Five tips for photographers to focus their lens on digital

photography-socialBoom boom. In this post, I’m going to look at how photographers (professional and amateur) can use the internet to market their services and increase brand awareness.

After all, you might argue there’s no such thing as overexposure on the internet…ahem.

Why photographers you might ask? Well, I have a few photographer friends who want to know more about how they can use the internet for marketing.

In addition, I’m really interested in how to create a personal brand, and I think it’s something that almost anyone can do effectively; it’s just about being true to yourself. And, as most photographers are “one-man bands”, marketing the brand that is you is of the utmost importance.

So where to start? Well, sites such as Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram are really useful for showcasing images, but social media is just one part of creating a memorable online persona.

Ultimately, you need to think beyond just social. So whether you’re the next David Bailey, an up and coming professional photographer or an amateur with a camera phone and an awesome eye for detail, this is the post for you.

Ready? Ok. Lights; camera; action… 

1. Understand how Google works

A common query is “how do I appear on the top of Google search?” There might not be a simple quick-fix to search engine optimisation (SEO), but understanding how Google works is a great place to start. Search is too big a topic to cover in great depth in this post, but here’s a brief introduction with some links to beginner’s guides.

When you type a search query into Google, you’ll see different types of results:

SEO-PPC

Click to enlarge

The results in red are paid search ads. This is where the advertiser has paid a fee to have their web search results displayed at the top of Google, based on contextual key words. The associated cost can be based on the amount of traffic driven to the website (PPC or pay-per-click) or CPM (cost-per-impression; i.e. the number of times the ad is displayed). 

The results in blue are natural or organic search results. These are unpaid for, and are based on the Google bots crawling your website for key words. Where your website appears depends on a number (in fact, hundreds!) of factors taken into account by Google’s magic algorithm, and forms the basis of SEO or search engine optimisation. These are known as ranking factors. Search engines aim to provide the user with relevant answers to their queries and rank them in order of importance. That’s a very topline overview, but you get the picture.

So, what does this mean? Although SEO is a long-term, continuous process, the very first port of call is to understand that Google can only crawl your site if it can read the words on your website. Google understands text. It does not understand images. So if all the text on your site is presented in image form, then Google can’t read it. You’re not even speaking to Google.

The other thing about having text as images is that you cannot create web links for words used on your site. If the words are presented as images, you provide no opportunity for the user to click on a word which opens up as a link to a different part of the website. And don’t forget, if your text is presented as an image, editing it is a whole lot harder than simply going back and retyping the words.

So although images are obviously important for photographers, making the most of the words on your page is crucial for Google to be able to index your site. And I’m not saying you need lots and lots of text on your site; after all it only follows that a photography site will probably be mostly made up of images. But, crucially, any words you do include must be text-based to make it easier for search engines to read, and must be optimised to yield better search results.

For more information about SEO, check out these (free) beginner’s guides:

2. Use creative content to tell a story 

They say a picture tells a thousand words. Ultimately, photography is the art of story-telling. Sharing the story behind your photography is not only a great way to engage your audience, but also helps to generate content for your website.

Social media, like photography, is about telling a story. All this really means is “be interesting”. For Humans of New Yorkexample, the Humans of New York is a great street photography blog that generated a large following through social media. As of November 2014, HONY has 10.7M likes on Facebook.

The photographer behind the project, Brandon Stanton, aims to photograph New York residents and plot their location on a map. But what is really fascinating about the project is the short stories that Stanton collected along the way.

This is definitely something photographers can be inspired by. Whether it’s on your website or on social media, sharing the story behind your photograph can be a really effective way to engage your audience.

And stories can also be shared in the form of blogs on your website. If writing isn’t your thing, it doesn’t need to be in great depth. Content marketing provides a whole host of benefits. Not only does it help to build valuable relationships with your existing advocates, it can help search engines to find you, thus generating new relationships with potential clients. Crucially, it makes you appear personal and human.

Another place where you can share your story is on your About page. Take a look at street photographer, Matt Stuart’s About page, for example. On this page, he shares information about his photography experience, what inspires him, details of the cameras he uses, and much more.

