By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Yemen: Then As Now? Part 2

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Photographs by William Carter © 1964

yemen2.1House in Sanaa, the capital


yemen2.2Tribal representatives pleading with Egyptian “anti-colonial” troops


yemen2.3Heading north, where Egyptian-backed revolutionaries were fighting Saudi-backed royalists


yemen2.4View from a British helicopter


yemen2.5Outpost in South Yemen: note man in prayer on wall


yemen2.6Modern town of Taiz


yemen2.7Traditional town of Sanaa


yemen2.8Traders in the southern port of Aden

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April 13, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Yemen: Then as Now?

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Photographs and Text © William Carteryemen1.1Tribal elder near Sanaa, Yemen during the 1964 civil war. He carries a sprig of “ghat,” the mild national narcotic, in his hat

When Condoleezza Rice popped up in Cairo a few years ago to lecture the pharaohs that she and the other neocons were going to bring democracy to the Middle East, I had to laugh.  It was redolent of the U.S. promising, a century earlier, to “make the world safe for democracy.”  More distantly, I was reminded of the “enlightened self-interest” pronouncements of the colonial centuries. I was in Yemen and Aden in 1964 when the Brits were withdrawing none-too-gracefully from the last vestiges of their empire “east of Suez.”  Reading the sad news of today’s Yemen, I am checking my files for photographs I took that fall in the company of my colleague, the New York Times’ Dana Adams Schmidt.


yemen1.2Chinese laborer, Yemen 1964: the Americans, the Soviets, and the Chinese raced to win hearts and minds in a road building competition while the Egyptians and Saudis sponsored a proxy war of factions that included the use of napalm

After flying by Egyptian military plane from Cairo to Sanaa, we slept for a few days in a mud brick skyscraper. I sampled “ghat” (the local mild narcotic), and we interviewed Yemen’s Egypt-friendly President and other local officials. We traveled north to the medieval town of Saada, close to a civil war then raging between the Royalists (backed by royal Saudi Arabia) and the Republicans (backed by Nasser’s Egypt).  Sound familiar today? In the nearby town of Taiz we interviewed an American foreign aid official who explained that the U.S. and the Russians were competing for influence in the country by building major roads, sending in Caterpillars from Peoria and asphalt from some Soviet province; even the Chinese were already in that game, shipping in laborers with picks and shovels.  We also interviewed a British official who knew far more about the tribes and sub-tribes than the Americans ever would, because the Brits had been there so long and taken a deeper interest in the native culture.

yemen1.3Then as now, the ultimate victims were the children

Next came the toughest road journey of my life.  In a vintage Land Rover we bumped and slid over hundreds of miles of nearly trackless dessert, south toward Aden, past some of the most destitute, disease-ridden villages in the world, stopping a few of times in this region then called “South Arabia” to overnight with jaunty British troops and cheerful colonial administrators, enabling Dana to fill up his notebook with more quotes and me to take more pictures.  Aden was a depressing, dangerous place in the throes of a Marxist sub-revolution; a cafe we had sat in an hour earlier was hit by a terrorist bomb. Most interesting (and quaint, now): we visited polling stations where British colonial officials, as prelude to their withdrawal from this final outpost of empire, were staging elections: fair, square, and meaningless.

yemen1.4In the strategic port of Aden, the British were preparing to depart from a last vestige of Empire by holding an election

All this was a long way from palm-fronded LA where I had grown up. But I shipped the uncensored shoot to New York by air freight (with the requisite bribe to the Beirut Pan Am agent). That was the start of my career as a photojournalist based in Lebanon.  Eventually I got most of the filmstrips and slides back, but that was half a century ago, and I’m still looking for more of them to scan.  I now see that even at that early stage (I had only taught myself photography 3 years earlier), I was more of a sucker for humanity than for the hard violence needed to sell news to a civilized society then preoccupied with race riots and Vietnam.

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March 30, 2018 at 12:00 pm

The Tones of Stones

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Sometimes, in our wanderings across the landscape of ancient Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, my wife Ulla and I would stumble into a silent, ancient amphitheater. Persuaded to try my clarinet in that dry air, I’d soon be assured that even the softest tones carried well into the high rows.

Ulla and I treasure such sweet memories. But now they are jarred with bitter undertones —  endless war, brutal destruction at such magnificent sites as Palmyra.

Below, our sentimental snaps of twenty years ago have an implicit simplicity, a clarity of tone hard to recall today.






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March 16, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Contested Stones redux

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Too late — again?

