Socialist Worker

Photos expose capitalism

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1761

MANY OF the great political events of the past 40 years are almost inseparable from powerful documentary photographs of them. Think of the massacre by South African forces of black children in Soweto in 1976, and the picture of the lifeless body of Hector Petersen cradled by a fellow school student.

Or the image of a lone protester blocking the path of Chinese army tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Journalist John Pilger has assembled less well known but equally powerful pictures in an exhibition on show at the Barbican Centre in London. They range from the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s to working class housing estates in the north east of England today.

Each of them, in Pilger's words, goes against 'the consensual versions of events, such as the illusions of 'booming' economies and 'smart' wars, and the judgement of humanity as worthy and unworthy, sacrosanct or expendable, by great powers'.

In bringing these pictures together, alongside carefully chosen captions and commentary, the exhibition does more than give glimpses of disconnected struggles. It points to how horrors over the last four decades spanning every continent are aspects of a single world capitalist system. The US's intervention in Vietnam claimed over two million lives. The US presence brutalised the whole country. Poverty forced women as young as 12 into prostitution.

One picture shows two US soldiers pawing a young Vietnamese woman-'a paid for rape' symbolising 'the rape of Vietnam'. In another a distracted soldier is masterfully pickpocketed in a crowd in Saigon.

That one street scene from 1970 captures how the mighty US war machine was losing to lightly armed liberation forces who enjoyed mass popular support. Pictures from Bellasville, a town in the US midwest, show why that support collapsed. Across the US as a whole one in 6,000 Americans was killed in Vietnam. For Bellasville it was one in 90.

Jack Pittman was one of them. His mother, Maegene, is pictured and says in a caption, 'I thought it was somewhere near Panama: real close and threatening.'

That photograph appears alongside others from the US in the 1960s showing immense poverty among white workers in Appalachia, the struggle for black civil rights and much more. The message is as clear as in the best writings on the 1960s-the same forces that murdered in Vietnam also sucked the life out of working people in the US. There is still a pressure to lose sight of that insight when it comes to events today.

So some commentators who condemn the butchery by the US in Latin America nevertheless went along with the propaganda two years ago that NATO was playing a humanitarian role in the Balkans. Some claimed that the lesson of the appalling deaths of two million people under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the 1970s is that the West must be more prepared to intervene across the globe.

They should see this exhibition. It shows how the US did intervene there. President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered the dropping of 539,129 tons of bombs on Cambodia. That is over three times the total dropped on Japan during the Second World War. The bombing killed tens of thousands of Cambodians and created four million refugees.

The great strength of the exhibition is that it shows how imperialism and the brutality of capitalism continue to blight our lives. So you see not only the heroic mass resistance that finally broke apartheid in South Africa.

You also see, after its fall, a portrait of Edith Ventner, a white 'Johannesburg socialite', being fitted for a £100,000 necklace. Beside it are landless black farmers living in inhuman conditions in the Eastern Cape. Iraqi children lie dead in a heap of rubble in Basra after a US bombing raid two years ago.

Their pained faces resemble two Nicaraguan children pictured after US-backed dictator Somoza bombed civilians in a vain attempt to cling on to power in 1979. Sweatshop workers in Indonesia slave away making Reebok shoes. Poverty stricken children in the north east of England hang around with nothing to do and no hope of buying the latest fashions.

These are the stories and pictures that are no longer deemed newsworthy by the mass media. That is not because the mass of people are not interested in them, Pilger argues.

The Daily Mirror was the biggest selling tabloid paper in the Western world in the early 1970s. Pilger worked on it. The exhibition shows a number of brilliant pages from the paper-hidden poverty in the US, the scandal over the drug thalidomide, the first pictures from Cambodia's 'killing fields'. Millions read these stories eagerly. Millions fewer read the showbiz gossip and trivia that fill the same paper today.

This exhibition is not a piece of nostalgia. It is a call to bring the truths of today to a mass audience. And as the hopes of the 1960s are returning for greater numbers of people, it could not come at a better time.

'Reporting the world: John Pilger's great eyewitness photographers' runs until 30 September at the Barbican Gallery, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS. Entrance costs £7/£5 concessions. There is also an excellent catalogue containing many of the pictures and commentaries, price £12.99.

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Sat 11 Aug 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1761
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