3. Share your knowledge and expertise

Another form of content marketing includes how-to-guides and hints and tips for hobbyists who want to improve their photography. Everyone wants to take better pictures. And this is where you come in.

Obviously, you don’t want to give away the farm, but providing some useful advice can help position you as a thought leader or expert, and therefore enhance your credibility. If you’re known to be an expert in your field, you’re far more likely to be approached by PR and press to give your opinion on a particular topic.

In addition, it gives readers a reason to come back to your website and read your content. If writing is your thing, you could create a blog around photography tips. If blogging isn’t your bag, then sharing tips on social media about how to capture a beautiful image is a great way to generate interesting content. It just gives your audience a far more compelling reason for hitting the “Like” button on your fan page.

Alternatively, you could answer questions on third-party websites, such as Quora, for example. This is a great resource for readers to get tips about almost any subject; equally experts can go online to answer these queries. There are hundreds of queries relating to hints and tips about improving photos, both from in front of and behind the camera.

Yahoo Answers is another example of a question and answer site. Internet users will often type their questions directly into Google, which means that questions on Yahoo Answers often rank well in search.

4. Find creative ways to interact with your fans, followers, listeners

Okay, so you’ve got your Facebook page. You have Instagram. And you have Twitter. Now what next? Of course the obvious thing is to post your photos and get as many “Likes” as you can. But think beyond just “Likes” and think about how to interact with your audience and create meaningful conversations.

Photographs are essentially capturing a memory and it’s simple to get your audience to talk about their special moments or places they have visited. If you’re posting an image of a place you’ve visited, something as simple as asking your audience about their memories of that place can initiate a dialogue. It takes you a step beyond merely likes and helps you to reach out to your fans through meaningful interactions. It’s also a great way to show your human side and create a personal brand.

Competitions are also another way to get your fans to interact with you. For example, take a look at photographer, Max Barsness aka heretosaveyouall on Instagram. He has some truly beautiful images, and some 103,000 followers. He also happens to be friends with one, Mr Aaron Paul. Back in August 2014, Aaron Paul ran the following competition:

glassofwhiskey_on_Instagram

Click to enlarge

The offer of a Breaking Bad script inevitably led to Max garnering a lot of followers and comments on Instagram. Now you could question the value of these followers, given that many people were only lured to the page on the promise of Breaking Bad memorabilia. And although many people quickly unfollowed Max after the competition ended, many stayed for the beautiful images (myself included and I’m really glad that I did!). The point is that the competition created great exposure, and Aaron Paul did this because he truly believes in the talent of Max’s photography.

Now, in an ideal world, we would all be friends with Aaron Paul (yeah, bitch), but of course, not everyone can do this. But what this example does highlight is the value of running competitions as a means to get your followers to interact with you and create some buzz around your photography. And it doesn’t have to be on the scale of Aaron Paul superstardom.

The benefits of running competitions on social media are numerous, but they include increased engagement, creating incentives for people to follow you, and enhanced brand awareness and exposure.

5. Go back to basics and nail your website. 

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that while social media is a great platform for showing off your portfolio to your fans, your website is the primary place for showcasing your best work to potential paying clients. It’s likely to be the first place that your future customers will look for you.

A lot of small businesses focus on social media as a starting point for marketing themselves online, but it’s crucial to make your website a priority. It’s a given that as a photographer, you will probably be using high-quality images on your site, but have you taken into account the overall user experience?

For example, how easy is it to access and use your site on mobile? If you’re building your website using a free provider, such as Wix or Weebly, these sites now include mobile optimisation tools to create a version of your site that will work on phones.

Also, think about how your customer will find your website. If your photography company works under a corporate brand name, are they more likely to search for that brand or for your name? If someone doesn’t yet know the brand, they are probably more likely to search for you instead, as an individual who is the face, talent and creativity behind the photography. It takes a while to build a recognisable brand, whereas a name is probably more instantly memorable.

The functionality of the website is also important. It sounds simple, but for example, does your website allow the user to cycle back and forth on images, pause on certain pictures and forward others?

