Oct 20, 2010
Apr 30, 2014
Sep 10, 2010
Jan 31, 2014
Jun 08, 2008
Aug 01, 2007

All’s Well That Ends Well?

Screen shot 2013-07-07 at 8.50.08 PM

If we take the photojournalistic slideshows at the major newspapers as evidence, the news for the past two weeks has been dominated by protests, both large and small around the world—though oddly enough hardly any that apparently warranted documenting in the United States—and a wide array of American patriotic displays, ranging from ersatz celebrations of red, white and blue to reenactors playing out the battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.  The photograph buried amidst all these images that caught my eye, however, had nothing to do with any of that and instead showed four children “playing” on a burned out armored vehicle in Kabul.

The vehicle is unmarked, and so it is hard to know who originally brought it to this spot. It could be American or British or even, however unlikely, a left over from the occupation of the former Soviet Union.  But none of that seems to matter as the particular history of this weapon of war has been erased.  What does seem to matter is that it has become a part of the “natural” landscape and that these children, young, innocent, and altogether happy, seem as comfortable climbing on it as we might imagine an American child climbing in an oak tree in his own back yard on a bright summer day.  There may have once been a war in Afghanistan that put these children at risk, but as this photograph suggests, there is now something like a return to normalcy.  Once there was a war, but now all is well.

Of course, notwithstanding the claim the U.S. has accomplished its combat goals in Afghanistan and turned military control back over to Afghani security forces, we know that the hostilities are not over, nor is it likely that we will see the significant downturn of U.S. or NATO military forces—whether we choose to call them combat troops, security forces, or military advisers—in Afghanistan for sometime to come.  In short, all is not well.  That said, what makes the photograph disturbing has less to do with the implication of a return to happier times, and more to do with the way in which it functions to make the past invisible by removing specific markers of the occupying forces and by naturalizing what has been left behind. And this all the more so as it appears in the midst of images of continuing conflict and social protest and American celebrations of its own exceptionalist past.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters



Hiding the Cost of War

The photograph above is of Tammy Duckworth, a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’ Eighth District, speaking at the Democratic National Convention this past week. She is also a war hero, having been among the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq, losing both of her legs when a grenade landed in her lap while piloting a Blackhawk helicopter north of Baghdad.  Her opponent for Congress, the incumbent Republican Joe Walsh has accused her of not being a “true hero” because she makes a point of discussing her military service in her campaign.  To quote former President Clinton in a different context, “that takes some brass,” especially coming from someone who has never served a day in the military in his life.  But the photograph above is not about Congressman Walsh’s Neanderthal attitudes nor even about Tammy Duckworth’s heroic service and sacrifice to her nation—or at least not explicitly so.

Shot from behind the podium and at a high angle that crops her body at the waist and accents her prosthetic legs, the photograph emphasizes what the viewing audience could not see—at least not while she was speaking. Viewed from the front we see a face, the marker of the liberal individual, a person.  And any person who can make their way onto the national stage to address a live audience of thousands and a mass mediated audience of millions can’t be doing all that bad.

Viewed from the back, however, the photograph invites a different story.  It reminds us of the terrible price that this individual paid—and now note that she is anonymous, faceless, another casualty of war but not one that we have to address directly.  In short, the photograph is an aide memoire to what we desperately don’t want to see, to what we want actively to forget: that we sent her into battle and the price she paid is really our debt, but it is a debt we have no way of paying.

In a sense, the photograph is a comment on the hundreds of images we see of the more than 1,200 veterans who have lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and yet, through the wonders of modern medical technology (ironically made possible because of advances in “war medicine”), survived to live what appear to be so-called “normal” lives.  And indeed, it is the emphasis on appearance that is very much to the point, for in the end we rarely learn very much about the ordinary lives that such people live and pain, trauma, and hardships that they face.

Consider, for example, this photograph that appeared recently in a slide show dedicated to the recovery of war veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center.

