Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category
Today is International Women’s Day; to mark this, we should look back at groundbreaking photojournalism done by female photographers, here, here, and here. We should also look at this upsetting body of work by Stephanie Welsh.
In 1995, 21-year old Stephanie Welsh landed in Kenya to begin a yearlong internship (which paid $100 per month) with the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper. On her planeride, she read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, where the female protagonist who submits to female circumcision out of tribal loyalty, and decided the pursue the story.
In Kenya, the practice, now commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM), was illegal but still widespread. FGM involves cutting or removing part or all of a female’s external genitalia, usually when she is just a child or entering puberty. Unlike male circumcision, which at least curbs the transmission of HIV, FGM brings no medical benefit whatsoever.
Welsh traveled to rural Kenya, taught herself Swahili, spent two weeks living with the family of a 16-year-old girl about to undergo the ritual, in a hut of cow dung and straw, drinking goat milk laced with cow blood. Her story of the ritual was heartbreaking — the girl shouted out “Why are you trying to kill me?” and “I’m dying. I’m going to die,” even as blood ran and curdled on the red mud. Although the Nation published only a watered-down version, they were picked up by in 12 U.S. newspapers. Welsh won a second-place prize in the World Press Photo and a Pulitzer.
The photo raised awareness of FGM; the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that genital mutilation is a form of persecution. Yet the practice persisted; annually around two million girls undergo the procedure even today, oftentimes done crudely with a razor or a glass shard. It was linked to honor, chastity and access to favorable marriages and social networks, and widely supported by women. A recent study showed that the daughters of a mother belonging to an ethnic group where FGM is widespread are more likely to undergo the practice it than those of a mother not belonging to such a group.
Welsh’s photos also became the centerpiece of one such debate, with many anthropologists and African commentators denouncing appropriation of women’s bodies as exhibits (the girl in the photo had not given permission for the images to be taken) and Western ‘cultural and ideological colonialism’. Welsh herself hang up her Nikon in 1999 to devote to anti-FGM causes and become a midwife.
(Due to the upsetting nature of the images, we are posting only one photo, which was the most widely published photo because it was the least violent. In the photo, the mutilated girl examines her excised pudenda. The rest, you can see here; in a blog post, Stephanie Welsh remembers that sweltering April day).
Seven riders from the Navajo Nation and their dog trek against background of Canyon de Chelley, in an image widely copied in Westerns (1904).
“The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible”, The New York Herald gushed when the first volume of The North American Indian appeared in 1907. Its foreword was written by Teddy Roosevelt and the book was funded by J.P. Morgan. When its last volume appeared, however, its author was broke and his work had been largely forgotten.
Edward Curtis was one of those large-than-life figures — less of a photographer than an explorer. Abandoning his lucrative society photography, he spent three decades photographing and documenting lives and traditions of eighty North American tribes, a monumental task which took him from the Mexican border to Bering Strait.
Curtis felt that he was racing against time; the 1900 census put the Native American population at 237,000, compared to approximately 600,000 a century earlier. Many of their rituals and traditions had been banned to encourage ‘assimilation’. When he documented a Piegan Sun Dance in Montana in 1900, Curtis realized it might be the last of its kind.
He was relentless, working 16-hour days, seven days a week, against considerable odds. It took up to six years to persuade Sikyaletstewa, the Hopi Snake Chief, to allow him to participate in a ceremonial snake hunt. He bribed the Navajos to reenact a Yei be Chei healing dance, but the dancers performed the ceremony backwards in order not reveal its most sacred parts. Due to his travels, he was largely absent from domestic life, and his wife left him in 1916.
Curtis compiled over 40,000 large format photos of Native Americans, recorded 10,000 Indian songs on wax cylinders, and collected vocabularies, pronunciation guides, and myths in 75 languages. He became the first person to conduct a thorough historical autopsy of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, from both the Indians side and that of the cavalry.
