02 December 2007

Gender, Photography, and the Taliban

Surfing around Slate this morning and came across a video-essay that photographer Thomas Dworzak put together with journalist/author Ahmed Rashid. It is an extended commentary on the practice of young Taliban recruits having their photographs taken in studios in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, a regime that banned images of living things. Many interesting issues intersect in these images, from representation of human beings under a strict no-human-image regime to the relations between the people in the photographs to their own desire to be photographed, despite the repression of such activities by the very people these men worked for.

The photographer who collected these studio images along with the journalist who provided commentary both focus on the 'Gilbert and George'-like effeminization/homoeroticism of the images. Despite Dworzak partially dismissing this interpretation at the beginning of the video, the narration (by Rashid at this point) goes on to discuss various practices under Taliban rule of ancient-Greek-like mentoring relationships between an older man and a younger man, and link what they see as effeminate, intimate (hand holding) poses/images in the studio pictures with this practice. In the end, the video's reading of the pictures links these images to iconographies of homosexuality arising from cultures far removed from the Talibani one. In addition, the video shows no awareness that it is precisely the kind of male-male ancient Greek practice that largely sparked the critique of the search for 'gay history' and produced 'queer theory'--a space where acknowledging that different periods in history, cultures, classes have a wide range of sexual practices, and that just because your particular cultural space labels them as 'gay' or 'feminine' does not mean that those participating would do the same.

The video plays upon a presumed incongruity between the effeminate nature of the images and the perception of a unified strict Taliban regime. This seems to me to misread the images, which can, if read in context, be understood as articulations of power and strength without the overarching femininity Rashid and Dworzak see. It is odd that they did not link these images to well-documented and thoroughly-researched scholarship on 20th century studio photography patterns in South Asia as a whole (including Pakistan and Afghanistan) that include all of the elements found in these photographs: air-brushing, Swiss mountain backdrops, guns-as-props, men holding hands. The work of Chris Pinney in this area is widely known and easily accessible.

I'm not trying to protest the idea that there are certainly both gay men within the Taliban and also male-male sexual practices that may not fall within the 'gay' label. (The assumptive relation between gay and feminine is troubling, but that's another comment for another time.)

I am protesting the simplistic reading of images outside of any local, historical, or visual context. When you read images, just as when you read text or hear about an event, you need to look around to see if these images really are odd or strange, or if it's just your own encounter with them that makes them so. The photographs in this piece are part of a long history of South Asian photographic iconography that goes back to princely photographic portraits of the 19th century. Ripping them out of that context and putting them in the 'Gilbert and George' contemporary installation art context does not provide a responsible articulation of what these images meant to those sitting for them, for those taking them, or for those viewing them.

From a Euro-American 21st century eye alone they may appear effeminate. To assume that assessment is universal is to repeat Orientalist, sexist assumptions about men in the non-West ('non-European men are effeminate and, of course since women are weak, this means they are weak') and to underestimate the strength and power communicated through these images.

Perhaps another greek concept--hubris--might be appropriate here?

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