Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
This week, East African singer Somi releases her first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, in the United States. Already, it is #1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart, #1 on the Amazon Jazz Vocal Chart, and #1 on the Amazon Pop Vocal Chart. The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.
Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?
It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.
The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.
While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.
What was the initial response?
The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.
Above: watch the album teaser for The Lagos Music Salon, Somi’s major label debut on Sony’s OKeh imprint, released this week.
Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?
There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.
So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.
I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities. Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.
There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.
Did you have a residency there to start with?
Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.
Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.
Theoretical physicist Shohini Ghose has two great passions: physics, and advocating for gender equity in the sciences. This week, her passions converge as she chairs the 5th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada – the first time this prestigious conference will be held in North America. Why the focus on women? “There are still relatively few women in physics – and the higher up the ladder in academia or industry you go, the fewer women you find,” says Ghose. “Yet the laws of physics themselves are gender neutral, and the beauty of the universe is equally accessible to everyone. So why so few women, and how can we change that?”
For the next four days, delegates from over 50 countries – including astronomer and TED Prize winner Jill Tarter – will gather to showcase and celebrate scientific work in all areas of physics, and build a strong, diverse and inclusive worldwide physics community. To celebrate the conference launch today, we asked Ghose to share her favorite facts about women and their contribution to physics. “Women have made many important contributions in science, including physics, and have personally inspired me to become a physicist myself,” says Ghose. “Here are just a few.”
Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie won in 1903 for her studies of radioactivity. She shared the prize with her husband Pierre Curie and with the other discoverer of radioactivity, Henri Bequerel. Originally, the Nobel prize committee had only selected Pierre Curie – but he refused to accept it without proper acknowledgement of Marie’s contribution. In 1911, Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery and studies of radium and polonium. To this day, she remains the only person – male or female – to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines.
Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her model of the structure of the atomic nucleus. Goeppert Mayer faced a great deal of gender bias in her career: she had to work in unpaid positions at Columbia University and University of Chicago, where her husband was employed.
British astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – one of my all-time favorite physicists – established that the sun and other stars are all composed mostly of hydrogen. Payne-Gaposchkin later became the first woman to chair a department (astronomy) at Harvard.
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner first developed the theory explaining the process of nuclear fission, but she was overlooked by the Nobel Committee, who instead awarded Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn the prize in 1944. Meitner came to be known as the “mother of the atom bomb,” although she refused to work on the Manhattan Project after fleeing Nazi Germany. Element 109 is called meitnerium in her honor.
Albert Einstein called German mathematician Emmy Noether – author of Noether’s Theorem, a fundamental idea on which much of modern physics is built – a creative mathematical genius. Her theorem, published in 1918, states that if an object has symmetry – i.e., if it looks the same regardless of changing locations or times – then this leads to conservation laws in nature. A simple example is a movie of the motion of a ball when you throw it. The motion looks the same if you run the movie backwards in time (time symmetry). This means that the total energy of the ball remains the same (conservation of energy) – the energy just gets converted into different forms as the ball moves. This is a simplified example, but the theorem is widely applicable and is a real workhorse of modern physics.
How can examining psychological distress in animals help humans rethink our own mental health issues? TED Senior Fellow Laurel Braitman’s recently launched book – Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves explores how nonhuman animals struggle with varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. Learn more about the new book in the adorable video above – in which Braitman and her furry friends reveal a few gently fractured psyches. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Braitman, coming soon!
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
Experience art with your eyes closed and ears open at Artisphere’s recently launched exhibit Fermata.
The show is centered around a wall of speakers of every conceivable shape and size, and is dedicated entirely to the celebration of sound. Curated by TED Fellow Ryan Holladay, Fermata features the work of almost 30 artists each working with audio in some way, including sound artists (Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood), musicians (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Forest Swords, members of Swans, Fugazi, Future Islands), engineers, storytellers and scientists — all working with the medium of sound.
Fermata unfolds in three parts movements each featuring a different combination of six to ten sound works that cycle continuously for a month. Each movement plays on a continuous loop, with no two works playing simultaneously in the gallery. Fellow TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz will have work – music composed using the rhythms of starlight and planets – during the third movement of the show, from June 25 to July 20.