For a documentary on the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest, who had a reputation as headhunters and cannibals, he participated in the native rituals, bedecking his boat with a human mummy and skulls. Rumors swirled that he participated in a secret cannibalism ceremony — something Curtis mischievously refused to admit or deny.
In other ways too, Curtis was an unreliable narrator. At Piegan lodge, he airbrushed out an alarm clock present in a native tent — a technique he practiced on modern clothes and other signs of contemporary life. He staged a Crow war party on horses, even though there had been no Crow war parties for years. Of the Hopi Snake Dance, he wrote, “Dressed in a G-string and snake dance costume and with the regulation-snake in my mouth I went through [the ceremony] while spectators witnessed the dance and did not know that a white man was one of the wild dancers.” It is now believed that this claim may have been exaggerated or untrue.
Last week, when covering the news of Lord Snowdon’s death, we briefly mentioned the work he did for Vanity Fair, covering British theatre, in November 1995.
John Osborne, the playwright who transformed modern English theatre with his plays “Look Back in Anger” and “The Entertainer”, had died previous December and Vanity Fair sent John Heilpern, a theatre critic who would later become Osborne’s authorized biographer, to cover his memorial service. Heilpern quotes, “It is impossible to speak of John Osborne without using the word ‘England'” and adds, “So it is impossible to imagine England without its theater.” Fittingly his article was accompanied by Snowdon’s photos.
It was a bravura effort — the largest photographic portfolio Vanity Fair ever commissioned. He flew back and forth between Britain and New York to photograph theatre luminaries, from the 22-year-old Jude Law to the 91-year-old Sir John Gielgud.
They were atmospheric portraits, sometimes in costume, sometimes in personal private moments. Alan Rickman stood arms akimbo on the Albert memorial as a clan chieftain in honor of a Highland play he directed. Ian McKellen embraced a statue of Bacchus; Derek Jacobi posed as Pope Hadrian, John Hurt as a pantomime dame. He got Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh — former collaborators, now competitors — together in a group shot. “That needed a fast shutter speed,” Snowdon remembered.
“There are a lot of little private jokes,” Snowdon reflected. Jonathan Pryce, the actor and Lexus spokesman, was photographed in a Mercedes. Michael Gambon scowled in Poets’ Corner as a languid Shakespeare looked on. Patrick Stewart, looking Picardian, posed at Heathrow Airport. Peter Ustinov sat in a bath chair outside Theatre Royal in Bath, where he led a fundraising program for a studio which now bears his name.
[I couldn’t find the portfolio online, which was a shame, so I did digging around in old family cottage’s damp basement for a physical copy. The resulting scan is huge at 60 MB, but linked here.]
In 1970, Adam Woolfitt captured the above image on Tindhólmur, a small island in Sørvágsfjørður fjord in the Faroe Islands. Tindhólmur itself was a surreal place, its rock jutting defiantly into the skies, and Woolfitt’s photo was equally otherworldly: skies were foreboding, boats float on a bloodied bay, surrounded by whale carcasses and children. Dante could have penned a verse about the scene. Bruegel could have painted it.
The image, taken on Kodachrome II and printed in The National Geographic, was immediately controversial. Anti-whaling movements reproduced it. Two years later, fifty two countries voted in favor of a ten-year global moratorium (which didn’t take place because the major whaling countries were not signatories).
On Faroe Islands, whaling continued, although the hunts were often disrupted by the environmental activists. To this day, the islanders would drive pilot whales into shallow waters to slaughter them. This annual ceremony is called ‘grindadrap’ (whale hunt in Faroese), and locals insist that ‘grindadrap’ is not done for commercial purposes, as the meat can not be sold and is divided evenly between members of the local community.
Passing of an Iranian actress was good time as any to reflect on regress of women’s rights in the Middle East.
Forouzan’s death last month was as her last thirty-seven years had been: quiet and unremarked. Before that, however, she was one of the biggest stars of the Persian cinema. For a brief period in the 1970s, voluptuous Forouzan (whose name meant bright light) represented a liberated Arab womanhood, which has all been extinguished since at least in the Middle East.
