed by pro-Qaddafi forces.

But those who want some reminding that the world has already been an inhospitable place to journalists and photographers need only to look at the lives of those old masters who died this year. As Rashid Talukder was documenting the birthpangs of Bangladesh, the retreating Pakistani army was massacred thousands of his compatriots. Guy Crowder, that acclaimed chronicler of black LA for five decades, and Shel Hershorn, who captured iconic images of the civil rights movement and retired traumatized after photographing a fatally wounded Lee Harvey Oswald, both lived and knew that era of inequality and segregation.

The Golden Age of black-and-white photography once again flashed in front of our eyes with the depatures of many master lensmen of that era. There was Leo Friedman, who captured many of the iconic images of the golden age of Broadway. There was T. Lux Feininger, the younger brother of the great Andreas Feininger, who documented the artistic avant-garde in interbellum Germany. There was Richard Steinheimer, known as Ansel Adams of railroad photography.

And then there was Goksin Sipahioglu, the Turkish photographer who covered the Cuban missile crisis, the Prague Spring and the Munich Olympics attacks, and who more famously founded the renowned Paris-based photo agency Sipa. Most singularly, Miroslav Tichy, the Czech voyeur who died this year, took surreptitious pictures of women in his hometown of Kyjov, using homemade cameras constructed of cardboard tubes, tin cans and other at-hand materials.

On popculture side, two great music photographers who were known for their bold album covers died: Barry Feinstein, whose close partnership with Bob Dylan produced the singer’s most iconic photos and Robert Whitaker, who shot The Beatles’ butcher album cover. Gunther Sachs, bon vivant, playboy, and photographer, committed suicide.

Also dimmed are lens and flashes of Ken Russell, Deano Risley, Gautam Rajadhyaksha, Jerome Liebling, Lázaro Blanco, Milton Rogovin, Brian Lanker, Pete Carmichael, Steve Gladstone, M. Y. Ghorpade, Heiko Wittenborn and Franke Keating. Michael Abramson, who took photographs of patrons at nightclubs on the south side of Chicago during the mid-seventies and LeRoy Grannis, the godfather of surfphotography, are also no more.


(To be concluded tomorrow, other photography stories of 2011 and my picking of the Best Photojournalism Apps). 


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Behind the Images: Gaddafi is Dead

Ironically for a man who had claimed that the revolutionaries trying to topple him were rats and cockroaches, Moammur el-Gaddafi took his final refuge in a drainpipe. A French Mirage jet which had attacked and scattered the convoy in which he was trying to flee was responsible for the dictator taking such an ignominious abode, but it was in the hands of the angry mob of fighters who recorded his last moments on video that Colonel Gaddafi met his bloody end.

Desmazes' Screenshot

A variant of lead photograph, featured in many of today’s newspapers will bear the name of  Philippe Desmazes, an Agence France-Presse photographer. He was the only photographer in the area, when a rebel fighter pointed to where the deposed Libyan dictator had been captured, and another showed him mobile phone footage of a body, the one first broadcast by Al-Jazeera (below). “Are you sure it’s Gaddafi?” asked Mr. Desmazes, who subsequently made a grab from the footage and wired it.

In the coming days and weeks, there will no doubt be questions about who took the original footage, and whether we should credit photos to Mr. Desmazes only. The Times credited the photos to Mr. Desmazes and published them with an apologetic note: “It is an image of a man dead, or close to death, so harrowing that The Times would not normally publish it. But it records an historic moment — the end of the era of Muammar Gaddafi.”

The transitional Libyan government claims that Gaddafi was caught in crossfire, although the footage showed the badly injured, but undoubtedly conscious, former dictator being bundled on to the bonnet of a pick-up truck, his shirt being stripped from his torso and his body being dragged along the ground.

The photos of his body taken later, after it was driven to the neighboring city of Misrata, appeared to show bullet wounds to his head. The government maintains that the medical examiner could not say whether the bullet came from the revolutionary forces and the Gaddafi loyalists, but multiple sources claim that a New-York-Yankees-cap wearing twenty-year-old was responsible for Gaddafi’s demise. Mohammed El-Bibi later appeared brandishing Gadhafi’s gold 9mm gun in celebration, and told the BBC that he was the one who had found and captured Gadhafi and, as the dictator lie wounded, that he had snatched Gadhafi’s prized gun from him.

Later, fighters in Misurata surrounded the corpse, flashing the victory sign; Kareem Fahim’s photo for the New York Times (ab0ve) is eerily reminiscent of Che Guevera’s exit half-a-century earlier, but we can perhaps take solace in the fact that when the dust settles and the mystery surrounding his death clears, no one will be making a martyr out of Moammur el-Gaddafi.

Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters


Jack Hill, Libya

For a certain Arab dictator, endgame could not come soon enough. 

Earlier this year, Jack Hill covered the attacks on Benghazi

Yesterday’s fall of the crucial city of Zawiya to the Libyan rebels is a symbolic blow against the regime; one of the first towns to rise up, Zawiya was the scene of bitter fighting and brutal crackdown by the government during the early months of the Libya uprising. Control of the town will be huge boost to the rebels, many residents of the town who fled when it fell. It is also a signal that after the murder of the rebels’ army chief two weeks ago and fractional struggles and Islamic bedlam among the rebels in the East, the future of Libya will finally be decided in the west of the country.

Jack Hill, The Times‘ photographer, followed the rebels into Zawiya. Here he recounts an unusual predicament he often encounters in photographing the Libyan rebels:

We persuaded our guides to get up early and make the journey from the Nafusa mountains into Zawiya.

The rebels had made a breakthrough and we’d seen dramatic footage. Passing checkpoints on the road, I was encouraged by assertions that it was safe all the way to the bridge, an overpass on the Tripoli-Tunisia road that was a lifeline for the regime. We stopped and I began taking pictures. You have to be quick to get a photo of a fighter before you get the V for victory sign.

We got to the bridge, but we were advised against going further. A mournful prayer came from a mosque up the road, an an ambulance shot past. As I got closer I could see there were two dead fighters. We pulled back for several hours. Then an RPG exploded. The crowd seemed momentarily tense, but I raised my camera and up came the ubiquitous V-signs again.

If you google “Jack Hill, Libya”, there are only several hits — one of which is this blog’s earlier coverage of his work. All of his work is behind the solid paywall of The Times, and I think this put Hill at a disadvantage — although his photos from Libya are as good as, if not better than, others.

As paywalls thicken over the next few years, it is something photographers will need to ponder — paywall exclusivity or widespread publicity?



Tim Hetherington (1970-2011)

Tim Hetherington, tireless and lyrical raconteur of global conflicts, is dead, a victim of a Libyan mortar shell.

Many will remember Tim Hetherington as a great photographer, but to call him such would be to pigeonhole his contributions. He himself acknowledged his changing role in a new topography of media: “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”

And he did. He covered various conflicts in West Africa and contributed to two documentaries on Liberia and Darfur. In 2007, he began a yearlong assignment documenting a battalion of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as bait to the Taliban. He published a touching book Infidel, won his fourth World Press Photo award for his coverage, and was nominated for an Oscar for his resulting documentary, Restrepo, which was all too human for it was palpably apolitical. His broad experiences were also recorded an ethereal webvideo, “Diary”.

To the very end, he was determined to reach out to as many people as possible; he began using twitter eight months ago, and his first and last tweet from Libya — posted just hours before he himself was hit  — read: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO”. It was fitting, if heartrending, epitaph.


Excepted from the Times of London:

When he was hit he was with [Chris Hondros of Getty], Guy Martin, a British freelance journalist and Michael Christopher Brown, an American photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.

The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him. Hondros, who was due to marry soon, also died late last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.

Libya, Jack Hill

As I have noted previously, I am on vacation; when I am on vacation, I do not blog, but I broke that rule yesterday and I am breaking it again. As I type this, sitting in my room in St. Moritz, sipping my apres ski Hot Toddy, and reading the Daily and the Times on iPad, I feel somewhat sad and disillusioned about the situation in Libya. I have many comments, but cannot bring myself to write them down from safe and cozy distance of my hotel room. I wonder whether many other commentators feel this way.

Anyway, onwards to photos. No matter what you may think of the Libyan Campaign, it cannot be denied that a lot of great photos are coming out of it; I don’t know why but Iraq and Afghanistan produced not that many memorable/iconic images, considering that there were so many photographers working there. On the cover of yesterday’s Times, there was a beautiful (if carnage can be described as such) photo of a tank explosion (above). Immediately, I told myself, wow, there was one iconic image. Many people felt this way, I guess, for today’s Times featured a piece by the photographer, Jack Hill:

About 30 km south of Benghazi, we came across the site of a huge airstrike. One tank was destroyed and another was burning. There were abandoned self-propelled guns and charred bodies covered with blankets.

Slightly farther down the road was more destruction: a munition truck was burning heavily and the ordnance was exploding out of it. It was a dramatic sight.

I moved carefully towards the burning truck. I was captivated by the smoke and the colours within it, and the exploding shells wee an impromptu fireworks display. How to photograph such a scene? It was hard to know where to look or start.

