Some months after my return to the field in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was invited by an NGO in Gwadar to teach a group of local students a course in the fundamentals of visual storytelling. It was an excuse to take a break from my fieldwork, where mahigeer (fisherfolk) refusals and reluctance were proving difficult to negotiate. The first of these workshops was held with a local NGO in Gwadar, the Rural Community Development Council (RCDC), a major supporter and promoter of the city’s arts and cultural events and activities.
Standing at the front of the classroom on the first day of the workshop, I was struck by the uniqueness of the students who turned up. They were unlike any I had worked with before. They came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, but most were young men from mahigeer and lower working-class families. Most had never attended school, although some had completed their high school diplomas. They were attracted to the workshop because social media had brought visuality, photography, and fame to their attention. But quite soon, there was widespread confusion and, quite often, boredom. Of the fifteen students who turned up on the first day, only five were left by the end of the week. Promoted and announced as “photography training,” it had elicited interest because of social media photographers’ popularity and celebrity in the region. The students who arrived were more interested in knowing how to achieve ‘likes’ on social media than in exploring narrative storytelling or discussing theories of representation. This was not unsurprising.
Social media influencers and state-sponsored content producers were all the rage in the region, and many photographers and filmmakers from Gwadar were already working as social media content producers. Certain vloggers had gained nationwide fame through being promoted by mainstream media outlets. Despite their ubiquity, almost all of these visual content producers seemed to be a part of a state-driven project “to provide controlled messaging around major issues including development” . A powerful love of the picturesque–mountains, waterways, hills, mythical sunsets, night skies, pristine shores, traditionally dressed Baloch children and women–reflects a nostalgic yearning for an imagined natural and cultural harmony. In a region of extreme social deprivation and state violence, one could think that the ‘‘harmony’ sought in landscape…[acted]…as compensation for and screening off the actual violence perpetuated there” . Gwadar was a geography of neglect, impoverishment and decline. Its people, watching the new infrastructure developments through the metal-wired fences and from behind armed guards, were of little concern to the state. Violence, indifference and abjection marked the landscape. The picturesque was perhaps a means of escape. It was also a result of a censorship and surveillance regime that ensured Balochistan’s bleaker realities were never seen.
I have taught decolonial visual storytelling workshops and programs since 2012 . These programs range from two-week to three-month-long seminars and mentorships focused on teaching students to critically examine our ways of understanding the world. We discuss the modern knowledge categories through which we recognise what constitutes an exciting object of study and how media and transnational discourses influence our ways of apprehending the world. We interrogate how narratives are structured, how certain discourses about our modern reality dominate and how these discourses are enforced, echoed and ultimately made into common sense. The program’s goal is to help students break away from the taken-for-granted idea of “the real,” understand the formulaic discourses of journalism, examine the presence and influence of power and politics that sit behind the mechanisms, languages, formats and aesthetics used to construct what is declared as “true,” and “fact.”
However, a “decolonial” teaching practice must remain conscious of what Spivak refers to as the “ideological transformation” of the student that is inadvertently transmitted by teaching methods that rely on a language and a pedagogy alien to the local value systems . There is an “alienation” at work, and a specific type of self is actuated in learning the mechanics and techniques of a documentary. A modernist subjectivity is constructed, one that attains a position of mastery over the other by not only creating a distance between herself and the subject but equally by retaining the power to narrative, explain, reflect and summarise. She is the medium through which the helpless, the voiceless, and the otherwise unable to speak speak . Her authority to construct the story, to arrange and give it meaning, is unchallenged. Her objectivity, neutrality and impartiality are assumed; all the while, her relationship to the conditions of the material production of her work is erased . A documentary student learns to believe that she is the one who matters and can author the world as she experiences it and is the one who thinks, designs, arranges and gives meaning, while the “other” merely provides “facts” that support the relevant narrative. Students learn mastery, the power to construct the “real,” define what passes for “truth”, and gather it into a history. Documentary teaching practices, dominated by Western regimes of visuality, discourses of humanism and ideas of justice, can trap students into ways of seeing and speaking that leave the West as the ultimate and perfect “Subject of knowledge” . The double bind kicks in .
The students arrived at the workshops with their ideas and interests. An early orientation session explained how the goal was to focus on long-term projects, not just single images or the “picturesque.” They were asked to arrive with initial ideas and stories they would want to focus on. Their project suggestions were based on topics taken from the local and national newspapers and social media news sites they frequented. Our discussions moved quickly to well-covered subjects such as population displacement, anti-industrial fishing protests, social marginalisation, infrastructure development, local ecology, poverty, child labour, ocean pollution, CPEC, etc. We spent considerable time reflecting on and discussing the nature of these narratives and carefully exploring how they related, if at all, to the student’s lived realities, how these issues reverberated in Gwadar, and even why they believed they mattered. We deconstructed how the issues were presented in the news and sought different ways to speak about them. Our discussions interrogated what these narratives did, what actions and reactions they produced, and what kinds of outcomes they negated. Relatedly, we talked about things more personal, close to home, and perhaps even close to their hearts and tried to examine how these issues influenced the private. I wanted them to think with a more personal, intimate perspective on these questions and allow their experiences, concerns and interests to drive their work. I wanted them to produce work from a place far different from the conventions of journalism and documentary.
I decided to leave the classroom and conduct our discussions and conversations on the street, at cafés, at my house, by the shore, and in the alleys where the students lived, played, and did their chores. This immediately made me a stranger in their world and encouraged them to tell and show me their world, undoing the formalist and institutionalised hierarchy enforced by the classroom space. As we strolled through neighbourhoods like Dhooria, Baloch Ward, and others, our conversations shifted to the local and encompassed those we met. Once outside, the students told me stories. These stories carried ideas of what they considered important and which captured their connectedness to place.