Her death brought to fore various magazine covers in which she appeared — and other contemporary Persian magazines where Western and local models were frequently portrayed showing a bit of skin. Sophia Loren smiled wearing just a fur coat from one cover. The famed Henry Clarke posed several models at Iranian mosques in 1969 (an activity which could have gotten him into deep trouble just a decade later). One week, Forouzan appeared on the cover of Weekly Ettelaat with the headline: “Forouzan and the latest fashion; Will people of Tehran approve it?” (above).
Iran before the Revolution was hardly a tolerant liberal democracy, but in many ways it was more relaxed socially. A woman cabinet minister was first appointed in 1968, and just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, women made up a third of university graduates. The Revolution rolled back these small accomplishments: hijab was introduced, and women were removed from the judiciary (Islam posits that women are unqualified to be judges). Because women’s role was to be at home solely, government–run day care centers were shut down, making it difficult for women to lead professional lives. In a telling brutality, the aforementioned first woman to serve in the cabinet was executed. (Only in 2009 and 2015 that Iran appointed its first female cabinet minister and ambassador since the 1979 revolution respectively).
Forouzan herself was banned from acting again — anyway, there wasn’t much need for actresses anymore as all women were covered under hijab, including on the silver screen. Although in reality, Iranian women do not need to be covered under hijab at home, the movie censors force actresses to wear hijabs for both indoor and outdoor scenes. In a crowning absurdity, women in Iranian films wear hijabs even when they sleep in bed.
Alas, Iran was not the only country in the region where women’s rights have regressed since the 1970s. In his grand retelling of the pivotal events 1979 ushered, Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl remembers seeing a postcard of a glamorous Afghani model posing on a grass-lawn in a dress of “1970s psychedelia and ethnic chic”. He writes:
“It was easy to dismiss the cigarette-smoking model as an outlier, a solipsistic stand-in for a superficial program of Westernization with no organic connection to the surrounding society. But this is lazy. The Afghanistan she stood for was real. She may have belonged to a minority, but it was unquestionably a growing minority that many wanted to join… This Westernizing, secular, hedonistic Afghanistan was not a phantom; it represented a genuine dream for many Afghans.”
The same could have been said of Forouzan and her Iran.
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.
Mary Ellen Mark, chronicler of society’s sad underbellies, died last month, aged 75. An ugly world she photographed limps on.
Altamont and Falkland Roads are just a couple of miles away from one another in downtown Bombay. However, they seemed to belong to different worlds. Magnates, celebrities, and ambassadors live in the upscale residential neighborhood around Altamont Road. Less exulted is the area around Falkland Road, known as Kamathipura, one of the largest red-light districts in the world. Frequented by lower classes since the days of British rule, the area remains a brutal epicenter of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking even in independent India. Laws and diktats of the authorities stopped outside the so-called Fuckland’s labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages.
To this world arrived Mary Ellen Mark in 1968. She would go on to become a humanistic portrayer of the society’s harsher corners — street-gangs, runaway children, psychiatric patients — and the scenes she witnessed in Bombay haunted her and she kept returning to document the district in a book that The New York Times called, “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh”.
Viewed as an interloping foreigner, she was unwelcome and the reception was downright hostile. She remembered: “Each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.” But she persevered and during a visit in October 1978, stayed in the district for two months, befriending prostitutes, pimps, madams, and transvestites alike.
That project, released as Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, was a haunting chronicle of abject lives. Girls were kidnapped from their families in rural villages. Desperate families who didn’t want female offsprings sold them off to brothels. Pimps preyed on young and attractive beggargirls. Girls as young as thirteen were forced into prostitution, and into cages to prevent them from escaping. Neglect — and worse fates — beckoned children born to prostitutes within the district. Photos, taken in vivid colors in dramatic contrast from Mark’s black-and-white usual, showed filthy mattresses surrounded by filthier walls.
