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Wa_toto_wa_kwetu_kids_drawing.jpg
In a previous blog post, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos.  I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."

In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. 

The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video. 

My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project.  For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book. 

Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time.  My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.

My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder.  In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO. 

He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced.  He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.

Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary.  Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO. 

Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief.  A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.

I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder.  Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them.  In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.

I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation.  When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly.  I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work.  And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.

But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective.  He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it.  I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.

Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black.  Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.

Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill.  My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions.  On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.

I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant.  Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power.  Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine.  I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
 
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect.  (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.)  Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:

  • I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
  • I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
  • I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
  • I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile. 
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional.  My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.). 

On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector.  Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage. 

(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)

Tortured conclusions

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Mark Danner deserves our gratitude.  In two articles in The New York Review of Books, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites," and "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means," he has tarried where few of us would care even to glimpse.  In careful, thoughtful and measured prose, he has parsed the facts of US government torture - often of innocent people - and the ramifications of these actions.

His conclusion is that:

[t]he only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

. . . .

What is needed is not more disclosures but a broadly persuasive judgment, delivered by people who can look at all the evidence, however highly classified, and can claim bipartisan respect on the order of the Watergate Select Committee or the 9/11 Commission, on whether or not torture made Americans safer.

This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture.

"The Red Cross Torture Report," p. 54.

With all gratitude to Danner for his work and thought on this most difficult of issues, and with due respect for his conclusions, I have to disagree.  Or, rather, I agree that we should have such an investigation, but I believe we can build a consensus - indeed, must build a consensus about torture - irrespective of its practicality.

At the outset, the lessons of history leave no doubt: torture does not produce reliable information.  Humans will say anything to stop themselves from suffering pain.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed no more murdered Daniel Pearl than Roxana Saberi was a spy.

But, nonetheless, let us do the failure analysis.  Let us examine precisely how useless was the information gathered through the US government's torture of terrorists and innocents alike.  Let our harvest be an acute documentation of just how much time the US government wasted, and just how many "false red-alerts" were issued, as a result of the lies extracted under duress from K.S.M. and others.  (See Danner, "US Torture.")

But though the failure analysis has its strategic uses, I believe that its role in building public consensus about torture should be minimal.  Refusing to engage in torture is a moral imperative, regardless of the number of US lives - or the lives of other humans - at stake.  The US needs to make a moral choice - not a pragmatic or strategic choice - not to engage in torture.  Nothing short of moral absolutism on this issue will suffice to restore US integrity (to say nothing of its reputation).  Curiously, this conviction - indeed, moral dimension - is absent from Danner's analysis.

Dick Cheney likes to assert that bravery is demonstrated by adopting "tough, mean, dirty, nasty" tactics against terrorist, tactics that require "the gloves . . . to come off," and by other such vague and vaguely Hollywood-cowboy-movie-dialogue methods.  But Cheney is exactly wrong.  When the American people maintain their integrity under fire - and demand that their government do the same - only then will they will have shown courage.

A condemnation of torture because it's useless - as opposed to because it's morally abhorrent - is an empty gesture.
    

Dissent into madness

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Libertas Schulze-Boysen.jpg
Recently, I've stumbled across books about "good" Germans during WWII.  Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us is about the legacy of a German resistance fighter's silence regarding her war time activities.  Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra (which I haven't read, but which was reviewed recently in The NY Times Book Review) is about a network of people not dissimilar to the protagonist in Those Who Save Us.

I am intrigued and heartened by this interest in the Germans who dissented from Nazism.  The portrayal of WWII as a black-and-white battle of good against evil is one that is both tiresome and troublesome.  It's tiresome because it's not true: among other reasons, Stalin's Russia also fought against Germany, and no one could class Stalin among the forces of good.  It's troublesome because this myth of a "morally clean" war of good against evil has animated the war plans of administrations like W's.

Moreover, the examination of the people who resist (even futilely, perhaps especially those who resist futilely) is revealing of the most interesting aspects of human capacity.  Such people are, by definition, acting within a scope of choice that is severely narrow and punishingly inhumane: as Denis Lehane wrote in a recent review of Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech, "What is the ordinary man to do when his very existence makes him an apparatchik of institutionalized sadism?" 

These people who, existing in regimes that transform daily life into complicity with crimes against humanity, manage to muster the integrity and courage to fight back have so much to teach us.  They have achieved an inspired disconnect from their societies that allows them to act in ways that are, from the perspective of survival, profoundly irrational and yet, from the vantage point of living, are deeply wise. 

The beautiful woman pictured here, Libertas Schulze-Boysen, was beheaded by the Nazis for gathering photographs that documented their atrocities.  Red Orchestra recounts that she died pleading, "Let me keep my young life!"  The poignancy of her words derives from how manifestly she has miscalculated her audience.  I'm no romantic, but I can't help but see a role model in her misguided example.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Integrity under fire category.

Importance of aesthetics is the previous category.

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