Ears burning? Make haste to Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery in Arlington, Virginia, through Sunday, 10 August 2014.
“If this were my last song, would you hum along? If this were my last song, would you try to remember everything?”
Somi, American vocalist & songwriter of Rwandan and Ugandan descent, has just released her hauntingly beautiful new single “Last Song” on iTunes, ready to download here.
This haunting, delicate track is from her about-to-be-released album The Lagos Music Salon, inspired by a 2009 journey to Lagos after the death of her father. Of the music video, above, Somi says, “It was shot at the very end of my time in Lagos, just over a year ago. It takes me back to the sun, people, and inspiration that filled my heart.”
The album will be available internationally on May 24, 2014, on Sony’s historic imprint Okeh Records. Watch this space!
Artist and writer Sharmistha Ray explores the metaphysical emergence of gender identity through her paintings and drawings. Now, she has partnered with author and art promoter, Anupa Mehta, to create a blog called “Politics of Art,” which will serve as an alternative platform for fostering conversations around contemporary art trends in India and internationally. Check it out here. You can also follow the blog on Twitter @politicsofart. To discover more about Sharmistha, read a full interview with her on the TED Blog >>>
At the age of 19, Eman Mohammed became the only female photojournalist based in Gaza, breaking longstanding cultural taboos around the role of women in society. Three weeks into her career, the Gaza War began. Now 26, Mohammed continues to document harrowing and intimate stories of war and its aftermath in Gaza and beyond. Here, Mohammed tells the TED Blog her extraordinary story of battling professional bias and sexual harassment from male colleagues — while simultaneously documenting the battle raging around her.
How did you end up on the battlefield as a photographer? What was your inspiration?
My inspiration is my mother. My father’s Jordanian with Palestinian roots, and my mother is a Palestinian — Gazan. When they separated when I was 3, my mom went back to Gaza and raised me there. In those years, I saw how the community mistreated her because she was divorced and raising her kids alone, an unknown thing. In that culture, if you get divorced, mothers aren’t supposed to raise their kids. You leave the kids with their dad. It’s a punishment. And if you don’t, you can’t remarry, by law. My mom didn’t want to remarry because she didn’t want to give away her kids.
It’s always the woman’s fault?
Always. Even when the husband is clearly in the wrong, divorced women are despised — or neglected, or the black sheep in the community — one way or another. You have zero chance of remarrying if you keep the kids. This is because, in a lot of cases, women don’t work. They can’t afford to survive. They can’t afford to raise kids alone. Nowadays, people are questioning this custom.
My mother struggled, but we still managed to travel. If she couldn’t afford much, she went to the poorest countries on Earth, and she dragged us all over the place with her, which was really fun. We visited cities in Romania, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. Travel changes everything. When you get exposed to different cultures and places, you just gain a lot of information and a way of thinking that schools don’t teach you. It was life-changing: we got to learn English, we got to learn about a lot of things that normal people in Gaza would not care about.
Meanwhile, my mother sent me to a church school, because it was one of the top schools in the city, then I went to the Islamic University of Gaza, which is owned and operated by Hamas. Both of them were extreme, in a way. It gave me a wider perspective on things.
Eight Palestinian children in the Jabalia refugee camp, in the northern Gaza strip, look through their window where laundry is hanging, watching a funeral (not shown) process past their house. Photo: Eman Mohammed
You started doing photojournalism as a teen. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t know that there were a million fields of journalism to choose from. At university, we don’t have photography as a subject. It doesn’t exist. I knew from the start that it would be hard to get a job in journalism in Gaza. I took internships, starting with radio stations, then newspapers, news channels on TV. Eventually I was trained by a local agency — it was a secular agency, but my boss was Islamic Jihad. He offered me a staff position — amazing considering I was 19, and still in my second year of university — as an editor in English and Arabic, and a producer. I made a condition that I would carry a camera with me, so that I could take photos. But I didn’t say that out loud: as a woman, you can’t say “I want to be a photojournalist” without being heavily criticized for it and in most cases forbidden.
