Author Archives: Ishaan Tharoor

Into the Ether by Fazal Sheikh

The northern Indian city of Varanasi, perched on the banks of the Ganges river, is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, a site that has drawn pilgrims literally for millennia. Its famed for its burningghatsthe sloped-approaches to the waterfront where for centuries devotees have brought their deceased loved ones for cremation, then floating the ashes into the mighty, holy Ganges. Some Hindus still believe its auspicious to pass away on these steps. In Varanasis morning fogs and along its shrine-lined streets, visitors can feel an ancient, intangible power, a sense of place that is defined more by ritual and time than geography.

Varanasis burning grounds drew critically-acclaimed photographer Fazal Sheikh, whose latest project,Ether, on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20, is the product of his own nocturnal wanderings in the old town. New York-born Sheikhs two earlier India-based projectsMoksha(2005), of a community of widows, andLadli(2007), portraits of young women in orphanages, hospitals, brothelshad a decidedly engaged, political edge.Etheris less so. Other documentary pieces of mine are much clearer in the pointed nature of what I wanted to say, says Sheikh, who first came to prominence with his work from refugee camps in Kenya. This project is a bit more open and broad. Its an exploration of a mood.

Sheikhs vigil would begin at nightfall and end at dawn. Ether itself is that mysterious, unfathomable fifth element of the universethe others being water, air, fire and earthand is a property Sheikh attempts to articulate in his work. He makes elemental gestures throughout: The embers of a fire glow with an almost cosmic intensity. The stars wink and gleam in a night sky. Four dun-colored city strays curl into the trammeled earth.

Sheikh describes working in Varanasi as a sort of nurturing experience. The whole place was calming; there was a kind of quiet. InEther, there is a dreamy, contemplative quality to the pictures, but it rarely feels overly sentimental. Departing from Sheikhs earlier portraiture, many ofEthers images are of bodiesboth those of sleepers and the deadwho dont directly engage the camera. The inability of a photograph to fully penetrate its subject fascinates Sheikh: There are some things that a person holds for themselves, some things that will remain inaccessible. carrera de fotografia . But if there are visions of a world beyond our world, its traces are in the ether.

Fazal Sheikh is a photographer based in Zurich, New York City and Kenya. His latest project Ether, is on displayon exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20.

Land of Stories and Myths: Yaakov Israel Photographs His Homeland

The land upon which the nation of Israel sits is steeped in stories and myths. It’s ancient, holy; all three major faiths that took root here see salvation in its domes, its olive groves, its cracked earth. It’s a land where people still seek the messiah. In one Orthodox Jewish messianic tradition, He will return riding a white donkey. On a blistering summer’s day in 2006, Yaakov Israel peered through the heat waves and saw, emerging in the distance, a man atop a white donkey. “He materialized,” says Israel, a photographer based in Jerusalem, “like a fata morgana,” a mirage.

Israel’s book The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey will be released in the U.S. this fall.

This man on a donkey was no illusion — nor, most would contest, was he the messiah. Instead, his arrival from the desert and into Israel’s lens gave the photographer a guide for a photo project he has worked on for the past decade, crystallized in a new book, The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey. Israel’s pictures are the product of years of wanderings in Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in the spaces in-between, seeking to document a vision of its people and landscapes away from the noise of an intractable political conflict and the rumbling news media that watches it.

In the spirit of U.S. photographers who chronicled their journeys through the American vastness, Israel would wake up early in the morning and head off in a direction, photographing what he saw and whom he encountered along the way. Of course, unlike in the U.S., Israel, traveling in the country that bears his name, would invariably run into one or two political borders by nightfall. And so his gaze dwells on the quiet of certain moments — “the small clues for me that exist in each image,” as he puts it — that tell a story of daily life in a land whose deep history and uncertain future are woven through with gestures that are at once religious, political and inescapably human.

A girl wades into the Sea of Galilee, her arms held wide as if choosing between crucifixion and baptism. Spools of barbed wire are followed in the book by tangles of thorns and a sea of dandelions; men with guns look on, at times curious, at times detached. A backpacker sleeps. The hills glow and soak in sunlight.

Israel emphasizes the everyday nature of his subjects — “these are people I’m just bumping into every time I go out.” Often, they would go out of their way to accommodate Israel, posing patiently, introducing him to family and friends, pointing to new vistas for his camera. In one scene, a pair of Arab workers who had intended to go to work choose instead to hang out with Israel and share their breakfast with him. “These episodes of human courtesy happened again and again,” says Israel. “For me, these small things tell another kind of political story.”