The user experience of the website is a whole in-depth topic in itself, but it’s worth thinking about your site from the perspective of your customers, and definitely making it a priority alongside other forms of marketing.

I hope this post has been interesting and informative, and I would love to get your feedback. It would also be great to get digital marketing tips from those working in the realm of photography. 

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/biC1Rr by Mark J P on Flickr

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“Til Jihad Do Us Part” – Vote now!

The Big Pitch is a new, dynamic, UK-based film competition, where amateur film-makers pitch their film ideas, and are given the unique opportunity to have their film ideas made into a feature production.

Not only is this a fantastic opportunity for film-makers everywhere, but from my perspective as an avid film buff, it also means that slightly off-beat films can get produced that normally would receive little or no attention from Hollywood.

There are some great finalists, but my personal favourite is the very originally titled comedy “Til Jihad Do Us Part.” 🙂 The film idea is accompanied by a great blog by film-maker and writer, Shai Hussain. You can meet Shai here.

The romantic comedy film is inspired by “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” but puts an original and very topical spin on the theme. 🙂 The movie focuses on the story of Meena, and her growing suspicions that her new fiancé may be a terrorist…

“The best thing about The Big Pitch isn’t just the opportunity to get a feature film made – it’s the chance to go through the whole process in a really hands-on way, and not linger in development hell for years. Kudos to those who let a film with the title “Jihad” get this far.”

–Shai Hussain – Writer of Til Jihad Do Us Part

Taking into account the way that Muslims are currently portrayed in the media, “Til Jihad Do Us Part” provides a refreshing injection of humour, which is always welcome. 😉 Consequently, I’d encourage you (you, blog reader…) to vote to get this film made. At the end of the day, it’s all up to you, Joe Public; you get to decide which film-maker gets this opportunity of a lifetime.

Voting officially opens at noon, on the 19th of November (i.e. right now! Go vote! Go on…!). Competition winners will be announced on the 6th of December.

Vote for “Til Jihad Do Us Part” here. Voting closes on the 6th of December 2008.

The Jewel of Medina: Nobody cares… Game. Over.

“It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” — Oscar Wilde

The latest controversy in the Muslim world appears to be furore over Sherry Jones’ latest work of fiction, “The Jewel of Medina.” However, like everything else reported in the mainstream media about Islam, things are not always what they seem.

“The Jewel of Medina” is our version of that truly horrific work of fiction, “The Da Vinci Code.” I should clarify my position here, as I’m offended by both books, but not because of their religious themes, but rather they are offensive from a literary and grammatical perspective. 😉 Having had the misfortune to read the truly appalling trashy novel that was Da Vinci, I am simply staggered that the book has received the publicity, and widespread sales that it has, not to mention the kind of fame achieved by the bland and mediocre author, Dan Brown.

Both books have a number of commonalities:

  1. They both take religious themes, adapt them and fabricate some pseudo-history in order to achieve some controversy and subsequently generate sales.
  2. Both are extremely badly written. “The Da Vinci Code” mainly consists of chapters that are approximately five pages each, in order to retain the attention of its core audience, most of whom are probably finding reading books a new experience. Does that sound arrogant and patronising? It was supposed to. 😉 Likewise, the excerpt of “The Jewel…” speaks for itself.
  3. Both claim to be “extensively researched.” However, anyone who has read an iota of Islamic history will know that “The Jewel…” contains no historical facts whatsoever. According to the BBC website (emphasis added by myself):
  4. “Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as well as one of the great leaders of early Islam, is portrayed as conniving, hot-tempered and lascivious. The Islamic texts document him as a consistently staunch defender of truth and justice, an upstanding character.”

Given the fact that the book contains numerous factual errors, this should help to reinforce the fact that it is merely a work of fiction, not a historical account by any means. I don’t believe that any book should be banned, as censorship merely adds to the notoriety of the novel and simply generates more sales for a mediocre author, who otherwise would have slipped by under the radar, relatively unnoticed inthe literary world .

