Hotshot shoots from the hip

2010-09-04 11:38

Award-winning photo-journalist Jodi Bieber’s iconic image of ­Aisha – the Afghan woman whose face was maimed, allegedly by the Taliban – made it onto the ­cover of Time magazine.

It also dragged Bieber into a discursive storm over the ­politics of representation.

Her critics are asking the grand Marxist question: Does she have the right to profit from the scars of the “other”?

But as the debate continues Bieber is unshaken and shoots from the hip: “You can ­intellectualise it all you like. ­Aisha is in ­America and I can tell you the world is her oyster now.”

I join her for tea at her ­Johannesburg flat to chat about Aisha’s image and her new book of pictures, ­Soweto.

Bieber is at home in the world.

She offers me biscuits with the same frankness reserved for ­answering my questions.

The 43-year-old grew up in Athol in northern Johannesburg, went to Fourways ­Primary School and matriculated at Hyde Park High School.

So she’s a Joburg native.

Bieber says as a child she “knew that something was wrong when I saw the yellow van” – the notorious apartheid police bakkie that regularly ­raided white ­suburbs for black workers who didn’t have their passes in order.

Bieber says she also remembers when her family got their first TV set. “But I don t remember any pictures, just the ­colourful SABC test pattern.”

She started out as a media planner for a marketing ­company before finding her ­calling as a photographer.

“I quit that job and chose the unbeaten track” she says, first joining the Market Photo ­Workshop to get her tuition ­before landing an internship at The Star newspaper, which ­became her first real job as a ­photographer and opened up what is now an illustrious ­career.

But what is it about ­photography that turns her on?

“We need visual history,” she says and concedes: “My vision is only one vision among many. If it’s not me photographing ­Soweto it’s going to be my ­Norwegian friend.”

US author Susan Sontag says: “There’s an aggression implicit in every use of the ­camera – the shutterbug is a voyeur and ­super-tourist who tries to control the other with imperial aims or worse.”

Bieber feels this is nonsense in her case.

In fact, she says her ­critics are “anti-women” and ­accuses them of armchair ­activism as “they sit in the ­comfort of their universities”.

In the heat of passion she takes on a robust demeanour and asks: “Are they saying my image has made a worse life for her ­(Aisha)?

“People can identify with her more,” she argues, contending to have “portrayed her in a dignified way”.

On her creative process while composing Aisha’s image, ­Bieber says her aim was to show that this was a beautiful woman who was wounded, but who was not a victim.

This is actually what makes the image strong, she says.

“If I force you into it you’ll want to turn the page. But if I draw you into it, you can face the issues,” she adds.

As the debate rages on, perhaps the most important voice is lost in the storm – ­Aisha’s.

Bieber remembers that when Aisha was confronted by western journalists who asked her if she thought the picture would change anything, she said: “I don’t know. All I know is that I want my nose and ears back.”

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