Friday, June 1, 2018

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, Toronto, Sept. 29, 2005

SALMAN RUSHDIE'S STORY IS ONE THAT I'VE FOLLOWED NEARLY THE WHOLE OF MY ADULT LIFE, and it is one that contains nearly every issue I consider important to the time in which we live. Which means that I considered both my assignments to photograph and interview Rushdie to be of immense importance, and worth worrying about beforehand.

My first encounter with Rushdie was in the offices of his Canadian publisher, where he shared a room with a board table covered with enormous piles of his latest book, which he was tasked to sign. Sixteen years after the fatwa that changed his life, I don't recall him being under any of the security measures that were normally reserved for unpopular politicians or witnesses in mafia trials.

Salman Rushdie, Toronto, Sept. 29, 2005

We talked about his latest book, and about the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and how Rushdie's support for both - wholehearted for the former, conditional for the latter - had put him in conflict with fellow writers and friends on the left. (Two groups whose overlap is nearly total, to be honest.)

"In terms of responses to current events, there have been great mistakes on both sides," Rushdie told me, "and I think the mistakes of the left have to do with undervaluing the benefit of ridding the world of people like Saddam Hussein. I think if the left is not about overthrowing tyranny, what the hell is it about? And having said that I have been a very strong critic of the manner in which it was done. But I can't be a critic of the fact that it was done."

I did a very conventional author's-photo-taken-for-a-newspaper portrait of Rushdie at that first meeting. It wasn't terribly different from anything another newspaper photographer would have taken in a similar situation, and I'm glad I got it out of the way for my next assignment to photograph the writer, three years later.

Salman Rushdie, Toronto, June 10, 2008

I don't know if I interviewed Rushdie in addition to the portrait shoot - there's no story in my files for 2008 - but I definitely took more care with my photos the second time, which also might have had something to do with being back at work shooting portraits for four years by then, and tentatively grasping my way back to something like a personal style.

I did away with props and concentrated on finding the single spot of light in the room, and made my subject's face fill nearly the whole frame. I also managed to capture a frame of Rushdie with his eyes closed - something I've done so consistently across my whole career that I can't say it's accidental any more. It's probably my favorite shot; a record of Rushdie's features in what looks like - but definitely isn't - a captured moment of contemplation.

I can thank Salman Rushdie for helping me define for myself my own first principle, which is free speech absolutism, as the cornerstone of any and every civil liberty or truly enlightened society. At the time of the fatwa, I was encouraged by the support that Rushdie received from his peers and from his political cohorts.

I'm no longer certain that he could count on that today, and the retreat from robust support for free speech, not to mention the eager accommodations being made to religious fundamentalism, are reminders that history is not really fueled by the engine of progress - one of those words that we use but no longer share a common definition - but by capricious cycles of entropy and lurching motion whose goal is never predictably a truly better place.

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