Monday, December 08, 2008

Defeated, dethroned, and now, defaced

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was Iran's monarch from 1941 to1979. He ruled the country for 37 years, and was unceremoniously removed from power in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini and his many millions of followers. He died in 1980. Today his wife, Farah Pahlavi, divides her time between the West and Egypt.

A lavish photo book extolling the glories of Iran's present and past, called Persia: Bridge of Turquoise, was produced during the king's reign. The photography was by Roloff Beny, and it included an essay by the renowned Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The forward was written by Farah Pahlavi.

The book contains a few images of the king and his wife, both of whom look eminently regal in appearance. When I was browsing through a copy of this book a few days ago in the Morrison Library at UC Berkeley, I was momentarily stunned and slightly bemused to find an X a previous reader had drawn using a red ball point pen on one of the pictures. It was scribbled directly on the face of the former king. Someone had literally defaced the king.

The vandalism of a library book is a librarian's nightmare, of course. Damage done to any book is often permanent, and can be disastrous when the book is impossible to replace. UC Berkeley's library is one of the finest in the United States. It provides an outstanding environment for scholarly research. One simply doesn't expect to find random acts of permanent political protest within the pages of its library books, even at a campus with a progressive reputation like Berkeley. In such an august environment, is such an act by a reader a stirring rebellion in favor of humanity's dignity and justice, or merely the uncouth work of a hasty barbarian?

What was the vandal thinking? Was it spontaneous? Maybe seeing a few images of regal splendor was more than the vandal could handle, and the defenseless book was the object of their frustration. I imagined a face, angry at first, eyes ablaze, a red pen held aloft ready to strike, but then softening to reflect a warm, satisfied glow. Or perhaps it was a measured act, plotted after a night of determined reflection. My mind formed the image of a student tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep, with angry thoughts coursing through his tender mind. Perhaps his uncle had been tortured and killed by the king's intelligence services, and he was taking revenge. Perhaps he hated the outlandish wealth of the king, while the ordinary people suffered.

I became fascinated with the defaced image. It represented something for me, but what was it exactly? There are many oppressive forces that bear down on us. We may feel like we have little control over our destiny. We might well be aware that many of our leaders are selfish and perhaps even overtly corrupt, like the former king of Iran was, but we probably feel we have little power to change the situation. Defacing an image might be one way for someone to feel like they're doing something productive.

The king was a handsome man. His wife was undoubtedly beautiful. Iranians often place a premium on looks. They can afford to. They're an attractive and refined people. An Iranian American was recently telling me of his displeasure at what he considers the rampant materialism and all around shallowness found within much of his community in southern California. Yet the red X disregarded all of that decadent aesthetic pleasure. It said “I don't care how handsome and beautiful you are, you're still a dastardly scoundrel.”

Perhaps the fact that I am a photographer myself makes me sensitive to these issues. I'm often intrigued when there is a collision between ideals and ideology, or beauty and ugliness. Images I've published on the Internet are often used for political or artistic purposes by individuals and organizations. Sometimes people ask me for permission, and they occasionally even pay me for the privilege. At other times they use an image without bothering to contact me. Sometimes they respect the dignity of the people in the images, sometimes not.

All in all, the vandal got me thinking. I don't like how they did it, but I have to admit they left their mark on more than just the book.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Making a go of things" vs. "bouncing around"

The extent to which a few years of difference in age can influence perceptions of what people really ought to be doing in life is remarkable. Things which are seen as wise in one period of life can be seen as irresponsible if done a little later. The change over from one period to the next can be rapid. Having a changeable vs. stable career is like this. Doing a mix of jobs and being living an itinerant life in one's twenties and early thirties is often perceived positively by other young people and their elders. It indicates a willingness to experiment and to be open to new experiences. For the young adult, it promises adventure and self-discovery. However there comes a point where doing the same things while being more advanced in years has a cost. Not only do the advantages of a stable life seem more compelling for the individual themselves, but other people's perceptions can quickly change. No longer is the person making a go of things. Instead, they are merely bouncing around from one thing to the next. They are not making the most of the experience they have accumulated in life. Instead, they are frittering away their life without a clear sense of direction and purpose. What they need is a plan that leads them to a path of robust stability.

When I graduated from my undergraduate studies as a fresh faced 21 year old youth, I could have continued straight on into a program of graduate study, culminating in a Ph.D. This would have set me up for a long career in the academic world. Life as an academic is a viable and very attractive option for me. I enjoy academic life immensely, and while there are gazillions of things in this life for which I truly have no talent for, the kinds of skills I have do find useful expression in a university. The fields of study I am most passionate about relate to people and their culture, particularly as they relate to religion, peace and conflict. As a young adult, I did not believe I had the necessary experience to make the most effective use of all that graduate studies can offer. Instead, I wanted more experience with life outside the university. I chose to work with civil society organizations (also known as non government organizations), eventually securing work in the Philippines in the fields of biodiversity conservation, sustainable development policy advocacy, and later agrarian reform. I later spent time in other countries, working, meeting people and experiencing cultures very different to the one in which I was raised. During this time, I have not had a single job that I've worked at for more than two and half years. What I have had is the experience of working with a huge variety of people in a bunch of different contexts.

Philippines, 1999

In the last few years, I have begun to get comments from concerned friends that I ought to focus my energies on a clearer path in life than what I've been leading. I still get the odd comment from people who do have stable careers that they deeply admire the variety in my life, and that they wish they had the same experience for themselves. But the former is slowly becoming more common than the latter.

The truth is, I also long for some stability. I've not had a proper home for myself in more than four years. Living out of a suitcase does mean adventure and experience, but it has lots of downsides too. I anticipate that my notably itinerant lifestyle of the past few years will come to an end next year, when I hope to start a Ph.D program in anthropology. After my Ph.D, I plan to pursue an academic career in which I can bring my life experiences into the classroom and my research. Some focus will do me good, and allow me to make a more in-depth contribution than I otherwise would. That's the theory, at least. Now is the time for it's application.

California, 2008