Outside Tunis one afternoon last week I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. A sewing class had just ended, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23. In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted.
Withdraw into protection and safeguard all that is important to you, take it down to below the earth, all that you have, take down the jewelry, the food, the children’s photographs, the armchair where you like to sit with a book in your hand, the curtain, behind which you feel yourselves to be safe, from the window; gather together all that was dear to you, gather together the identity cards and baptismal certificates, take the money out of the bank and hide it in the cellar behind the wall, but really every piece of jewelry, every scrap of food, every photograph of the child, every armchair and every beloved book, every curtain and every document, and really all of the money down to the very last cent, and really hide all of these things well, but really well, under the earth…
Asghar Farhadi’s film Nader and Simin: A Separation, is a fine account of Iran’s predicament; anyone interested in the mysteries of change and tradition—the difficulties faced by many people as they try and reconcile themselves to modern values and norms—will learn much from it. I saw it in Tehran this summer, and so movingly did it reflect what I was witnessing around me, I was surprised that the authorities had allowed it to be screened and its creator and leading actors to travel to Germany to be honored by the Berlin Film Festival.
I wept, but about what precisely I cannot say. Much to my amazement, after having done everything possible to shut out the ubiquitous maudlin press coverage that engulfed the tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I visited Michael Arad’s National September 11 Memorial in New York City—which was dedicated exactly a decade after the disaster—to find that it impressed me at once as a sobering, disturbing, heartbreaking, and overwhelming masterpiece.
These images represent moments I’ve always rejected during my editing work because someone was looking into the camera. I always refer to it as eye contact. I strive to disappear and find candid moments as a photojournalist. I want the line between documenter and documented to disappear. These are the overlooked images where I have become present in the picture.
Eye Contact, the name of an exhibition at the VII gallery in Brooklyn from which the following images are drawn, is partly looking back at my work but it’s also a way to demonstrate how the public reacts to photographers. The presence of a photojournalist is used in some places to promote an agenda. In the Niger Delta we find subjects who go out of their way to show their strength and anger, their guns and balls of fire, perhaps in hopes the images will be shown to their opposition. In Syria, many are suspicious and glare at the lens as though it is an informant. In India, the camera is treated with more deference, until I document a prostitute’s intimate moments.
On Friday, a front-page New York Times story reported that a rift has emerged within the Obama Administration over whether it has authority to kill “rank-and-file” Islamist militants in foreign countries in which there is not an internationally recognized “armed conflict.” The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely.
Judging from Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow on September 12, the British government has decided to cave in to the Russians in the long-running dispute over the November 2006 murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. The victim, who was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and had been given asylum in Britain in 2000, died an agonizing death at a North London hospital on November 23, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium 210—a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance. As a result of Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with its investigation of the crime, Britain ended intelligence sharing with Moscow and introduced new visa restrictions on Russian businessmen trying to go to the UK. But Cameron’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin this week indicates that Britain is reassessing its Moscow strategy—and by extension, its view of the Russian leadership.
Already in a condition of satire, the opening of the Tea Party-hosted GOP debate on Monday night in Tampa presented the eight Republican presidential candidates as good-looking characters—“The Diplomat” “The Newcomer” “The Firebrand”—who would have to battle one another off the electoral island. Music, brassy and tense, and a baritone voice-over let you know that this reality show was part of the ongoing Apocalypse Lite that has infused our television programming and made the networks almost unwatchable. There was little even Jon Stewart on his show the next evening could do to make fun of what was often comedically predigested—except to say that the red, white and blue stage looked like the inside of Betsy Rossʼs, well, sewing room. Iʼm paraphrasing.
Until September 2001, North Americans had not witnessed the spectacle of mass death on their own territory for at least a century. Then, our enemies suddenly staged a devastating attack on some of our most significant places. That was a trauma—on top of the sheer loss of life—that seemed impossible to swallow. As we sent our armies out into the world, we felt that our actions were automatically legitimized by our new awareness of our vulnerability. Surely, we felt, this was self-evident; it required no further explanation. The rest of the world, however, has a hard time seeing our wounds. Today the rest of the world sees us, straightforwardly, as the country that spends more on its military than the next eighteen or so nations combined.