The man on the white donkey, a Palestinian farmer, was no different. In 45 degrees Celsius heat, he agreed without hesitation to participate in Israel’s project, desperately trying to keep his steed still until an image became clear.

Yaakov Israel is a Jerusalem-based photographer. See more of his work here.

The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey will be available in the U.S. this fall. The project recently won the PhotoEspaña Descubrimientos (PHE12 Discoveries) 2012 Award.

Vignettes from a Contested Land: An American Photographer in the West Bank

An Israeli-government appointed committee ruled July 9 that the West Bank was not “occupied” land, something Palestinians who live there and, indeed, much of the international community consider it to be ever since Israeli troops seized control of the territory in 1967. The report reaffirms the longstanding view of the Israeli government, particularly the right-wing-led coalition currently in power, and pushes for a number of measures further supporting the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s news that can only deepen the sense of outrage and dispossession harbored by Palestinians, who have cause to feel exasperated with the current state of affairs: the peace process with Israel has gone moribund; the Palestinian leadership’s feeble attempt to unilaterally bid for statehood at the U.N. was brushed aside last year, all the while as Israeli settlements further entrench themselves on West Bank soil under the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Every May 15, Palestinians commemorate Nakba day, which marks the “catastrophe” that was the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent loss of their homeland. In the weeks leading up to Nakba day this year, hundreds of Palestinians in jail had gone on a mass coordinated hunger strike in protest of Israeli detention laws. Scores took to the streets once again, clashing with Israeli security forces. As ever, images of burning tires and stone throwers were beamed around the world.

But American photographer Adam Golfers images of the West Bank look beyond the hurly burly of one of the worlds intractable conflicts, past what he terms the theater of war and the almost ritualized scenes of violence that seem to shape the outsiders view of the Middle East. Golfer, who is Jewish, has an art background and does not consider himself a photojournalist. He spent three weeks roaming the West Bank last November and five more this February. The resulting photographs are, as he puts it, not a documentary, but rather something far more personal, tied to his own meanderings across a land over which every aspect is disputed.

Golfers photos, he says, are vignettes of an experience. proveedor factura electrnica . They are bathed in a painterly glow, dwelling over terrain that is at once stark and desolate but suffused with centuries of accrued history and memory. In one, three foreign journalists stand atop the stony earth, at the center of the narrative they seek to tell. linkwheel . In another, an Israeli Center for Tolerance and Human Dignitybuilt despite local protests and appealsemerges from what is the site of a 7th century Muslim cemetery. A gnarled tree rises out of the foreground, its leafless branches pointing limply at the new construction.

A photo poised on a kitchen counter shows three men whose ties date back to this land well before 1948. Its a mixture of nostalgia and also a proof of life, says Golfer. I dont want to sound dramatic, but not long ago Newt Gingrich was saying theres no such thing as the Palestinian people. Here we have a portrait of a family, a sense of roots, a sense of place.

That idea of place and of a moment interests Golfer, who hopes to expand his work with field recordings and other media. He says hes not keen on running into the line of fire. Too often, says Golfer, our vision of this region gets represented by a tableau of violence. Instead, he is curious about how the Palestinian way of life has taken shape: families negotiate real and imagined boundaries; a line of gorgeous woven rugs airs out in the early evening half-light. There is a quiet about a lot of the stuff I was looking at, says Golfer. If so, its a silence full of meaning.

After the Spring: Women of the Arab Revolution

A year after they both captured the global imagination, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya are now poised on a knife-edge. The sense of hope that followed the departures of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi — the former nudged out of power by the army top brass; the latter eventually killed by rebel militia after a bloody eight-month civil war — has withered. In Egypt, the shadow of the country’s domineering military looms large despite the victory in presidential elections of a candidate from the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood. (Many liberals, meanwhile, question the Islamists’ commitment to a free and open democracy.) In Libya, the violent overthrow of the four-decade old Gaddafi dictatorship has left behind a fledgling state that is riven by tribal militias, even as the nation held elections last weekend.

Witnessing the upheaval firsthand, photojournalist Sarah Elliott set about documenting those who have had most to gain — and to lose — from the transformations of the Arab Spring: women. The revolutions in both countries, which were aimed at toppling an encrusted, deep-seated authoritarianism, presented women “with opportunities they had never before imagined,” says Elliott. Women massed on the frontlines of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; in Libya, some were on the frontlines as well — with machine guns.

