DR GREG CONSTANTINE

A VISUAL ARCHAEOLOGY OF GENOCIDE AND SLOW VIOLENCE IN MYANMAR
INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR FELLOW: MARCH 2018 – FEBRUARY 2019

Greg Constantine is an American/Canadian documentary photographer based in SE Asia and the United States. He has dedicated his career to long-term, independent projects about underreported or neglected global stories. His work explores the intersection of human rights, inequality, injustice, identity, belonging and the power of the state. He spent over a decade working on the project Nowhere People, which documented the lives and struggles of stateless communities in nineteen countries around the world.

He is the author of three books including: Kenya’s Nubians: Then & Now (2011),Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya (2012)which was named a 2012 Notable Photo Book of the year by Photo District News Magazine (US) and the Independent on Sunday(UK) and the book Nowhere People(2015) which was recognized as one of the Top Ten Photo Books of 2015 by Mother Jones Magazinein the US.

Exhibitions of his work have been shown in over 40 cities worldwide including: Palais des Nations in Geneva, European Parliament in Brussels, Saatchi Gallery in London, Customs House in Sydney, Kenya National Museum in Nairobi, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and US Senate Rotunda in Washington DC and at the UN Headquarters in NYC.  Exhibitions have also been shown in Budapest, Kiev, Rome, Madrid, Perpignan, Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Tokyo, Phnom Penh and Yangon. In 2014, his work was exhibited at the Peace Palace in The Hague during the 1st Global Forum on Statelessness.

In late 2016, he earned his Ph.D. from Middlesex University in the UK. He was a 2015 Distinguished Visiting Fellow with the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London and a 2017 Artist in Residence of Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Since early 2006, he has been documenting the persecution of the stateless Rohingya community from Myanmar (Burma). Constantine will use his ISRF Fellowship to build on a successful track record of previous research and practical field experience in Burma and neighbouring Bangladesh from 2006 to 2017.  The research will take an interdisciplinary approach and will develop along a number of lines, interweaving the thematic strands of genocide, ‘slow violence’, visual storytelling, statelessness, forced displacement and health destruction. The project and research aims to contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex roots, dynamics and diverse experiences of atrocities related to displacement, deprivation of nationality and the destruction of access to healthcare as contributors to the genocidal process toward the Rohingya community in Myanmar.

Abstract

This project seeks to contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex roots, dynamics and diverse experiences of forced displacement, deprivation of nationality and the destruction of access to healthcare as contributor to the genocide of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The research will develop along a number of lines, interweaving the thematic strands of genocide, ‘slow violence’, visual storytelling, statelessness, trajectories of forced displacement and health destruction.

A deeper understanding of the specific nature and roots of forced displacement, statelessness and the destruction of access to healthcare for the Rohingya community in Myanmar is vital to the development of effective policy solutions. Yet, such solutions have been elusive. The proposed research builds on a successful track record of previous research and practical field experience in Burma and neighbouring Bangladesh from 2006 to 2016.

‘Archaeology’ connotes excavation. The sense in which I understand this visual excavation as a novel representational and narrative form that intellectually and experientially brings to life – in a way that the written word cannot – the effects of chronic displacement and insecurity on individuals, families and communities, in particular the ‘slow violence’ it inflicts. The construction of this ‘visual archaeology’ not only shows the physicality of genocide, it also has the capacity to expose, through the collection of visual records, a legacy of societal destruction which is so often unseen, unrecognised, and unreported by the international community and global news media due to its less viscerally violent character.

The Research Idea

A key ambition of the project is to rethink the dominant understanding of genocide as something that ‘erupts’ as an explosion or burst of violence, or as a clear-cut ‘event’ or ‘outcome’. Instead, it seeks to theoretically reconceptualise genocidal destruction as something more gradual and process-based. This project aims to take an interdisciplinary approach to explore and make visible a violence that is ‘neither spectacular nor instantaneous’, but ‘incremental and accretive,’ and crucially, a violence that is ‘underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory’ (Nixon, 2011: 2-3).

The idea of structural violence resonates with genocide scholar Daniel Feierstein’s notion of ‘systematic weakening,’ which he sees as a core stage in a broader genocidal process. This project aims to clarify the role of health destruction, the mental and psychological trauma of forced displacement and deprivation of nationality in the stage of systematic weakening specifically, and a holistic periodization of genocide more generally.

Background

The relationship between genocide and health destruction, the deprivation of nationality and forced displacement is underexplored in the scholarly literature. Addressing these research gaps, this project will focus on the contemporary case of the Rohingya community in Myanmar in order to deepen understanding of how destruction of a community’s health as well as deprivation of nationality and chronic forced displacement can be genocidal in nature. Bringing the fields of genocide studies, state crime, global public health into dialogue, the project will make empirical, conceptual, and policy-relevant contributions. Moreover, through visual storytelling, documentary photography, and oral testimony, this project will explore novel methodologies of capturing this elusive violence, illuminating the consequences of forced displacement, statelessness and deprivation of nationality on the human condition. This visual storytelling and visual ethnographic approach will contribute multiple layers of valuable context required to promote greater understanding of the larger story behind the intersection of these consequences and genocide.