What you are looking at here are not real arms and legs, but rather “life-like covers” designed to slip over prosthetic limbs so as to masquerade a disability and to hide it from public view.  Note in particular the customized tattoos on the arm that make it appear to be individual and personal. There is every reason to believe that an amputee would want to be “seen” as normal, to hide his or her stigma, and thus to mask their prosthesis with a “life-like cover.”  Or rather there is every reason to believe that this is how someone who does not share such a disability—a so called “normal” person—might imagine how an amputee would want to cover-up his or her “shame.”  But really, the shame is ours and such “life-like covers” function, at least on par, as a veil that makes it easier for us to forget or to ignore our complicity with the sacrifice such men and women have made and the real debts that have to be paid.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP; John Moore/Getty Images

 1 Comment

The Everydayness of War

I was having a conversation with a former student recently who was exasperated by the fact that the war in Afghanistan, approaching its twelfth anniversary, is the longest American history and yet it is rarely on the front pages of our newspapers and but for the occasional report of U.S. troops being killed—usually in small numbers—there is hardly any public debate or discussion about it.  And the question, of course, is why?  Why is it that a war that is costing us roughly $100 billion a year, and has taken nearly 2,000 American lives, while wounding another 15,000 seems to have no traction in the public consciousness?

I thought of this question when I came across this photograph circulating in a number of different slideshows this past week. The scene is from Syria, not Afghanistan, but what makes the image distinctive is the way in which it frames the act of war in an ordinary and everyday environment.  The soldier here is a sniper, but he doesn’t wear a uniform, dressed instead in a camouflage vest that covers what appears to be athletic running gear. He is not on a conventional battlefield, but rather in what appears to be someone’s living room.  And he has converted the equipment of everyday life into weapons of death as he perches himself on a couch and uses seat cushions and pillows to balance and aim his high powered rifle.  Curtains seem to provide him with a modicum of cover.  And more, he exudes an uncanny nonchalance, simultaneously focused on the task before him and yet altogether relaxed.  Notice for example how he holds his cigarette while adjusting his scope, implicitly dividing his attention between the two.  War for him has become routine, neither here nor there, a condition of everyday life that can’t be ignored and so becomes commonplace, part and parcel of living in a constant zone of conflict.

There is no parallel to this image or the experience it represents in the United States.  The wars we have been fighting in the Middle East over the past eleven years are wars fought at a distance.  We are typically reminded about them only when someone we know is directly affected by them—killed or maimed—but even then for most of us the effect tends to be temporary as we mourn our loss and then quickly return to going about our lives without any serious concerns for our immediate personal safety. In short, these wars have not become part of our everyday being.  And as such, they become too easy to forget, or worse, to ignore.

Photo Credit:  Goran Tomasevich/Reuters


The Night Watch

There is something altogether haunting about this photograph.  Shot in the evening, it is illuminated by the starlight (and perhaps a bright moon) but animated by the green glow of night vision.  Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” was famous for its use of light and dark to suggest movement where we might otherwise imagine a static frame, but here we get natural and artificial light as it combines to suggest a lone and anonymous presence stuck in an altogether static frame in a scene where we might otherwise anticipate agency and movement.

To get the point contrast the image with the photograph of the Raising of Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi during World War II. There too the soldiers are anonymous, but their anonymity is masked by their collectivity; we may not know who they are individually, but they are working as a team to a common and coordinated purpose. And, of course, it is a clearly national purpose, as symbolized by their connection to and effort on behalf of the flag.  Here the soldier is an army of one and there are no markers of nationhood. Indeed, the only identifiable symbol in the photograph appears to be the top of a soda bottle (possibly a Coca Cola bottle, marked by the characteristic red cap, but there is no way of knowing for sure) which emerges from the bottom of the frame.  But surely this soldier does not serve and sacrifice in the name of sugared water.  Or at least one would hope that we are not fighting and dying in the name of commercial interests.  The bigger point, however, is that there does not seem to be any movement at all as the soldier is hunched over, motionless, immobilized as he appears to be gazing  trance-like into the past.  Once again, contrast this with the photograph from Iwo Jima, where the image not only captures the raising of the flag at the height of its extension  upwards, but also where the direction of such movement faces to the right of the frame, the more conventionally forward looking, future oriented direction.

According to the caption, this is a U.S. soldier sitting at an observation post in Afghanistan’s northeastern, Kunar Province.  We are not told what he is looking at, but Kunar is a largely mountainous area besot with muddy rivers and rock filled, craggy pathways that combine to make passage treacherous if not impossible and so it is not hard to imagine the landscape he is observing.  But what exactly he is looking for … that is hard to say.  The war in Afghanistan is, of course, the longest war in America’s history, and Kunar has been the site of some of the fiercest battles between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and various mujahideen, but even for all that it is not clear what has been gained or lost (except for human lives, American and Afghani alike; the displacement of millions of individuals; and a price tag conservatively estimated at 600 Billion dollars) by such engagements.  And yet, the photograph suggests, for all that we sit and watch.  Static.  Unmoving.  Transfixed, it seems, by an advanced technology that allows us to see into the dark even if it is unclear what we are looking for—or what exactly we should do if we find “it.”

