Rupert Murdoch, National Geographic, and Afghanistan: What the Veil is Happening?
The two editions of the Afghan Girl appeared on my feed, and I was thinking, “Steve McCurry! What’s the news now?”
But the title of the post “Rupert Murdoch marks first day of National Geographic ownership by firing 200 employees” has nothing to do with Sharbat Gula (the girl and the woman fronting these two covers) or Afghanistan. In fact, when I scrolled further, Andrew Wertz, the author of this DeadState post, writes:
National Geographic found itself in financial trouble as its brand name weakened and sales declined with the rise of the internet. The deal with Murdoch will ensure that the brand will survive. Some were initially optimistic that the magazine would continue relatively unaffected, but the major layoffs proved that the magazine would be changing.
So what is the veil for? Why are images of Afghanistan used in this article? In earlier blogs, I had critiqued Steve McCurry and National Geographic’s obsession with Sharbat Gula, the Afghan Girl (see post 1 and post 2), causing not only an objectification of Afghan women as “exotic”, but also portraying them as poor victims in need of saving.
There is no argument that DeadState, as a source of news or information, is incredulous since its website is inundated with advertisements at the top and in the margins, a layout that does not give it an appearance of professionalism. In fact, its credibility is as shallow as its origins:
DeadState brings fearless analysis of people, politics, current events, religion, and the overall human condition from an L.A. perspective.
Sky Palma (Founder, Editor-in-Chief, firstname.lastname@example.org): Sky has been writing about politics, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience for over a decade before launching DeadState in 2012. Other than being a dad and running DS, the rest of his free time is spent training in the martial art of Brazilian jiu jitsu.
It doesn’t take a lot to read into this news website to know if it’s a credible source or not. But on their Facebook page, there are 70,604 likes – which means, readers. So the images of Afghanistan and Rupert Murdoch are inconsequential – unless unveiling is used as a metaphor for coming to the truth. In James Thompson’s latest book, Humanitarian Performance: From Disaster Tragedies to Spectacles of War (2014), he observes that NGOs or humanitarian workers often use the veil in their discourse to either reveal or conceal. He states:
Although the language of dressing up is used somewhat randomly by a number of writers, some subtle differences in emphasis are noticeable in the precise choice of metaphor. Many relate to aspects of clothing: cloak (Fassin and Pandolfi 2010: 22; Heinze 2009: 144; Wheeler 2000: 209; Wilson and Brown 2009: 17), blanket (Weiss 2007: 106), mask (Heinze 2009: viii; Wheeler 2000: 30; Žižek 2004), cover (Newman 2009: 97) and disguise (Fassin 2010: 275; Wheeler 2000: 30). All these suggest individual attire that hides the true identity, or more exactly purpose, of the performer. Using a humanitarian justification to explain a decision to intervene within another country’s borders (Afghanistan, Iraq, former Yugoslavia/Serbia, Libya) in this case is the mask hiding the interveners’ more suspect intentions; therefore, simply identifying the mask, drawing off the cover, is said to reveal the truth. (p. 52)
By that logic, unveiling is an act of disclosing the truth – and here, Andrew Wertz is making Murdoch look bad for firing 200 employees. The truth is out: Murdoch is heartless, and perhaps even evil. That is indeed a sad economic situation for these writers, photographers, and editors at Nat Geo, a magazine that I had grown to love when I was still in school.
But if we analyse this further, Afghanistan has been unscrupulously used as a showpiece of that deceit, which, to me, reflects an insidious power dynamic that continues to demonise or caricaturise Afghanistan as the deviant other, the symbol of terrorism. Because of the visual parallel, Murdoch is seen as evil, as is Afghanistan. Even the language used is related to terrorism and warfare, as shown below:
“Murdoch fires 200 employees.”
“Some of the fired talent had been with the publication for over twenty years.”
“The magazine fired several key pieces to its success over the past few decades.”
“The magazine’s astounding photography department was deeply impacted, as Murdoch fired two veteran photography editors, several award-winning photographers, and page editors. The layoffs are by far the biggest in National Geographic’s 127-year history.”
“The deal with Murdoch will ensure that the brand will survive.”
“National Geographic has dramatically changed, but the CEO and remaining staff members are confident that the magazine will grow while staying true to the original mission.”
In this relatively short article, “fire” (and its variants “fired” and “firing”) has been used about six times. Murdoch has caused an endless spate of ‘war’ against these employees, while the company is on the verge of life and death, as this writer has stated. Granted. Murdoch is portrayed as one impacting fear and terror on people’s livelihoods.
But I am more concerned with how images of Afghanistan are being reproduced and circulated for mass consumption of unrelated news such as Murdoch’s unsavoury retrenchment of staff. Why is Afghanistan used as a visual metaphor? To what effect does this play on the collective subconscious of readers who know very little about Afghanistan, who then continue to proliferate the same tired images of Afghanistan as the hotpot of terrorism?
There is no denying that Afghanistan is still going through a protracted period of conflicts. But to essentialise these images, by inference, to those depicting “deceit” or “terrorism” is to ignore and dismiss the politics of representation, especially in the way mass media such as DeadState have uncritically collapsed the complexities of war and fed on visual images of veiled Afghan women to stoke anger and resentment towards a completely unrelated human figure in the name of Rupert Murdoch.
This form of sensationalism must stop.
[Note: By stating that DeadState is not a credible source of news, I am provocatively using the same tactic to demonstrate what is happening in this article.]