Why would you be allowed an internship but not be allowed to be a photojournalist?
It’s OK to be a reporter as a woman, working in an office. TV reporters are OK, too, because they are only in the field for the final part of the report. As long as you spend most of your time inside the office, it’s fine. But to go into the field full-time with men as your colleagues is different — and you can’t be a photographer and work in the office. As a field photographer, you’d be the only woman with a lot of men. Just the idea was fascinating in a very negative way for me. Why? I didn’t get it, even though I’d lived all my life in Gaza. I know how conservative people can be, and how they mix tradition with religion. Religion has nothing to do with these very conservative, extremist traditions they have.
Scientific research is generating far more data than the average researcher can get through. Meanwhile, modern computing has yet to catch up with the superior discernment of the human eye. The solution? Enlist the help of citizen scientists. British astronomer and web developer Robert Simpson is part of the online platform Zooniverse, which lets more than one million volunteers from around the world lend a hand to a variety of projects — everything from mapping the Milky Way to hunting for exoplanets to counting elephants to identifying cancer cells — accelerating important research and making their own incredible discoveries along the way.
At TED2014, Simpson took us through a few of Zooniverse’s 20-plus projects (with more on the way), some of which have led to startling discoveries — including a planet with four suns. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.
Are you a scientist?
Well, I’m a distracted astronomer. Yes, I’m an astronomer at University of Oxford. But I’m there to create crowdsourcing projects where we put data — usually images, but sometimes videos or sound — online, and ask the public to do research tasks that we used to ask postgrads to do. This helps us go through lots and lots and lots of data very quickly — which means scientists are free to concentrate on the hard, analytical parts of the problem.
So you’re giving volunteers the grunt work, basically?
Yeah, but what’s weird is that people love it. And not only do they enjoy it, and engage with each other online, they make discoveries, too. That’s what’s so special about it. We don’t just get the scientists’ science done. We open up the possibility for everyone to start participating in creating their own science projects using data.
We have really sophisticated computers. What can the human eye detect that a machine can’t?
A lot. I mean, a lot. With Zooniverse’s original project, Galaxy Zoo – which asked volunteers to discern between spiral galaxies versus elliptical galaxies — that was something that computers really couldn’t do at the time. Actually, they still really can’t do it unless we use the human data that we’ve gathered to train them. The computer can get it right maybe 85 percent of the time. But the 15 percent where it fails are the most interesting objects. So the reason it fails is they’re weird, funny shapes or funny colors. There’s something about them that’s slightly abnormal. These are the objects people can identify that the computer can’t — and those are precisely the ones that are scientifically interesting. So by definition, the computer isn’t doing the bit we want it to do.
Examples of the different types of galaxies Zooniverse volunteers help categorize. Image: GalaxyZoo.org
Having said that, we’ve been able to train the computer to do a much better job based on the human answer, which is great news. But still, we want to ask for more — we want to cover weird, harder galaxies. So that project will just keep going, because people will always be looking at the harder set.
In another example, our project Planet Hunters has people looking through light curve data from stars, gathered using Kepler. So we stare at 150,000 stars, and watch the light from them. The whole point of doing this is to occasionally catch a planet passing in front of the star, and see a dip in light as it goes past. That dip can tell you how big the planet is, how often the planet’s going around the star, all sorts of stuff. You’ve just got to stare for long enough, and you’ve got to do it with a really, really, really good instrument.
Now, NASA and the Kepler team have used computer algorithms to look through this data for years, and they find lots of planets. But based on our experience with galaxies, we thought there must be stuff in this data that people will see that the computer can’t, because a computer is trained to look for certain things. It’s programmed by a person. Sure enough, we found planets that they didn’t find. And we found ones that are in weird, amazing configurations — some of which don’t make any physical sense — but they exist. For example, we found a planet in a seven-planet system around a sun-like star. That was an amazing discovery, because the more planets you have, the more crazy and chaotic all these dips get as they go back and forth.