What makes the photograph haunting is perhaps how it functions as an eerie cipher for American involvement in Afghanistan writ large: individual, not collective; transfixed by a backward looking tunnel vision; and altogether immobile.  In its own way, it perhaps encapsulates the current war in a manner similar to how Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi symbolized an earlier war–only in reverse.

Photo Credit: Tim Wimbome/Reuters


The Good War in Reverse

The point of comparison is apparent.  The visual quotation is to what is arguably one of, if not the, most famous, recognizable, and reproduced photographs in all the world.  And more, it is the photograph most often pointed to as the icon of “the good war,” a total war fought against unregenerate, totalitarian evil in the name of freedom and democracy.  And what made that photograph taken in February, 1945 so incredibly powerful was the way in which it transcribed and coordinated commitments to egalitarianism, an embodied sense of nationalism, and a civic republican ethos within a single image. What makes the photograph above so distinct—and in its own way quite important—is how, despite its obvious gesture to the original, it resists or erases everyone of the original three transcriptions.

The Iwo Jima photograph depicts the war effort as essentially egalitarian.  We see six men, all wearing identical uniforms, with no indication of rank, engaged in common labor for a common goal. They are a working class equal to the task because they are working equal alongside one another, no one straining more than another, no one more at risk than another. The sacrifice is thus collective, the individual subordinated to the common good. In its way, the egalitarianism of the photograph modeled the egalitarianism of the overall war effort, not just on the battle front, but on the home front as well, where rationing, Victory gardens, and the purchase of war bonds were the order of the day.  But in the photograph above, shot at Camp David in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, there is no egalitarianism because there are no equals.  Instead of a collective effort to raise the flag we have a single individual struggling against the wind to put the standard in place. The effort and the sacrifice are solitary. He alone does the job.  And if the photograph gestures to the original icon of the “good war,” where the sacrifice was egalitarian, it also points here by implication to a war fought by individuals rather than by the nation as a whole. Perhaps that is why he seems to struggle so hard and why it is not altogether clear that he will overcome the force that opposes him.

References to the nation here are not incidental, for in the iconic image the commitment to egalitarianism was inflected by a pronounced appeal to nationalism.  It is notable that captions for the original photograph emphasized “Old Glory” or “the flag,” underscoring the symbolic significance of the standard being raised.  As one of the original flag raisers commented years later, “You think of that pipe.  If it was being put in the ground for any other reason … Just because there was a flag on it, that made the difference.” The caption for the above photograph, however, virtually ignores the national significance of the flag itself, as it notes that “U.S. Army  SPC Jeremy Stocks … restores a flagpole back in place after the flagpole fell in a night sandstorm (emphasis added).” The flag is there, to be sure, but it is reduced in significance to the pole itself; the banner could symbolize anything as far as the caption is concerned—a regiment for example—and it would not seem to matter to the task at hand.  But there is more, for you will no doubt recall that in the original photograph the flag raisers were turned away from the camera, leaving “Old Glory” as the face of the image.  Indeed, it was not insignificant in this regard that the flag raisers were initially anonymous and thus capable of standing in for an anonymous national public.  But here the flag raiser’s face is fully recognizable and he even has a name.  The opportunity for collective or national identification is thus doubly removed.

Appeals to nationalism typically operate in an heroic register, and in the U.S. this often manifests itself in a civic republican style that emphasizes (among other things) monumental sacrifices by ordinary people.  The Iwo Jima photograph manifests this larger than life heroism with its monumental outline and sculptural qualities, the massed figures cast as if cut from stone, powerful yet immobile.  No doubt these features and their corresponding sense of “timelessness” made for such strong extension into posters, war bond drives, and, of course, a memorial statue. And one can see how this was achieved visually. In typical reproductions of the original photograph the scene is cropped vertically, as if a portrait, and shot slightly from below; the effect is to magnify the flag raisers against the scene which they dominate.  Contrast this with the more recent photograph, cropped horizontally, as if in a landscape, and shot on a more or less level plane; the corresponding effect is to minimize the flag raiser who is now  dwarfed by a scene dominated by the sky and the flag pole.

