Violence, Agency, Photojournalism and Activism

Violence, Agency, Photojournalism and Activism

TW/CN: This post contains several famous graphic images. As someone who works in multiple media to mobilize people around causes, I’ve had a lot to think about this year. The entire Black Lives Matter movement has been a case study in average people mobilizing the masses in order to force traditional media coverage, as well as how to use a loosely-tied grassroots network to subvert and exploit media coverage in service to a cause. Most recently, though, the photo of two dead toddlers whose bodies washed up on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, has got the wheels turning. As a photographer, one of the questions I often grapple with is those situations where I find myself wondering, do I take the picture? Of course, the photographer in me answers: take the picture, you can always decide what to do about it later. But the advocate in me wonders about the harm that can be done just in the act of photographing. There’s also the idea that once an image exists, it could be seen by someone else like an editor who would take the decision about what to do with it out of my hands. Images like the ones of the boy on the beach in Bodrum always seem to simultaneously be completely necessary and yet eat away at the photographers who take them. In this case, Nilufer Demir, the photographer who took the image said, “I wished there was no problem in their country, that they hadn’t left it and hadn’t tried to leave Turkey and that I hadn’t taken this photograph. But as I found them dead,...
The Party

The Party

After I had made all my arrangements to go to Kerala, I found out something fantastic: it has an active communist party (or two)!  Does communism find me or am I chasing communism?  Either way, I find it fascinating, especially to see how it works in a unicameral parliamentary democracy.  Kerala prides itself on being the first place where communism came into power via peaceful elections, a tidbit no one lost any time in telling me.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front (which includes the currently-impotent Communist Marxist Party), is still very active, generally winning elections on alternating 5 year terms. The Kerala Land Reform Act (which originated in 1963 with several notable amendments),  gave land rights to tenants, ending the feudal system (except for cash crops) and giving thousands a home of their own for the first time.  The reform completely altered the state and set it on a trajectory for relatively little economic stratification.  Redistribution of wealth (and land in particular) is a hallmark of communism, often lamented by wealthy landowners, and beloved by hardworking farmers freed of their peasant status (unless they’re just random people who you forced to be farmers.  That doesn’t go over to well.)  People commonly referred to Kerala as a state made entirely of the middle class, and I think the land reforms were a key factor in this. Communism in Kerala hit a turning point in 1967 with the Naxalite uprising, and other ensuing violent acts.  Elements within the party wanted a more anarchic stance, and used violence to that end, which drastically changed public opinion.  The communists, who at the...

Does Voting Even Matter?

Okay, so full closure: for the last month, I’ve been a one-woman Get Out The Vote campaign.  I helped my UK/US dual citizen intern register for her first ever Presidential election.  I made sure my ex-expat coworker was properly registered.  It has gotten to the point where people have blocked me on facebook, and people have told me to stop speaking and have walked away from me mid-sentence.  I’ve even stooped to rewarding friends and family with food for their political participation.  And it all started with my near-nervous breakdown when a friend told me he had never voted. So yeah, this matters to me.  But is that a surprise?  I watched the entirety of West Wing in real time (if you know my age, you know that’s a little strange) and many times since then.  My dad and I made a tradition of watching election returns together.  I signed my first petition and wrote my first letter to a member of congress before I could drive.  I’ve been to political rallies on three continents.  I worked for Amnesty International.  I’ve devoted thousands of hours to Model-Whatever, AKA a very elaborate game of political pretend.  I have spent years studying this stuff formally, and I spend my leisure time reading what other people would consider textbooks. So yes, when you tell me, “It’s just politics,” I do take it a bit personally.  Not just because of my years invested thus far, but also because of what is at stake.  No matter what side of the issues you fall on, the two mainstream candidates have (or have had) differing opinions on...

‘Ta Luego a la Tarjeta Blanca: The Exit Visa is on its Way Out

Today a pretty amazing thing happened: Raul Castro made good on a promise to abolish the dreaded exit visa, or Tarjeta Blanca.  Cubans will be able to leave (starting “before January 14, 2013” or as I like to call it, January 13) without acquiring an exit visa.  The exit visa was an excellent way for the state to maintain control not only by denying dissidents the right to leave, but also by rewarding demonstrated loyalty to the state and its one and only political party. Once Cubans have left, they will now be able to stay 24 months instead of 11 without effectively losing Cuban citizenship.  Cubans will also be able to apply for an extension while abroad.  Prior to this change, not returning after 11 months would result in loss of property, loss of the right to return home, and even if a Cuban in this position did manage to get back in, they would be ineligible for the ration card, housing, use of schools, health care, and any other benefits of being Cuban. That being said, and this being Cuba we’re talking about, I still have some reservations. Doctors, military and some other professionals will likely still not be able to leave as they are considered valuable “human capital” in Cuba.  This is an effort to prevent brain drain/the Imperialist US from stealing people that Cuba desperately needs.  I get the argument, as every developing country has to fight brain drain.  But in most of the developing world, promising students go abroad for their education.  In Cuba, the state has educated these people for free, and thus feels a bit more...
The Mirabal Sisters: Revolutionary Wild Women

The Mirabal Sisters: Revolutionary Wild Women

The Mirabal sisters can be felt everywhere in the Dominican Republic. They are on currency and stamps, celebrated in statues and in literature, and the Mariposas (butterflies) seem to float through the very air. At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happened in the 1930s-1960s, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death. Cuba’s own Revolution also plays a role in the ideology and hope of the Mirabal sisters. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world. I love that Alvarez shows the Mirabal sisters as women first, even when they couldn’t prioritize their womanhood to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later. The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving...
Slacktivism

Slacktivism

“Slacktivists don’t raise money” “Slacktivists aren’t informed” “Slacktivists aren’t connected to the cause” “Slacktivists aren’t real activists” “Slacktivists don’t accomplish anything” I’ve heard and read these complaints a million times over.  How many times do we need to see a campaign like the one launched to restore Planned Parenthood funding when Susan G. Komen Foundation pulled out?  Over $400,000 were raised rapidly, Komen went back on their decision, and at least one board member was fired/resigned.  That strikes me as a lot of money and accomplishment for a bunch of people who, “don’t care,” and “can’t accomplish anything.” I would like to point out that the TOMS Day Without Shoes (which appears to have accomplished nothing more than clogging my inbox) is considered “activism,” while buying something BOGO is “slacktivism.”  I have an inherent problem with the term slacktivism, but I also have issues with how we define it. I don’t thinkwe have to choose between one or the other, and I think there is far more overlap within these groups than is usually portrayed.  How often do I have to go to protests to maintain my credibility?  How many times can I tweet about a cause before I shift into “slacktivism” territory? Traditionally, buying BOGO, purchases where a percentage goes to a cause, signing an online petition and donating via “like” or text message are all considered Slacktivism.  Isn’t my money just as good if it comes via text?  In the paraphrased words of my friend Eduardo, we all have to wear clothes, so they may as well mean something and do some good.  Isn’t my slacktivist clothing accomplishing more than your sweatshop-produced, unsustainable stuff?  Isn’t my support for a...

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