I added a 1.4 converter to my longest lens, a 70-200 mm and I filed the frame, aiming to illustrate the power and destruction of the strike. Edging as close as I felt comfortable, I compared a picture just as contents of the truck started exploding again. I started shooting, not even checking my exposures. I was shooting 1/6400th of a second at F5.6. That was accident rather than design, but the exposure was good. As I was shooting a young ran across the frame. At the time, I though “if that works out, it won’t be a bad picture”. It was hard to know what to shoot. There was so much to take in.

I chose this picture over the others because it gives a human scale to a scene that I couldn’t have imagined.”

Other great photos on Libya are courtesy of Goran Tomasevio, Suhaib Salem and Finbarr O’Reilley for Reuters, and Anja Niedringhaus for AP. (shameless ad: I recommend getting an iPad, if only for photos; its resolution is great for viewing photos, and photo sections of the Times, the Daily, Paris Match, and the New York Times really make iPad an aesthetic device).



Muammar Gaddafi

It is often said that people get the government they deserve, but by no stretch of the imagination can the Libyans have deserved Muammar Gaddafi, who at the time of his downfall was the longest-serving ruler in Africa. Son of an illiterate Bedouin herder, Gaddafi had already hatched plans to topple the Libyan monarchy while at college and, after military training in Greece and Britain, led a successful revolution at the age of 27. Like Mao, Gaddafi outlined his political views in a pithy tome: the Green Book. His Islamic socialism was a curious mixture of Arab nationalism, socialist welfare state and religious moral codes, but succeeded only in reducing LIbya from a republic into a jamahiriya — a neologism that means “government by the masses” — a querulous tribalistic quasi-state.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi was left free to practice his interventionist and not inconsequential policies. Libya has donated money for humanitarian causes across Africa and also allowed Africans to travel to the country to find work. It supported African rebels in South Africa and Zimbabwe during apartheid. On the other hand, Gaddafi had supported scores of other baleful rebel movements in Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia. After he had became embroiled in Chad’s Civil War, Gaddafi sent high school pupils to the frontline, telling them that they were going on a field trip. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), Palestinian militants and the forces of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had training camps in Libya, although the Irish soon left after facing tight alcohol regulations.

These unseemly connections led to Gaddafi being identified as the world’s premier state-sponsor of terrorism. Implicated in several terrorist attacks including the Munich Massacre of 1972, shooting of protestors from inside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1983, and the Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986, Gaddafi was the “mad dog of the Middle East” to President Reagan, who authorized the bombing of Tripoli, which killed, among many others, Gaddafi’s own adopted daughter. His retaliation was the Lockerbie Bombings of 1988, which consigned Libya into international pariah-hood.

Although his military rank remained uncharged, the colonel subsequently festooned himself with rows after rows of decorations. His delusions of grandeur were also palpable when he tried to create a Federation of Arab Republics (with Egypt and Syria), an Arab-African Federation (with Morocco), and an Arab Islamic Republic (with Tunisia). They lasted five years, two years and two days respectively. As his fellow Arabs failed to support him in the face of international isolation in the 1980s and 1990s, he abandoned pan-Arabism for pan-Africanism. In the recent years, his vision was for a second USA — the United States of Africa, modeled after the EU — with Gaddafi himself as its “King of Kings”.

As his influence dwindled, Gaddafi became more idiosyncratic: he came to dress more and more eccentrically; two years ago, he gave an incoherent speech at the UN; he paid Italian women to study Islam. Bedouin tents, Amazonian bodyguards and an Ukrainian nurse closely accompanied him. Yet, he found limited success in his bridge-building to the West. After he partially atoned for Lockerbie, the new generation of world leaders sought Gaddafi’s help in the War on Terror and energy security. He emerged as the key mediator in negotiations over Western hostages kidnapped in Mali and Niger. He ‘magnanimously’ pardoned Bulgarian nurses accused to spreading AIDS in Libya. In 2009 — the year he chaired the African Union — Gaddafi was also at the G-8 summit, a worthy achievement for the man who was, for the better part of four decades, a bogeyman for the West.

After forty years of repression, Gaddafi’s end came astonishingly fast. As dictatorships to east and west of him crumbled, his position became increasingly untenable. Yesterday, he appeared in a 22-second TV interview, holding an umbrella, sitting in the front seat of a van and denying the rumors that he had fled to Venezuela (above). Preparing a symbolic last stand, he made a speech from his deserted residence, which was aerial bombed in 1986 by the U.S., brandishing his Green Book. Like his own dictatorship, the speech was rumbling and went on far too long; Gaddafi himself looked distant and shabbier than ever before, at last unable to steer the destiny of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him. To the end, he remained defiant, saying “Colonel Gaddafi is history”. In this judgment at least, he was correct.