Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Afghanistan: Turning people whose history and culture we don't know into abstractions

I recently came across this photograph again in an old museum catalog, and it reminded me of how the degree to which Afghanistan remains a mystery to us in the West and, in particular, to the Obama administration's policymakers.

It's by a famous American photographer better known for a much different body of work. As noted at the link, "Migrant Mother" is the most famous photograph in the Library of Congress. Lange will always be known for this and the other beautifully observed works of documentary photography she did for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. She also documented the Japanese internment in World War II. In her documentary work of that time, she immersed herself in her subject matter, and it shows.

This is a very different image. It appeared in the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that opened shortly after her death at the age of 71 in 1965 (she had worked with curator John Szarkowski in preparing the exhibit). The catalog was published posthumously by MOMA, and this photo is on p. 58. It's titled "Pathan Warrior Tribesman" and was taken in the Khyber Pass in 1958.

It's a beautiful image, haunting in its way, but it relies more on abstraction than close personal observation. Lange traveled with her husband, agricultural economist Paul Taylor, on his travels around the world and photographed what she saw. This is the Other, seen as totally opaque and alien, through western eyes, passing through. It's a tourist photo -- albeit a tourist who is an extremely talented photographer -- rather than a documentary photograph. We see, not an individual, but a type, his face shadowed and enfolded by swirls of dark fabric. Who is he? What is his name? How does he live? Why is he a "warrior"? What does it mean to be a "tribesman"? Instead, we have an image that is as mysterious as it is graphically powerful.

"Pathan" is a term that used to be used more widely to describe the people who are now more often referred to as "Pashtun" -- the tribal community from which most of the Taliban are drawn. They were a mystery to the West in 1958, and we haven't learned much in 50 years. We're still making the same mistake in Afghanistan that we made in Vietnam of conflating an indigenous nationalistic insurgency with an international conspiracy and then being unable to distinguish them.

Are we fighting the Taliban? Al Queda? Or both? We never seem to really know who we are fighting or why. In Vietnam, we came to regard this confusion as a "morass." We seem to be sinking deeper and deeper into the same thing now, with no end in sight.

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