The scene, of course, sets the stage for action, and here, once again, the caption is telling, as it describes the lone flag raiser as fighting against the wind.  It is not insignificant in this regard that in the Iwo Jima photograph the wind is to the back of the flag raisers, thus  evoking the sense in which nature—and perhaps, by extension, providence—is on their side.  Here nature is the enemy, and again, perhaps, with all that that entails.  But more to the point, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly heroic about replacing a flag pole knocked down by a sandstorm.  If anything, the effort here seems more futile than monumental.  Indeed, it is hard to shake the thought that this flag pole isn’t destined to be knocked down by many more sandstorms in the future.   It is certainly hard to imagine anyone ever using this photograph as the template for a statue to memorialize the war.

It would be easy to conclude that the image above is the cynic’s answer to the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history by a factor of two and going strong.  And we should not be too quick to exclude that possibility or its implications.  But at the same time we should be careful to take account of how our representations and remembrances of the “good war”—a war that ended in atrocity with the dropping of two nuclear bombs—goads the ways in which we think about our place in the world and thus inclines us to impose our own, idealized egalitarianism, nationalism, and civic virtue on other peoples.

 Photo Credit:  Denis Sinyako/Reuters

 1 Comment

The Classic Game of World Domination

You would not know it from this photograph—or for that matter from anything you’ve read in the mainstream press in the past week—but August was the deadliest month in the now longest war in U.S. history, with 66 American deaths, bringing the grand total of such fatalities to 1,760.  This number does not include an additional 1,000 fatalities among coalition forces or literally countless Afghanis, or for that matter the thousands of non-fatal casualties.  But that aside, the photograph does tell a story.

These Marines are at a patrol base located in the dangerous Gereshk Valley of the Helmand Province where more than half of all U.S. fatalities have occurred.  We know that war, when its not about death and destruction, is a combination of periods of adrenalin reinforced, horror tinged highs, and incredible boredom.  But none of that is present in this photograph. Instead we have four young men who could just as easily be hanging out in someone’s basement waiting for the big game on Friday night. Or perhaps, more appropriately in context and in its own way, it could be a scene from a John Ford western, where the cavalry sits around a crackling fire after a day of chasing renegade Indians and someone plays a guitar while singing a wistful, romantic ballad.  Either way, the point is that there is no real evidence of the prolonged war that they are very much a part of or the dangerous war zone in which they sit.  And more, there is an altogether relaxed atmosphere as if everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about.  All is good – except, of course, for the fact that August was the deadliest month in the war.

But there is something else. The board game they are playing is Risk – “the classic game of world domination” which relies as much on the flip of a card and the roll of the die as it does on strength of force or strategy.  It could almost be an allegory for the war itself.  One has to wonder if they get the irony.  Or if we do.

Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley/AP


Dirty Work and Combat’s Cyclical Seasons

By guest correspondent Jeremy Gordon

Seeing dirt in combat zones is nothing new.  In accounts of combat and its aftermath, terrain becomes a living entity, both working in terms of physical contact and mystical dimensions.  The grounds are alive, swallowing bodies in rice fields, suffocating men in trenches, and blinding convoys in deserts.  But they also offer places to cling to at the screams of a falling mortar round.  It is a sordid relationship, cyclical in nature, turning to dirt for safety and death, sorrow and elation of near misses.  There is a constant movement to and from the earth, going to it for safety and attempting to control its unruliness with concoctions and machinery, trying to keep tabs on it so it does note betray you.

Drawing lines in the sand with barbed wire is one such consistent method, as seen above.  The earth shakers on the highway in the background rumble by on pavement paying little heed to the mounds and bushes to the side.  Their pace is consistent as the space between the personnel carrier and the two other vehicles is fairly even, a measured and rational approach to traversing landscape.  They blur into the horizon with a linear direction and time.  The soldier nearest us wears no gloves, perhaps a sign of confidence and experience in the dirty work of war.  Not rushing, he bends over at the right distance so as not to be cut.  The gun is slacked on his back.  The pace and direction of the action is somewhat contradictory to the convoy, as there is a sense of care in the arrangement of the wire, a ritual that serves to form barriers between bodies and space, safety, and danger.  The wire then works as a frame, a barbed optic and cordoned view through which combat is expressed.

We might surmise that the optic changes post-deployment when treatments are scheduled and predictable, away from the dirt of the body, cleansed of pollution, pieces of trash stuck by barbs.  The move is away from the dirty work of war.  Maybe.