As a sad update to my recent “Contested Stones” blog, events continue to unfold in the Middle East.  Under the headline “Saving Syria,” the Wall Street Journal notes that, amid that nation’s current civil war, poorly guarded monuments of immense historical importance, including the medieval Crac des Chevaliers and the Roman ruins of Palmyra, are starting to be degraded by looters and damaged by modern weaponry.  Below the link to the WSJ story is one of my photographs of Palmyra, in the eastern Syrian desert. (Recall that Iraq suffered other important archaeological losses which occurred during the American invasion.)

Please read “Saving Syria,” by Christian Sahner in the Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012.

Palmyra, Syria vintage silver print ©William Carter 1993

Palmyra, Syria vintage silver print ©William Carter 1993

East Jerusalem, 1964

East Jerusalem, 1964

“Watch any mother kneeling beside her toddler, pointing and explaining what they are looking at.  Our urge to see, to comprehend and connect, starts there.”

That’s how I put it in the opening text of my Causes and Spirits.

Received culture profoundly affects how we see the world. Including how we view it through our cameras.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Holy Land” fought over for thousands of years by followers of the three Abrahamic religions, plus such secular claimants as the Romans, the Turks, and the British.

When I was living in Beirut 1964-1966, much of Jerusalem and the territory around Bethlehem were controlled by a classic buffer state — the Kingdom of Jordan. On two successive Decembers I was sent by an American magazine to photograph Christmas in Bethlehem.  None of those pictures survive, because the magazine was buying full rights, including the films themselves. But I retain strong memories of the tumult swirling within and without the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Monks of various traditions were physically fighting for jurisdiction over this and that section of holy stones at this and that hour. The surrounding city bubbled with the sorts of strife to which the region has always been heir, and to which the Israelis would soon contribute. Seasoned observers would continue to watch these underlying tensions weave threads of irony into all the heartfelt salaams and shaloms of the private greetings, public blessings and international agreements.

But I did my gig: I sent the Midwestern magazine what I was sure they wanted: warm, candlelit faces of Protestant pilgrims processioning past the ancient, contested stones.

Where and when to cut slices of space and time with the bright-line frame of my Leica was never obvious. I reflected, sometimes, on earlier generations of foreign photographers of the Middle East: of the dreamy harem scenes, for instance, always included in the sets of stereopticon slides sent back to reinforce colonial stereotypes in London drawing rooms — some of those same drawing rooms where ruler lines were then being traced across the maps of Arab sands creating nation-states where none had existed before – thus helping set up the kinds of tribal quarrels the world still struggles to contain.

Working far from home, journalists can face ethical dilemmas that are personal and immediate, as well as professional. Covering the Korean War in the 1950s, a journalist I knew watched an American TV crew stop a farm family from putting out the fire engulfing their shelled house until the cameraman got great footage of the licking flames.

Iraqi Kurdish guerillas, June 1965

Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas, June 1965

At one point I faced a dilemma while traveling for Life Magazine with the Kurdish guerrilla fighters across northern Iraq. My main contact was an intelligent, helpful, English-speaking former Iraqi army officer named Colonel Akrawi.  Huddled by a lantern one night, noticing I hadn’t gotten any combat shots, he moved closer, tapped on a map and whispered, “At the bottom of these hills, in the flat desert north of Suleimaniya, there’s a small Iraqi police post. Half a dozen of them sleep there every night. Next Tuesday is full moon. So if you want, we can raid the place and kill all the policemen – and you’ll can get great pictures! Okay?”

He was leaving it up to me. His offer was laden with the warmth and generosity of traditional guest-honoring, plus a dose of macho that included me as co-conspirator in their revolution. How to reply? The pictures sounded tempting. But to get them, I would, in effect, be sponsoring a few murders. And, I would be creating some news in order to report it – not exactly what photojournalists are supposed to do. As the lantern light flickered over our faces, I thanked the colonel, but explained that for that job I would have needed a flash, and mine was broken. The gentlemanly Kurd nodded and accepted this. I photographed Akrawi and his aides, conferring in the orange lantern light well into the night. Days later I photographed him shaving. Then we marched west for several nights to the mountain passes above the oilfields of Kirkuk. Under shellfire the colonel handed me his binoculars, pointed, and declared, “That oil is ours!” Today, sixty years later, the Kurds are negotiating to sell that oil direct to major American producers without bothering to ask permission from Baghdad.

A year or two after my visit, word reached me Colonel Akrawi had been badly wounded in battle. Eventually, I was told he had died. An amateur botanist, he had showed me a scrapbook he toted around, into which he pressed samples of plants peculiar to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Whatever happened to that lovely notebook, with its unique specimens? In Paris, much later, I visited the Kurdish Institute and asked about Akrawi: they remembered him well — but not his collection.

