Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
November 2, 2006

Religion, Race And The Islamic Bomb: Looking At What We're Talking About

Lourdes-Chernobyl-Target

Lourdes-Chenobyl-Monitoring

Lourdes-Chernobyl-Cots

Lourdes-Chernobyl-Children



Segade-Exclusion-Zone

(click images for full size)

In the last two weeks, the NYT has published two prominent pieces touting the growth prospects of nuclear oblivion.

The most visible was this past weekend’s frightening Sunday Magazine cover story, Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age by Noah Feldman.  I say frightening for its dry intellectual embrace of potential Muslim-on-Muslim or Arab-on-Arab state-sponsored incineration (in contrast to the more popular media conception of the “stand alone” nuclear suicide bomber).

Implying that “greater rationality” governs Western nationalism and the nation-state, Feldman assumes that an Islamic bomb would automatically be more of a threat than, say, an American bomb or an Israeli bomb.  According to his cultural and religious analysis,  these “billion-plus,” medievally-based, fatwa-inciting, more “black-and-white” thinking Muslims (State-bound or otherwise) are just more naturally compelled by martyrdom and/or messianism to justify the crisping of mass numbers of innocents.

(Of course, if you put Cheney with a bomb, in a room with Ahmadinejad with a bomb, surely Dick would chose to negotiate.)

The weekend before, the NYT Magazine offered an essay, titled Radioactive Nationalism, exploring the “nuke watch” in the Korean peninsula. In this piece, Peter Maas likens tensions between North Korea, South Korea and Japan to the scene in the hyper-violent film “Reservoir Dogs” in which three trigger-happy men simultaneously draw weapons intent on blowing each other away.

Although different in many respects,  the common characteristic in both articles is “the savage other.”  Feldman’s nuclear profiling is religious, while Maas goes the racial route.  Although he clearly possess a knowledge of the three cultures, Maas can’t help injecting an “oy, those paranoid yellow people” tone while providing his own allusions of primitivism (“muskets and catapults”) and applying his own stereotyping devices — such as two references, within the first three paragraphs, to a “Mexican standoff.”

What is profoundly troubling to me, however, is not just the polarization, but the way the nuclear threat gets buried in abstraction.

In the post 9/11 years of the Bush administration, this potential horror was melded into and subsumed by neocon power-tripping geopolitical enmity.  But now that Bush and his GWOT has lost favor with, well, just about everyone, instead of a more practical take on the threat, we see it engulfed (pardon the pun) in cultural and racial politics.

So, what does this have to do with a seven-year-old daughter of a Ukrainian liquidator born with cerebral palsy?

The reminder, in the powerful image above by Spanish photographer Lourdes Segade, is that the nuclear threat is not an abstraction, and that the threat of nuclear devastation is never going to become more accessible through the creation of endless dichotomies of “us” and “them.”

Frankly, nuclear technology is becoming so accessible, the one thing we can’t afford are more smug Western “boy with toy” Quentin Tarrantino and John Dillinger analogies.  Instead, what we need are leaders, and a media, brave enough to address potential annihilation in more in more communal terms, in more cultural similar terms, and in more pragmatic terms.

If we miss that target, then we also miss how Lourdes’ images, taken last January on occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, offer a completely practical warning of what to expect.

Just like in Dytyatky, we can look forward to large stretches of uninhabitable earth bound by check points where dosimeters measure allowable radiation.  We can look forward to hospitals reduced to mausoleums, just like the one with the rusting cots in Prypiat, a town three kilometers from Chernobyl which was permanently abandoned in a single day by its 45,000 residents.  We can expect that large numbers of children, stricken by devastating genetic effects, might be warehoused in state facilities and boarding schools, while doctors dispute whether their symptoms are actually the effect of fallout.  And, because sense of place is a fundamental instinct, we can expect many people, like farmer Mikhail Urupa, to find their way home, regardless of so called “Exclusion Zones.”



Over the past two months, a number of you have written about my living in Spain, wondering how it was affecting me and, more importantly, how it might play a role in the blog.  Without delving too deeply, I can tell you this.  Living in Europe has made me a lot warier about abstraction and intellectualization, because — compared to home — nothing seems as far away.

Another thing I’m learning is the “power of place” in the visual world.

I’ve discovered that Barcelona not only has a long, deep and accomplished relationship with photography , but is also a center of social photography.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve met a number of photographers, photojournalists and “visual activists” here, and seen a lot of impressive and committed work.  In the coming weeks, I not only hope to introduce them to you, but to also welcome them into our BAGnewsNotes community.

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Update 6:06 pm CET: Lourdes will be available, through the comment thread, to respond to questions or comments about the images, her series and her experience in the Ukraine.  Although English is her second language, she is enthusiastic — within the limits of the time difference — to engage the discussion.  Also, one more image has been added to the original post.

Images from the series: CHERNOBYL. The Life That Claims From Death. All images © Lourdes Segade/Picturetank.com.  Used by permission.

(image 1: Kiev, Ukraine. January 18, 2005.  image 2: Kiev, Ukraine. Dytyatky check-point. Jan 16, 2005. image 3: Kiev, Ukraine. January 18, 2005.  image 4: Chernobyl region, Ukraine.  January 15, 2005.)

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