This image is part of a NYT slide show that accompanied a story about a veteran transition program training combat vets in organic farming.  Literally framed in terms of “dirty work,” the article cites a “veteran-centric” farming movement.  The “centric” thematic should not be ignored here, as now irrigation hoses, circular, yet tangled, frame our view of both men.  Soldiers still work to roll out and arrange, the optic is similar, but the relationship to dirt is much different.  The men maintain relaxed yet focused poses. The barbs are gone, but not the suspicion.  One looks directly back through the circle, the other ponders, arms folded, looking off to the distance with an air doubt.

The rural setting, tree-lined fields and fertile soil, its pace, and farming’s inherent concerns with seasons of circularity rather than linear narratives of completeness provide an optic through which we might reconsider hyper-rational cleansing narratives of post-combat trauma.  Here there is a circular patterns in which sorrow of death and joy of life are connected, where physical contact with dirt can be joined with mystical elements, linking bodily and soulful healing.

Such a cyclical approach to wholeness is not an escape from dirt but a shift in relation, from a season of wilting to a season of cultivation and rejuvenation.  Seeing the combat narrative this way then is not a story of Homer’s Odysseus and the treacherous journey from Troy to an end of the Odyssey, but an echo of the Hymn to Demeter.  Demeter was one of the earth gods in whose name a civic festival celebrating the cyclical nature of joy, sorrow, earth, agriculture, cultivation, and rejuvenation sought to change relationships to life and death, body and soul.  The earth, like Demeter, knows mourning and elation, and as such, rituals that joined these were deeply rooted in the rural, agrarian Mysteries of Eleusis, secret rites in which initiates’ were changed through experience of “kinship between soul and bodies.”  Rather than looking up, yearning to flee pollution and clean dirt from hands, changing our gaze only slightly reveals another optical style where unwinding wire brings us full circle, turning approaches to trauma to chances for labors of focused, relaxed, contingent, patient, and seasonal soiled work of rejuvenation.

Similus similibus curantur, loosely “relief by means of similars,” by means of unwinding coils of separation.

Photo Credits: Lushpix/StockPhotoPro; Sandy Huffaker/NYT

Jeremy Gordon is a graduate student in the program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. He can be contacted at jeregord@indiana.edu.



“… and a Haughty Spirit before a Fall”

Let me begin by making it clear that I did not lose a wink of sleep on Sunday evening after learning of the death of Osama bin Laden.  On the other hand, I have been deeply troubled by the numerous slide shows (e.g., here, here, and here) that have emphasized the celebration of the assassination of America’s number one “public enemy” as a matter of national pride on par with winning an Olympic sporting event (replete in television reports with video representations of ritualistic chants of “USA, USA”).  The Agon has done a pretty good job of calling out the problematic relationship between nationalism and sport as it relates to this particular event—not least the absurdity of most of those doing the celebrating as if they were the Navy Seals who actually did the job, rather like fans who claim membership in “Yankee Nation” or “Red Sox Nation” and then take the credit for their team’s good fortunes as if they actually played the game themselves.  And others have made the point that there is something problematic in celebrating the death of any individual, for as the poet put it, “every man’s death diminishes me.”  Both points are well taken, and yet there is still a different point to be made.

The photograph above moderates the announcement of victory so boldy asserted in most of the celebratory photographs by casting it in the present continuous tense: the USA is “winning.”  The ambiguity here is pronounced, for while it could be taken to mean that victory is all but inevitable, notice too that it also implies that the contest is not yet over.  That should give us pause, for as the philosopher Yogi Berra put, “it ain’t over till its over.”  But even that begs the much bigger question:  what has been won or what do we stand to win?

For some, no doubt, Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice.  And that is no small thing.  But what exactly does it mean to count that as a marker of “winning”?  In the nearly ten years since 9/11 we have sacrificed numerous civil liberties, both for ourselves and for others.  Citizens can no longer board an airplane without the risk of being “patted down” by TSA officials as if they were common criminals, and that is perhaps the least of the inconveniences we now experience as a matter of course when we travel.  Our leaders have endorsed the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a way of skirting the Geneva Conventions, and with it we have sacrificed a part of our humanity.  We have initiated two wars of occupation that have not only cost us the lives of nearly six thousand American troops, but countless others as well.  The financial cost (1.2 trillion dollars and counting) of these wars is primarily (if not singularly) responsible for the debt burden that our government now carries and will be passed on to future generations.  And there is no real end in sight, the death of Osama bin Laden to the contrary notwithstanding.  One can make an argument to justify each and everyone of these responses to attacks made against our nation, but in the end it is hard to imagine the result as anything but a Pyrrhic victory, let alone as a moment for haughty celebration.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead.  Justice has been served.  But one really has to wonder who the real winner is.

Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.



Seeing Gender in Transition

By guest correspondent Emily Dianne Cram

Afghan Passing.2.2010-09-29 at 8.18.41 PM

Two children in Afghanistan play in an alleyway between two houses.  The child on the left awkwardly turns forward while looking back towards the viewer.  The child, whose name is Mehran appears to be running toward a place in the distance where bodies blur almost indistinguishably from one another.  Or maybe Mehran is running away from the spectator watching the scene unfold.  Whether moving towards or away from particular coordinates, the important point to note is that the viewer of the photograph sees Mehran suspended in what appears to be a moment of stasis, yet simultaneously always moving.

Mehran’s story is one of several featured in a recent New York Times essay and slide show that chronicles a practice known as “bacha posh,” in which female-bodied youth pass as boys to secure their families’ status within their communities.  The title of the essay—“Afghan Boys are Prized, So Girls Live the Part”—cues the spectator habits the “gender abroad” genre typically evokes: condemnation of a misogynistic practice.  Yet, such a judgment seems problematic if we take another look from a perspective that troubles how we think about gender.

What is remarkable about the slide show is the banality of bacha posh in a cultural context Westerners typically see as marked by strict gender segregation.  In the image, below, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, leans down to address Mehran, who dresses as a boy.

Afhan Passing 3.2010-09-29 at 8.39.54 PM

The entire scene invokes the narrative of a mother attempting to quiet and contain an unruly child in public. Rafaat’s hand curls firmly around Mehran’s shoulder as she demands the child’s attention with what appears to be a stern look. Rafaat reacts with an expression that is in equal parts puzzlement and discontent.  What is especially distinctive about the photograph is how Mehran’s white clothes blend into the bodies of the men in the background, while Rafaat, shrouded in black, awkwardly ushers the child through the scene.  And what we get is something of an allegory for the often confusing norms of public and private behavior that implicate the equally confusing norms of gender and sexual identity as they manifest in their local contexts. And in the end, Mehran’s particular identity hangs in the balance.

These photographs illustrate how gender in particular is a way of moving one’s way through the world to produce forms of social relationality.  Yet, this view is contingent on seeing gender as a permeable category that people use as a means of building their communities.  Accordingly, gender is an embodied act, something that is done to produce a relation to others in the world.  This perspective enables us to see gender in transition, and how cultural practices often exceed the strict binaries of male/female and woman/man.  Perhaps if we take our everyday embodied violations of categories more seriously, we can see the work gender does in a different light, rather than rush to judgments about others.

And yet, the act of seeing gender in transition is imbued with its own paradoxes.  In the photograph below Zahra, a girl who has passed as a boy since childhood, gazes pensively through sheer curtains towards a bright, sunlit day.

Afghan Passing .1.2010-09-29 at 8.18.16 PM

The juxtaposition between the shadows behind Zahra’s back and the white light greeting “hir”* face and torso suggests that the secret past is coming to an end.  Part of bacha posh is a transition into womanhood and the rites of marriage and motherhood.  For Zahra and others, such a transition is difficult and at times undesirable because of the way their bodies sediment a particular way of being with others.  Another look shows Zahra gazing towards an inevitable future with a sense of heavy dread, and we learn not only of hir desire to live as a boy, but that s/he has never “felt like a girl.”

Zahra’s story shows the contingency of gender, and the heartbreak that emerges when one’s own desires for a particular embodiment conflict with community norms and practices.  This tension is endemic to the human condition, one that we all embody as we attempt to find the way our bodies fit into spaces of the world.

* “Hir” is a neutral pronoun that serves as one alternative to the gender binaries embedded in the English language.  I choose to use “hir” in this case because of the way Zahra describes hir embodiment: female bodied, yet desiring a male public presentation. “Hir” emerges from a transgender critique of language, a perspective that understands the limits of and inventional potential of language in articulating the complexity of embodiment.

Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson/NYT

Emily Dianne Cram is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Public Culture at Indiana University, and her research engages the intersections of visual culture, embodiment, and gender and sexuality.  She can be contacted at emcram@indiana.edu.