In the late 1970s I was sitting on the cool tiles of a crowded courtyard near Bombay, listening to a talk by spiritual master Swami Muktananda when he remarked, as if casually, “One sees the world as one is.”

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

Colonel Akrawi shaving, Iraqi Kurdistan, June 1965

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The World’s Century

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American Exceptionalism is Dead

Longterm thinking: Chinese laborer in Yemen, 1964 Photograph © William Carter

Longterm thinking: Chinese laborer in Yemen, 1964. Photograph © William Carter

By 1945 the U.S. had emerged indisputably as the world’s strongest nation, physically and financially. War spending had helped end the Depression. The country had been spared the devastation of once-dominant Europe and its far-flung colonial system. The booming 1950s reinforced America’s underlying faith in its own moral and political underpinnings. Goaded by the worldwide challenge of communism, this “first new nation” set out to teach the “third” or “underdeveloped” world, by soft and hard power alike, the benefits of the American way. Behind this effort was a longstanding set of internal attitudes and assumptions that historians would dub “American exceptionalism.”

During the second half of this “American Century” the U.S. became involved in proxy wars in places such as Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Latin America. The results of these conflicts were often, at best, indeterminate. Far more successful, below the radar, were America’s exports of knowledge-based, open-lifestyle aspects of its consumer-based civilization: science and education, manufacturing and retail, mass communications and entertainment. Enlightened self-interest assumed that a rising tide of living standards worldwide (across oceans policed by the U.S. Navy) would lift all boats. Public and private agencies poured massive resources into helping the world imbibe Progress.

But by the year 2000 the success of this “soft power” transfer had produced unforeseen consequences. Populous and increasingly prosperous non-western civilizations, having acquired industrial and economic modernization, were now reconfiguring their societies in ways not necessarily predicted or understood by their western mentors.

Worldwide economic relationships were increasingly interconnected and interrelated.  Low-cost Asian labor was as much a fact of life in Berlin or Los Angeles or Mexico as were the inventions of  Apple or Caterpillar or Boeing in Mumbai or Sydney or Cairo. No one anywhere could any longer claim a monopoly on righteousness, pornography, or nuclear fusion. Provincial U.S. politicians might still try to pander to the hustings with sentimental yearnings; but the greater world knew that the idea of  “American exceptionalism” was now as last-century as “the American Century” itself.

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January 16, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Moments in Mirrors

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Washington Square, New York City, 1963

Washington Square, New York City, 1963

My wanderings through the canyons and parks of New York often began or ended in Washington Square, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. I never tired of joining the onlookers at the serious chess games going on there day and night. Occasionally one could spot someone like this guy who appeared to have privately cracked the code on the game of chess (or life for that matter). New Yorkers seem to have evolved ways of being at once entirely public and intensely private.

Later, I shook hands briefly with a famous photographer of an earlier era, Andre Kertesz, who was living on an upper floor of a tall apartment house on Washington Square, right above my head. Some of his pictures were taken in fun zone mirrors, others from his window looking down on the Square. I fantasized that at the moment I was taking the picture above, Andre could have been taking a picture of me taking pictures of the “chessmen.”  Remembering that thought makes me laugh like the man in my picture.

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January 2, 2018 at 1:51 pm

Jazz Emerges Part 7

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Sing Miller: This Little Light of Mine

Visible Roots of America’s Most Original Cultural Product

Photographs by William Carter 1970 — 1989

Born in 1914, pianist-vocalist Sing Miller was active on the New Orleans scene from the late 1920s until his death in 1990. If Sing didn’t like something, he’d let you know. “Man…that ball don’t bounce,” is a Sing-saying drummer Jeff Hamilton remembers.

Early one winter morning in Iowa in 1984, when I was traveling as a photojournalist with the Percy Humphrey band, Sing sat alone in the lobby for most of an hour, staring glumly out at the blustery weather. Finally he lumbered over and checked out. “Have a nice day,” said the lady at the desk. Sing: “How I’m gonna have a nice day when you took all my money?”

But he was also a bon vivant. When a reporter asked him, “Where did the blues begin?” Sing replied, “I’ll tell you where the blues begin. Blues begin with fish fries.”

Like many early New Orleans musicians, he had an alternate profession: as a paving contractor. On gigs he gave out business cards that read, “Let me pave the way for you.”

But Sing is best remembered for captivating audiences of five, or five thousand, with his vocals on blues and spirituals. After a performance one night at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center, the famous folklorist Alan Lomax told me:

“The first note he sang, I began to cry.  That first note of Sing’s made me burst into tears.  This little, humble, crushed-looking man was in great big Avery Fisher Hall, and he knew it.  And the first note he formed was as beautiful as a garden of flowers. It was a sunburst of the soul.”

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September 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

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