Yet when Elliott arrived in Libya last August, not long before the fall of the capital Tripoli, she entered a story that seemed — at least as it was being conveyed then to the outside world — bereft of women. While myriad images beamed out of North Africa depicted crowds of men chanting in the streets or strutting around abandoned tanks, “women were totally unseen, they were absent,” says Elliott. In Tripoli, she went to hospitals and prisons, civil society meetings and ransacked government buildings, interviewing women from all walks of life and political stripes. Her project includes both a pro-Gaddafi sniper, whom Elliott first encounters on a hospital bed and then at a makeshift prison, as well as a range of women affiliated with the rebellion—including one lady who would smuggle bullets in her handbag and another, a fighter on the front, who named her child after the popular “Doshka” machine gun.

Elliott’s photographs blend portraiture and reportage; the testimony of those she documents is important. “I wasn’t just snapping pics,” says Elliott. “I sat down with them for hours and kept in contact. I want to fully tell their story.” She hopes to expand the project from Libya and Egypt to cover the whole breadth of the Arab Spring — most immediately Tunisia, where last year’s seismic upheavals first began and where a fragile consensus exists between the Islamist and secularist forces that came to power in the revolution’s wake.

(Related: Egypt’s Muslim Sisterhood: What roles do Islamist women play?)

For women, much is at stake. The promise of sweeping political change has run up against the realities of conservative, deeply patriarchal societies. In both post-revolution Egypt and Libya, Islamist pressure led to the axing of minimum quotas for women in the countries’ new elected legislatures. Fears grow over a roll-back of the moderate gains made by women’s rights in the era of the dictatorships, which, while repressive, tended to be secular. In Egypt, incidences of sexual harassment and intimidation — which had a brief reprieve during the giddy days of unity at Tahrir Square — have worsened; many feel increasingly marginalized by the post-revolution status quo. “For women, there’s a sense that their revolution never really ended,” says Elliott. She hopes to follow them as their struggle continues.

Sarah Elliott is a Nairobi-based photographer. See more of her work here.

Stefano de Luigi Photographs the Cinema of Iran

With Iranian cinema in the news after A Separation took home the prize for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars—and after last week’s announcement that, in Iran, the planned celebration of that win had been cancelled by government authorities—LightBox takes an opportunity to revisit a 2007 project by Stefano de Luigi, in which he went behind the scenes to document the country’s filmmakers. These works, taken from the larger project Cinema Mundi, have until now never been published in North America.

At this year Oscars, there was no more poignant speech delivered than the one by Asghar Farhadi, Iranian director of the film A Separation, which won the prize for Best Foreign Language Film. “At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy,” said Farhadi, the writer and director of the film. “They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture. A rich and ancient culture that has been under the heavy dust of politics.”

Stefano de Luigi—VII

Posters from national movie scenes are displayed Tehran’s Cinema Museum.

Amid the bluster of Washington neo-conservatives, hawks in Tel Aviv and messianic diehards in Tehran, Farhadi stood out, a voice of reason, a voice of art. His film is hardly propaganda: it deals with the travails of a middle class family in Tehran, which is torn apart by the desire of one member to escape what seems to be the shackling, limiting conditions of life in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, if anything belies the demagogic sheen of Iran’s image in the West, it is the irrepressible sophistication and class of Iranian cinema. Veteran filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarastomi grace Cannes and are adored by cognoscenti the world over. In an era of 3D blockbusters and faddish directors, Iran’s cinema luminaries remain auteurs in an almost classical sense, the descendants of various New Waves that palpably reach back into the smoke-filled cafes of 1960s Rome and Paris.

The photographer Stefano de Luigi’s long-term project Cinema Mundi, which addresses changes to global cinema over the past decade, has taken him to filmmaking stories from around the world. His photographs from Iran are featured in the gallery above. The magic of Iranian cinema can transform stories of a missing goldfish or a wayward ostrich into profound allegories of faith, society and politics. Invariably, though, censors get in the way. Most recently, director Jafar Panahi was thrown into jail for his alleged collusion in the peaceful 2009 pro-democracy protests that rocked the powers that be in Tehran; his last film, Offside, related the struggles of a group of girls desperate to attend an Iranian national team soccer match—a spectacle from which they are barred under law. That awareness of a story suppressed, a “rich and ancient culture” under firm watch, suffuses much of Iranian film. It is up to the courage of its actors and artists to make sure the “dust of politics” that settles can be easily brushed off.

