Kneel Before the Fire
After covering the suicide bombing on Benazir Bhutto's convoy last month in Karachi and the events surrounding her return to Pakistan from self-exile, I left for an assignment in Rwanda and then returned to Beirut thinking that I wouldn't be back in Pakistan until the lead-up to their elections a few weeks down the road. How wrong I was. On Nov. 3 President General Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule in the country hours before the supreme court was scheduled to publicly declare their verdict on the legitimacy of Musharraf's election to another term of presidency. First came the emergency rule then came street protests and then the daily arrests of hundreds of opposition supporters and lawyers. All of which was done in the name of democracy, according to the president.
This idea of democracy and elections and how they translate to the streets and homes and actual implementation in the region is like traveling down the rabbit hole. Back home in Beirut, covering the elections has come to mean that we all hang outside the parliament building watching VIP politicians, dressed like they're at a movie premiere, walk their red carpet and up the stairs into the parliament building where they don't make any final decisions but, rather, agree to disagree and just postpone any actual lawmaking for another few weeks--this has been going on for a few months now. Deadlines have come and gone, elections have been "postponed" at least five times now and military control of Lebanon seems imminent.
Pakistan seems to be following a similar "road map," with military control in place and protests that seem aimed more at the media covering the events than for the eyes of any politicians. The pinnacle of the arrests in Pakistan would be Musharraf's placing Bhutto under house arrest on two occasions. His goal was to keep her from bringing the masses of her PPP party supporters to the streets protesting the emergency rule and the presidency of Musharraf.
Much like standing outside the parliament building in Beirut with the dozens of other snappers waiting to photograph this so-called democracy in action, we found ourselves standing outside a plush neighborhood in Islamabad and later in Lahore while Bhutto stayed under house arrest with thousands of feet of barbed wire and hundreds of soldiers surrounding the area, and the occasional catering truck which would deliver four-star food for the imprisoned folks on the inside. We were left to photograph the occasional small protest outside the barricades that would last only a few minutes and would end with the police snatching the protestors up and throwing them in the back of the police vehicles that would then speed down the road (with a mob of media chasing close behind).
The arrests seemed very dramatic at first but then after a few dozen times photographing the whole street theatre event you began to realize how artificial the whole scene was: opposition supporters getting their 15 minutes on TV while being thrown in the back of the truck, sometimes smiling or even laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. Then watching their faces turn serious and angry once a few hundred cameras were pointing in their direction, like well-trained actors hitting their marks. The media gang at times posing on the back of the paddy wagons for pictures with their mates. The whole situation all being played on a loop over and over again, lorry [truck] after lorry of arrested protestors for our cameras while the opposition leader sat in her palace of sorts with catered meals arriving through the sea of soldiers.
At some point it becomes less about us (the media) documenting history and more about the fact that the media's presence is the reason protestors are there waiting to get arrested for our cameras. Both sides playing to our deadlines, the opposition looking like the great martyrs for democracy and the government looking strong and in control of its people. So at the end of the day everyone wins: the media has their dramatic pictures of women behind bars, the opposition gets to scream injustice and the government gets a justification for its emergency rule when we snap pics of burning cars in the streets. So I guess we should all be happy but at the center of all this, street theater presents the very real situation of a region slipping into complete chaos.
We all photograph these same situations. I am part of this cycle of seemingly theatrical events that are created for our cameras. I believe at the core of such protests there is a truth but on the ground it feels remarkably disingenuous and the photographs begin to feel more like illustrations of a political crisis rather than documents of historical events with any relevance after they appear in the daily paper or weekly news mag. That said, the protests are real, the arrests are real and the two 11-year-old boys dead in the streets of Karachi on Nov. 15 were brutally real.
During one of the smaller street protests a group of men ran up to the area where the media gang was hanging out and set a tire on fire. They didn't go to the front of a government building and burn their tire, they chose to go to where the photographers were…and like little dogs we all kneeled down in front of their fire and snapped away, completing the cycle of protest, camera, newspaper or rather newspaper, camera, protest which is how these things are conceived of now by the men lighting that tire. The turning point at our fire was when a photographer screamed something in Urdu and immediately the protestors picked up the flaming tire and started throwing it up in the air repeatedly. It became obvious that the photographer had been screaming, “"throw the tire in the air." At which point the line having been crossed, you turn your camera off and walk away because it has finally become apparent that the second that tire went in the air it had become street theater.
And, then you open up the paper the following morning to see their glorious photograph of a man throwing a burning tire in the air. The cycle continues.
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© Paul Taggart
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