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On the 6th September, perhaps in anticipation of the impending anniversary in five days, climatic wars raged outside in all manners of rainstorms and gusty winds; inside Foyle’s an equally dramatic debate of minds rose to the occasion too. Granta’s 116th issue launch saw a packed room as usual, with speakers Janine Di Giovanni (war reporter), Mary Harper (BBC Africa Editor) and Edmund Clark (photographer) taking up platform space. Clark began the night’s discussion by taking us through the photographs in his 2010 published book Guantanamo: If the Lights Go Out.
“I don’t take photographs of faces,” Clark explained. “What good would it be to take a photograph of a dark-skinned man with a beard? Wouldn’t that just confirm the stereotype? I deliberately chose to photograph the homes of these people because they are spaces you and I can identify with – taking pictures would only mirror the pre-conception we have of terrorists.” Clark goes on to shake his head at the journalistic, media-junkie approach of some photographers, repeating again and again that this is not what he was trying to achieve. The images he presented to us are meant to illustrate the fundamental spaces and ideas of home; from the prison camps, to the US Naval Base that is home to the American community at Guantanamo and the homes of the ex-detainees in the UK and the Middle East.
Janine di Giovanni read us a narrative report on a blind artist she met in Libya, illuminating the explosion of creativity after so many years of repression. “The Libyan rebels are definitely influenced by American cultures,” she told us. “Not only through MTV and Death Metal, but also in the way that they use social platforms. Twitter, Facebook – they unite the voices.” Janine appears fearless in the face of war, most likely because she feels she has a duty to report the unseen stories to the public. She tries to be objective in her reportage, to shrink back and simply witness, but sometimes it’s impossible. E ven with Libya. Especially with Libya.
‘Somalia Then and Now’ is read by Mary Harper. Its most poignant and terrifying message rings loud in our ears: “The history of Somalia was rewritten after 9/11”. The hugely popular money transfer and telecommunications company al-Barakat closed after being targeted and put on the US terror list; thousands of Somalians were suddenly without their basic means for survival. More disturbingly, Mary describes how the American press and journalism can distort a country’s image so badly that eventually the wolf does come. The global jihadis found a new home in Somalia shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
It all comes down to reportage: who is right, and who is wrong? How should we report and who should we report to? In light of the recent Murdoch scandal, journalism teeters even more precariously on the thin line between good and evil. Edmund Clark states his belief that journalists become complicit in the act itself once they participate in it – that reportage can never be the truth, and to present that veneer of truth in itself is a dangerous act.
“I have to agree with Edmund,” Mary adds. “I am so fortunate to work for the BBC and to be able to report on what’s going on in Africa. However, I am very aware that people in England are only hearing one side of the story. They don’t want to hear about Al-Qaeda in Africa because it doesn’t fit with their understanding of Africa: they want to see bloated bellies and flies buzzing around children with watery, huge eyes. The media only wants to report on the famine.”
“I am not a vulture,” Janine fires back. “I wouldn’t be on the war front if I weren’t deeply passionate about what I do. Reporters like me live there, stay there, risk their lives. I have to disagree with what you’re saying because if I didn’t believe that what I did was meaningful and true…I wouldn’t be able to continue. If we weren’t there, who would know what was going on? We shine a light into the darkest corners of the world.”