Stefano de Luigi is a Milan-based photographer represented by VII Photo Agency. See more of his work here.

Faded Tulips: Kyrgyzstan’s Counterfeit Revolution

Among the ‘stans of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is something of an outlier. Remote and mountainous, the tiny republic is home to the region’s only parliamentary democracy and a vibrant civil society. Not once, but twice, its people have taken to the streets to force out their rulers—a considerable exception in a part of the world dominated by iron-fisted, post-Soviet apparatchiks.

Yet Kyrgyzstan is also a microcosm of Central Asia as a whole. A significant proportion of its impoverished population ekes out a living as migrant labor abroad. The rusted traces of a Soviet past line its cities and towns, while Moscow’s long history of gerrymandering borders and resettling whole communities gives it a complex, volatile ethnic make-up. Tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country flared in 2010 and riots led to as many as 2,000 deaths. Its legacy still smolders.

Over the span of some four years, French photographer William Daniels chronicled Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous progress. His work, entitled Faded Tulips, documents the false dawn of democracy: in 2005, the country’s quasi-authoritarian regime was toppled in an uprising hailed the “Tulip revolution.” But the man drafted in to oversee democracy’s blooming across the Central Asian steppe—President Kurmanbek Bakiyev—proved to be cut from the same cloth as petty despots elsewhere in the region.

Allegations of corruption mounted as well as reports of voter fraud and intimidation of dissidents and the media. In 2007, Daniels arrived in a Kyrgyzstan where the illusion of democratic change was beginning to slip. He was on hand in 2010 when protests broke out against the Bakiyev regime, eventually forcing the putative strongman to flee into exile in Russia. Months later, as an interim government tried to right Kyrgyzstan’s listing ship, ethnic riots between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the country’s south led to hundreds of deaths and a geo-political crisis. Neighboring countries closed their borders, while up to 400,000 people—mostly Uzbeks—fled their homes. Daniels’ pictures of charred, gutted neighborhoods in the southern city of Osh—an ancient Silk Road town that’s long been a rich crossroads of peoples and faiths—bear stark testament to how lifelong neighbors can wake up one day as enemies. “I particularly tried to understand how this small country could descend so quickly into extreme violence,” Daniels says.

But while much has yet to be reconciled following that spasm of violence, there are real glimmers of hope in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s seemingly successful transition into a multi-party parliamentary system has weaned it off the grip of a domineering executive—the main impediment for real political change elsewhere in Central Asia. But the country’s economy is still in desperate shape, and new President Almazbek Atambayev, who has so far engendered cautious optimism among most analysts, has to steer Kyrgyzstan through a maze of competing American, Russian and Chinese interests. “We will see how and where Atambayev will lead the country,” says Daniels. His photos, though, show a Kyrgyzstan as haunted by the past as it is uncertain for its future.

William Daniels is a photographer based in Paris. See more of his work here. He is currently engaged in a crowdfunding effort to publish Faded Tulips as a book; the drive is still ongoing, but the funding goal was reached while Daniels was reporting for TIME in Syria. Read about his harrowing escape from that situation here on LightBox.

Faded Tulips: Kyrgyzstan’s Counterfeit Revolution

Among the ‘stans of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is something of an outlier. Remote and mountainous, the tiny republic is home to the region’s only parliamentary democracy and a vibrant civil society. Not once, but twice, its people have taken to the streets to force out their rulers—a considerable exception in a part of the world dominated by iron-fisted, post-Soviet apparatchiks.

Yet Kyrgyzstan is also a microcosm of Central Asia as a whole. A significant proportion of its impoverished population ekes out a living as migrant labor abroad. The rusted traces of a Soviet past line its cities and towns, while Moscow’s long history of gerrymandering borders and resettling whole communities gives it a complex, volatile ethnic make-up. Tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country flared in 2010 and riots led to as many as 2,000 deaths. Its legacy still smolders.

Over the span of some four years, French photographer William Daniels chronicled Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous progress. His work, entitled Faded Tulips, documents the false dawn of democracy: in 2005, the country’s quasi-authoritarian regime was toppled in an uprising hailed the “Tulip revolution.” But the man drafted in to oversee democracy’s blooming across the Central Asian steppe—President Kurmanbek Bakiyev—proved to be cut from the same cloth as petty despots elsewhere in the region.

