In 2004, Marcus Bleasdale visited Chad and parts of Darfur and took a series of compelling black and white photographs. Some of them are reproduced in David Elliot Cohen’s volume of essays and photography, What Matters. One of twenty chapters in the book is devoted to Darfur.
Some pictures tell compelling stories, needing hardly any explanatory text. This is the case for the preceding illustrated essay on genocide, which consists of photographs of human remains from Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Rwanda, and a just one picture of the victims, from Cambodia’s infamous Tuol Sleng prison. Omer Bartov calls these “icons of extermination.” A couple of chapters later there is an arresting photo essay of Americans burying their war dead from Iraq””an untold story that is ideally suited to photojournalism..
What story is told by Bleasdale’s Darfur pictures? Several pictures are of boys and young men with guns and cars, most rebels or Chadian soldiers. Two are identified as “multinational forces” (one of them, bizarrely, as having repelled two Janjaweed attacks on Adre). It’s common for armed men in Darfur to be mistaken for one another, but so far the AU and UN troops haven’t yet been confused with the local combatants. An equal number of pictures show women and donkeys. One picture shows a burned house, another shows refugees sheltering under a tree, and the final one is an aerial view of a refugee camp, its grid-squares abutting rocky hills.
The story is hard to decipher. There’s an obvious contrast between the young men running around deserted villages with their Landcruisers and guns, and the women on foot accompanying their donkeys. The section of the book is entitled, “Man Versus Man,” a revealingly gendered lens. Is this a story of rampant masculinity versus feminine attempts to salvage domestic life? Or, given the ubiquity of an obscured landscape, is it a struggle of people against dust and desert? There is implied action, destruction off-stage. But there are no faces of suffering, no images of starvation or bloodshed. It is an interesting contrast with a shocking picture of starving Somalis on page 160″”reproduced to illustrate an essay on poverty. If there’s a meaning, we must work hard to find it.
The accompanying essay by Samantha Power and John Prendergast dispenses with any such ambiguity. It is a familiar cranking out of those authors’ Manichean script, a sort of writing by numbers (probably a cut and paste job by one of the minions at Enough). The article tells a story of ongoing genocide, death toll inexorably mounting, and the need for the U.S. to use all its leverage to protect and punish. It is a litany of well-worn tropes, including the long-discredited view that it was U.S. pressure that brought about Sudan government reforms in the 1990s. The complicated tragedies of Darfur are reduced to a stale morality tale, the successes and failures of international policies reduced to the chant that America didn’t care enough and the rest of the world still less.
Mediocre, certainly. But more interesting is the way in which Bleasdale’s images are railroaded into telling a story that is actually visualized in the photographs from Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia. The real Darfur doesn’t appear, rather a dusty canvass onto which the authors project their own moral agendas.
All twenty essays in David Cohen’s collection contain an element of polemic and morality tale. The Darfur essay is nothing more than that.
I must declare an interest. Almost a year ago, David Cohen approached me to contribute an essay to the volume, and we agreed on a revised and updated version of my article, “Counterinsurgency on the Cheap” that was published in the London Review of Books in 2004. I originally submitted this piece to the New York Review of Books early in the year but it was rejected with the observation that it was too demanding for the NYRB‘s readership.
I soon sensed that Cohen wanted the revised essay to say to that there was an ongoing genocide with the death toll inexorably mounting while the world did nothing. I steered the piece back to a balance between the horror of what was done in 2003-04 and the aftermath we live with today. What we are witnessing in Darfur is not the attempted extermination of a people, but the destruction of a way of life. There are no simple or quick solutions and my closing line remained the same as four years ago: “Understanding what has been lost is a good place to start.”
Cohen killed the piece and commissioned what appears in its place. I am accustomed to my pieces being rejected by the mainstream papers (I lost count of the number of Opeds rejected in 2004). This instance illustrates how otherwise enlightened and intellectually-curious people don’t want to learn some discomfiting truths about Darfur and the efforts to “save” it. The point is not, as Cohen wrote to me to explain his decision, that my piece is “nuanced” and the Power/Prendergast piece is “Manichean” and hence in tune with the overall tone of the volume. The point is that we should be honest to the facts and to the ambiguous story told by Bleasdale’s pictures.
Are we being taken for a ride in the other essays as well? Is photojournalism no more than a clever means of scripting complicated reality to a preordained conclusion? Each of the other chapters is fired by a moral agenda, and the photos are chosen accordingly. I certainly read the pieces with a more skeptical eye, but my judgment is that the essays by Helen Epstein, Michael Watts and Omer Bartov (among others) are solid. The Power/Prendergast piece is the exception.
So we must conclude that Darfur doesn’t matter enough to America’s newspaper readers that they feel the need to make the effort to understand it. What matters is that Darfur is an icon of horror, its people’s suffering pressed into the service of a moral folk tale that serves Americans’ needs.