Over some weeks, as we conversed, the stories became a documentation and a history of local narratives. “Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories,” de Certeau reminds us. “Accumulated times that can be unfolded like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state” . As we moved about the town and brought stories back to our group discussions and classroom sessions, project ideas began to emerge, and the students grew in confidence and in their understanding of what issues and subjects could constitute a visual story.
But something perhaps even more unexpected and exciting started to happen; as the student’s confidence grew and they became familiar with my struggles in the field, they began to offer solutions to my fieldwork predicaments. The first such moment came while chasing down a book translator who had disappeared after the Covid-19 pandemic and could not be traced. This delayed my research for many months, and I struggled to find a new translator and copies of the books. The students, however, came up with a novel solution; they offered to read the books to me. They suggested that we make a reading club not just for my benefit, but for theirs too. They rarely had the time or the opportunity to read, and my need for a translator became an excuse. From poetry books to novels and some history texts, we read together, a practice that lasted many weeks and was a critical step towards understanding the mahigeer social world and, in particular, the history of place written by a local school teacher who happened to come from an old mahigeer family . We were thinking about history, cultural values, seascape epistemologies, poetry, refusals, and other issues together as a group, spending many hours sitting in the living room of my rented house, debating and arguing the validity, truth, and accuracy of the books themselves.
These discussions formed the basis for new research questions, including an idea for a student project based on the personal archives of residents of Gwadar, one that told the city’s history through people’s private photographs, letters, and notebooks. Another project traced the relations and significance of Koh-e-Batil through stories of family outings, hunts and walks people still made to it. Through these archives, the vernacular map of Koh-e-Batil became evident as I began to understand the significance of various sites and locations for both the mahigeer on the sea and, equally, for the people of Gwadar itself. These conversations revealed an entirely local geography, with places and sites previously unknown and invisible to me. A late-night discussion about the importance of the shore gave birth to a project on the significance of local footballers and the history of football (soccer) in the city, which had once produced the finest athletes who learned their skills playing on the sands of the shores of Demi Zirr.
The student projects became crucial to my ethnographic practice as we collaborated and became “epistemic partners” . These relationships were neither outside fieldwork nor were they one-dimensional. They became a turning point in my research and a gateway to experiencing the field in unexpected ways. Our work sessions involved more than data collection or mere conversation. We laid out the fundamental design of the fieldwork’s priorities, and our projects began to overlap and relate as we sketched out ideas. There was an active desire and effort to leave the self and the self-centred I/eye and to experience Gwadar through the lives and expressions of others. Michel Serres refers to this as the “instructed third” . Between the rigidly defined, positionally clear ‘I’ and the equally and concurrently represented ‘Other’ sits the third person, the one who realises that it is not a search for an accurate representation of the world and the beliefs of others, but a becoming that allows one to experience and feel the truth of the other. It is a place of transformation, self-questioning, and an opening to new values and sensibilities .
How does one claim entangled authorship? Deleuze argues that an author–an ethnographer?–may be seen as a “true collective agent, a collective leaven, a catalyst,” someone who “is not in a condition to produce individual utterances which would be like invented stories…[but]…in a situation of producing utterances which are already collective, which are like the seeds of the people to come” . It was clear that I no longer possessed the sole authority of authorship nor did I solely possess the right to represent and theorise. It was equally clear to the students that “their” projects were never exclusively theirs. Inadvertently, the divide between us had disappeared, and we found ourselves in shared moments of vulnerability, trying to find ways to tell the stories and reveal the worlds that mattered to us.
This text has been commissioned and written uniquely for Urgent Pedagogies.
Nishat Awan and Hussain, Zahra. “Conflicting Material Imaginaries,” e-flux, January 2020
W. J. T. Mitchell. Landscape And Power, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
I am not uncritical of the use of the term “decolonial” in this context. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang warn about the ease with which the language of decolonization has been “superficially adopted” by different disciplines. They fear that the casual, faddish use of the term can become a “form of enclosure, dangerous in how it domesticates decolonization” and “recapitulates dominant theories of social change” [Tuck, Eve & Yang, K. Wayne, “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012:1-40]. A “decolonial” education in visual storytelling is based on a pedagogy of critically examining the assumptions of objectivity, neutrality, voice, and the material conditions of the production of visual works and focuses on situating visual representations, depictions, and narratives in socio-historical contexts of colonial histories and post-colonial continuities. Influenced by the works of thinkers like Trinh T. Minh-ha, Edward Said, and Stuart Hall among others, these programs focus on the theory, politics and materiality of representation.
G. C. Spivak. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, 2012:38.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. Routledge, 1991:12.
Christoper Breu. Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics, University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. Routledge, 1991.
G. C. Spivak. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, 2012:97–118.
Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, 1984.
Ghafoor Sajjid. Tashkeel-e-Ma’ashara, Volume 1, Self Published, 2019.
James D. Faubion & George E. Marcus (eds.) Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition, Cornell University Press, 2009:30
Michel Serres. The Troubadour of Knowledge. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser and Wil-liam Paulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Stuart McLean. Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of the Human, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The TimeImage. University of Minnesota Press, 1989:221–222
is a PhD candidate at TU Delft where he is conducting research into the seascape epistemologies of the mahigeer (fisherfolk) communities in Gwadar, Balochistan.