Allegations of corruption mounted as well as reports of voter fraud and intimidation of dissidents and the media. In 2007, Daniels arrived in a Kyrgyzstan where the illusion of democratic change was beginning to slip. He was on hand in 2010 when protests broke out against the Bakiyev regime, eventually forcing the putative strongman to flee into exile in Russia. Months later, as an interim government tried to right Kyrgyzstan’s listing ship, ethnic riots between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the country’s south led to hundreds of deaths and a geo-political crisis. Neighboring countries closed their borders, while up to 400,000 people—mostly Uzbeks—fled their homes. Daniels’ pictures of charred, gutted neighborhoods in the southern city of Osh—an ancient Silk Road town that’s long been a rich crossroads of peoples and faiths—bear stark testament to how lifelong neighbors can wake up one day as enemies. “I particularly tried to understand how this small country could descend so quickly into extreme violence,” Daniels says.

But while much has yet to be reconciled following that spasm of violence, there are real glimmers of hope in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s seemingly successful transition into a multi-party parliamentary system has weaned it off the grip of a domineering executive—the main impediment for real political change elsewhere in Central Asia. But the country’s economy is still in desperate shape, and new President Almazbek Atambayev, who has so far engendered cautious optimism among most analysts, has to steer Kyrgyzstan through a maze of competing American, Russian and Chinese interests. “We will see how and where Atambayev will lead the country,” says Daniels. His photos, though, show a Kyrgyzstan as haunted by the past as it is uncertain for its future.

William Daniels is a photographer based in Paris. See more of his work here. He is currently engaged in a crowdfunding effort to publish Faded Tulips as a book; the drive is still ongoing, but the funding goal was reached while Daniels was reporting for TIME in Syria. Read about his harrowing escape from that situation here on LightBox.

A Gun to Your Head: Inside Post-Soviet Interrogation Rooms

In academic and literary criticism, the verb “to interrogate” is often a neutral term, stripped of its more violent, forceful resonance. But in Donald Weber’s new book, Interrogations, itself an “interrogation” of the way state power plays out across stretches of Eastern Europe, the Canadian photographer seeks to show the brutality and helplessness that undergirds almost all societies.

The images above are scenes from interrogation rooms, the product of seven years of exploring Russia and the Ukraine and befriending and winning the trust of ordinary police officers. They are stark and bleak. Detained suspects sit slumped in empty rooms, their faces stretched in terror, shame and resignation. A teenager under suspicion of shoplifting bursts into tears; when his interrogation goes wrong, a supposed car thief finds himself pinioned to the table, his hands limply warding against a gun pointed down on his skull.

Weber says the scenes are not out of the ordinary. The interrogations are conducted by officers who are “respected in their departments,” he says. “They rose through the ranks and did the job required. What I think is so powerful is that this is not a rogue set of cops. This is standard practice, it is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.”

On one level, that’s an indictment of the ethical vagaries of policing in post-Soviet countries. But on another, Weber is illustrating—dramatically, to be sure—how state power essentially functions the world over. French philosopher Louis Althusser famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state in a street scene where one is confronted by a police officer. The officer, writes Althusser, shouts: “‘Hey, you there!’… Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.”

That subjection—that subjugation—is all too apparent in the suspects Weber photographs. Even in full-fledged, mature democracies, one still feels a kind of nakedness when in the crosshairs of the law, a vulnerability that can only be mitigated after the fact by norms of due process and habeas corpus. Says Weber: “This is work not about Ukraine or Russia or even the former Soviet Union, but instead a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite.”

That’s a particularly dark interpretation of how power gets wielded and realized, but it’s echoed in public opinion polls throughout the post-Soviet world. Twenty years since the fall of Communism, a significant majority of people in Ukraine and Russia have lost faith in both the promise of free-market capitalism as well as multiparty democracy. This disillusionment with politics has much to do with disgust at what some say are kleptocratic, domineering elites in both countries. But it also indicates a deeper gloominess: the sense perhaps that, whatever the dominant ideology of the day, there’s always the prospect of the interrogation room, and the grim, subterranean power that it holds over of us.

Interrogations was published this month by Schilt Publishing. Weber’s series recently won first place at the World Press Photo awards in the Portraits—Stories category.

Ishaan Tharoor writes for TIME and is editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at ishaantharoor