What is particularly interesting in this case is that Random House (the publishers) “banned” the book, over “fears it could incite violence” i.e. before there were any signs onf any reaction at all. It’s clear that a “ban” adds a layer of credibility to an unknown author. Having read the first chapter of the book, it’s apparent that the book is a trashy novel, an Islamic Mills and Boon” if you will, that will only appeal to people who don’t read books, much like Da Vinci.

So, for the record, Muslims don’t care. The Satanic Verses, this is not. It’s true that perhaps a small minority of people may be offended by this book, but the majority of Muslims don’t care about yet another bland author’s attempt to implement some savvy marketing and sell some fictional soap opera story masquerading as a historical and factual account.

Despite the claims by the media that Muslims want to ban this book, rather it’s the publishers who want people to think that Muslims want to censor it, in some desperate and rather tragic attempt by the author to achieve some credibility for what is none other than a poorly-written novel in the vein of aMuslim Bridget Jones.”

I would highly recommend reading a review on the BBC’s website by blogger, Shelina Zahra Janmohammed.

The bottom line is that Muslims must realise that they are being played, like puppets on a string.

The accusation that Muslims constantly want to ban “everything” is not only fallacious but also deeply divisive, creating an “Us Versus Them” mentality. However, rather than adopting a “victim” mindset, Muslims need to speak out, in order to put an end to the idea constantly perpetuated in the media, that they are in favour of censorship.

For more information, please read Shelina Zahra Janmohammed’s review of The Jewel of Medina, published by the BBC News Magazine, available here.

Are white middle-class men discriminated against? No, seriously.

Well, they are, if you believe one Mr Jeremy Paxman. It seems that race relations have progressed so far in this country, that beyond mere equality, bigotry in its latest form means that white middle-class men have no hope of making within the television industry.

At a pre-recorded interview at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Paxman said:

“The worst thing you can be in this industry is a middle-class white male. If any middle-class white male I come across says he wants to enter television, I say ‘give up all hope’. They’ve no chance.”

Pardon me if I’m perhaps just a tad sceptical. 🙂

Don’t get me wrong; I love Paxman’s irreverent interviewing style on Newsnight (who doesn’t!?) Much to the amusement of the British public, Paxman has provided countless classic moments of TV gold, as many an arrogant, slippery politician makes yet another futile attempt to try to evade his aggressive and persistent line of questioning (“Did you threaten to over-rule him?” 😉 ).

Afterall, only Paxman alone could ask Tony Blair whether he and George Bush pray together, for example. 🙂

However, in recent months, Paxo has been prone to gaffes on more than one occasion. First, there was the rather sensitive issue of Marks & Spencer’s underwear (the less said about this, the better – I’d rather not elaborate 😯 ). This was closely followed by a rather serious “incident” where Paxman managed to offend the whole of Scotland, by lambasting the work of celebrated poet, Robert Burns as “sentimental doggerel.”

And in his most recent error of judgment, Paxman appears to think that white middle-class men are the most disadvantaged when it comes to employability, in the television industry, at least. This is a comment that could only really come from someone who’s probably hasn’t experienced much prejudice and bigotry firsthand.

Needless to say, Paxman’s comments have received much criticism and ridicule. Channel 4 news presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, said:

“I feel awfully sorry for white, middle-class men who went to Oxbridge… but I’m not sure they are the ones at the greatest disadvantage.

“Obviously, the people who really are facing the biggest struggle to make it into television are those from working-class backgrounds and people from ethnic minorities. If they are both working class and from an ethnic minority, they really are up against it.”

Whilst it’s undeniable that there’s been significant progress when it comes to eradicating discrimination, nevertheless, there is still a long way to go, and to claim that white middle-class men face a greater struggle than women, ethnic minorities, or the working class, is simply absurd.

Paxman’s bold, outlandish claims that white middle-class males are society’s most neglected minority group seems to indicate that he is completely out of touch with reality.

Despite this latest faux pas, to remember Paxman at his most memorable, check out this video that features some of his best moments:

Aah, that’s better. Classic Paxman at his finest hour. 🙂

Street art at the Tate: bland, boring and no sign of Banksy anywhere

If you’ve read my About Me page, then you’ll know that I love street art. Monday is the last day of the Tate Modern’s iconic street exhibition, so last week, I decided to catch the exhibition while I still had the chance.