The Focus

For decades the ethnic Rohingya community in Myanmar has been described as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Over one million Rohingya in Myanmar have been deprived of nationality and are stateless and have been subjected to severals waves of targeted violence, most recently in 2015 and again in 2017.

Building on a growing body of scholarship that seeks to return to Lemkin’s original broad sociological definition, this project will examine how the destruction of health, statelessness and forced displacement are often used as a deliberate technique – and often irreparably within the genocidal process detailed by Daniel Feierstein. A core aim in doing so is to deepen understanding of the meaning of ‘genocide’ itself, grounding investigation into the conceptual difficulties associated with the term in the realities of processes of social destruction in Myanmar.

Theoretical Novelty

Theoretically, this project aims to develop an interdisciplinary framework involving a complementary synthesis of visual ethnography/anthropology, international political sociological (IPS), and state crime approaches. It aims to explore how this intellectual synergy can help create new routes to building knowledge, method, theory, and alternative visual pedagogical approaches.

It will use photography and oral testimony as a central pathway to decentring academic knowledge by foregrounding the narratives and experiences of peoples themselves are currently being subjected to ‘slow violence’ and genocide. In doing so, this project seeks also to address the question of what type of ‘victim’ is imagined, and what type of suffering evoked, when discussing genocide. Concern with this issue emerges out of unease with the visual and narrative ‘spectacularisation’ of massive flows of displaced persons. As Schwobel-Patel notes, those fleeing are often constructed as lacking agency, and ‘to be seen’ rather than as ‘seers’ in their own right, thus evoking a ‘particular (stereo-)type in our collective imagination’ (Schwobel-Patel, 2016: 3, 4).

Through Arellia Azoulay’s theoretical concept of ‘the civil contract of photography’, this project will argue that even while being subjected to the genocidal process, the photographic medium and the ways in which this research is presented and disseminated serves as a way of restoring agency to those subjected to regime-made violence.

Methodology

Through an analytical focus on health destruction, statelessness and forced displacement as a form of systematic weakening, this project will contribute to theorisations of genocide as process-based and multidimensional, and deepen empirical understanding of how such processes evolve over time in relation to other stages, e.g. dehumanisation, stigmatisation, isolation, segregation.

The analytical framing of structural violence will be expanded and complemented with the concept of ‘slow violence’, which helps capture a form of destruction that is by its nature protracted, attritional and less viscerally shocking than outright physical violence. This will underpin the interpretation of victims’ testimony, and the use of novel visual methodological techniques. The use of visual methodologies will be employed in an effort to address the issues raised by Nixon’s probing questions: How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world? How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention? (Nixon, 2011: 3).

A core aim of this project is to confront this challenge. Through a combination of documentary photography and testimony, framed by the conceptual lenses of ‘slow violence’, this project seeks to build a novel visual-narrative mode of inquiry and presentation that can aid in grasping the genocidal implications of attritional health destruction, statelessness and forced displacement.

Work Plan

The project’s visual storytelling approach, grounded in the narratives and experiences of the chronically displaced, will provide an intellectual and experiential route into more complex structural and political questions, and create space for a richer and more nuanced sense of context. Building on past experience in successful long-term research projects these participants will act as guides into the personal, interior spaces of their lives. Through the use of photography and other forms of the image, this project will use visual methods to not only record, share and archive these elements of the experience in lives of the displaced but also to help translate the interconnections between slow violence and genocide.

This approach will consist of a series of photography-driven reportages, portraits, landscapes and multimedia oral testimonies. Woven through these multiple stories will be a common unifying narrative that will collectively provide a ‘visual archaeology’ of slow violence and genocide for this community. This approach will investigate and reveal the dynamics and shifting conditions constructing and perpetuating displacement and destruction of health.

This will be accomplished through a series of 2 research trips to Burma and neighbouring Bangladesh over the 12 months of the project. Each trip will be 6 weeks long.

Intended outputs will include one co-authored paper with colleagues at the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London as well as 2-3 media pieces. Additionally, it will result in two exhibitions intended to reach more strategic audiences in policy, academia and the public.

Outcome

Building on an extensive network of (both grassroots and high-level) contacts, one key route to promoting impact will be through the continued development of partnerships with a number of non-academic beneficiaries, including government policy-makers, national and international NGOs, policy think tanks, civil society, human rights groups, and humanitarian and development organisations working with on human rights, healthcare and nationality issues related to Myanmar. Most importantly, and as an intended consequence of engagement with the above range of organisations, the project hopes to benefit the Rohingya and other similar population of people themselves. In order to ensure these potential beneficiaries will gain from and be able to make use of this research, a specific engagement and dissemination approach will be developed in order maximise their opportunities for doing so.

A three-tiered impact plan, targeting the domestic, regional, and global levels, will steer the pathways to promoting impact. This disaggregated strategy will seek to filter the research through this web of stakeholders, from the grass roots level up. The approach will reach a variety of audiences, and open conversations with a range of organisations and individuals with contrasting but common stakes in shaping policies that not only tackle the root cases forced displacement, health destruction, statelessness and violence. Although often perceived as autonomous, in reality this hierarchy of diverse stakeholders is interconnected, possessing a variety of shared interests related to understanding the root causes of chronic forced displacement, mitigating its effects, and finding long-term solutions to it and its devastating impacts.