Many others followed Mark’s footsteps to document the district (see a great modern expose here). The area had survived to this day, although many whose lives Mark documented didn’t, as AIDS took its toll in the following decade. Due to increased awareness, international aid organizations were allowed to set up anti-trafficking shelters and children’s homes. There are estimated 20,000 sex workers in Kamathipura today — although down for its dizzying heights (of 50,000) in the 1990s. Now the area is overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers, and the area’s recent redevelopment plans mean Kamathipura’s days might be numbered. However, the unholy network of pimps, madams, and traffickers will simply move somewhere else, with their cages and virgin auctions.
(Most of the photos from the book are on her website here).
(Above photo was taken by Terry O’Neill on the set of the 1983 horror comedy, House of the Long Shadows, the only film which co-starred four great master horror actors: Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee.)
Christopher Lee, the world’s most interesting man and the last king of horror, died aged 93.
There was always something rakish about Christopher Lee. His movie career — and late life affectation for death metal — proves it. But Lee’s exciting adventures began when he volunteered to fight for Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. He was soon chosen for elite clandestine outfit called ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, more commonly known as Churchill’s Secret Service. His work there is still classified (though the ministry was involved in skirmishes such as an assault that destroyed the German top secret nuclear weapons development facility in Norway) but Lee came out of the war as a highly decorated veteran to live a second life as an acclaimed actor.
For Hammer Horror, a British studio which churned out series of thrillers which luxuriated in camp and melodramatic moments, he portrayed an array of accursed protagonists of Georgian and Victorian imaginations: the Mummy; Frankenstein’s monster; Count Dracula; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and Fu Manchu. He was cast as Henry Baskerville against Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, then as Holmes, and even as Holmes’ cerebral brother Mycroft.
Later, filmmakers remember him whenever they needed to portray men of apocalyptic air and larger-than-life ambitions, real or imagined. Thus he was Pakistan’s tormented founder in Jinnah; a debonair assassin with a third nipple against James Bond; an intergalactic aristocrat in Star Wars; a misguided holy fanatic in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; a powerful wizard corrupted by evil in Lord of The Rings; and an icy, pagan-worshiping leader of a windswept Celtic island in The Wicker Man.
His colorful life intertwined with those of whom he played. As a child, he met Rasputin’s killers. One of his stepcousins was Ian Fleming, who partly modeled James Bond on Lee’s wartime experiences and who hoped Lee would play titular villain in Dr. No. Lee also knew Tolkien, and was the sole member of The Lord of Rings’ cast and crew to have met its writer. In playing Saruman’s death, Lee quipped that he knew how dying from being stabbed in the back sounded like, from his classified work during WWII.
He maintained a productive, prolific life to the end: on his last day of filming Lord of The Rings, Lee was 92.
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).
That was a historic year in American baseball as Yankees and Dodgers met at the World Series for the first time since 1963, but a more momentous event has occurred a few months earlier. On July 16th, 1977, Duke Snider, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle made an appearance together at Old Timer’s day during All-Star Game weekend at Shea Stadium.
As the quartet walked away from the Center Field, an iconic photo was made; the jersey numbers — 4, 5, 24, 7 — were sufficient to convey that this was the group who had staggering 1,964 homeruns among them. A few years later, Terry Cashman, that Balladeer of Baseball, recalled this iconic photo to write his famous song, “Talkin’ Baseball” (itself later immortalized by The Simpsons)
Cashman wrote the song during a bitter baseball strike, harkening back to a different America. That sunnier era for him was 1957, when New York had three great teams in the city — and three of the greatest center fielders in history. That was, according to Gallup, also the happiest year in American history, right amidst the Ike prosperity. Soon Edsel would disastrously debut, Sputnik went up — twin ignominies for American science and industry. That same year, the Giants and the Dodgers moved away to San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively.
Try as he might, Cashman couldn’t find a rhyme for DiMaggio’s name; the star was left out of the song and airbrushed from the record’s picture sleeve (below) — something that had disappointed both the singer and the player. Cashman later wrote, “Cooperstown, The Town Where Baseball Lives” where diMaggio featured prominently as an apology.
[I have no idea who the original photographer is. Any help?]
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).