Whilst I acknowledge that the presence of a street art exhibition at the Tate is a milestone in allowing graffiti to be recognised as a genuinely credible art form, I can’t help but feel that the exhibition missed the point. Whilst it may have made urban art more accessible to a new audience, it failed to capture all that is fascinating and unique about street art.

Association with left-wing politics

Although urban street art has been popularised by British graffiti artist, Banksy (the Keyser Söze of the art world), it’s a global art form that’s long shared an intimate bond with socialism, radical politics, and the anti-war movement. Most recently, Orwell’s most famous works, (the visionary dystopian novel 1984 and the satirical allegory, Animal Farm) were reissued with visually stunning book covers designed by guerrilla street artist, Shepard Fairey.

Shepard Fairey, most famous for the iconic Obey campaign, recently created this limited edition print to show his support for Presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Not only did the print sell out in minutes, but also support from such a popular cultural figure did wonders for Obama’s campaign. As Fairey explained on his website:

”I believe with great conviction that Barack Obama should be the next President. I have been paying close attention to him since the Democratic convention in 2004. I feel that he is more a statesman than a politician. He was against the war when it was an unpopular position (and Hillary was for the war at that time), Obama is for energy and environmental conservation. He is for healthcare reform…”

Whilst the exhibition at the Tate (which also included an urban walking tour) mostly focused on Madrid street art, the lack of political messages meant that the exhibition failed to capture the revolutionary spirit at the heart of the guerrilla street art movement.

In addition, given that Banksy has popularised the art form and brought it to the mainstream, an exhibition where his work isn’t mentioned (at all) seems somewhat incomplete. Whilst the exhibition’s curators argue that they wanted to bring a more international flavour to the Tate, I suspect that the noticeable absence of arguably the world’s most famous anonymous artist may have been more to do with the anti-establishment nature of street art.

Anti-establishment art doesn’t have corporate sponsors

A particularly salient point to note about the Tate street art exhibition is that it’s sponsored by Nissan, ironic given the anti-capitalist nature of the movement.

The work of James Cauty, for example, is unlikely to ever receive a sponsorship from Disney, despite featuring its most iconic star in a variety of different guises. 🙂 And, this piece from Banksy probably won’t do any favours for the marketing department of a certain American fast food chain.  😉

The epitome of freedom of expression

In 2005, Banksy sneaked into four New York museums to hang his own work. That’s the point about street art.  It doesn’t need permission. It exemplifies all that is beautiful about freedom of expression. And, it democratises art, rather than limiting it to a small, privileged elite, who may or may not get the chance within their lifetime to display their work to the general public.

In some ways, Web 2.0 shares many of the characteristics of street art, which rather aptly explains my fascination with both. Like street art, the social web has democratised information, through bloggery, and other forms of user-generated content.

Moving on from this, the internet has been instrumental in popularising street art and bringing it into the spotlight. Sites such as Wooster Collective, Art of the State, and Streetsy, as well as blogs dedicated to individual art projects (such as the Little People blog) have propelled the movement to spectacular new heights.

An exhibition that doesn’t capture the evocative soul of street art is short-sighted, bland and ultimately, “not so street.” Street art has long been dismissed as “graffiti” and criticised for its lack of credibility as an art form. Whilst displaying this art at the Tate is an important step in helping to give street art the respect it deserves, as this blog post points out:

“What does it mean to just choose a few street artists and paste work onto the side of an art institution? If it already exists outside on sides of buildings what makes this so special?”

…Although (it) gives street art the respect it deserves, it also tells us that it still isn’t as valued as other modern and contemporary art practices, by denying it the space inside the museum.

It is only as valid as its increase of visitors and sponsorship money. A friend answered my questions by saying, “They’ve had to bring the street art to the middle classes, so they can feel cool. Or they can feel cool by slating it.”

I conclude that this was a wasted opportunity by the Tate.”

In summary, urban art is about radical freedom of expression: anywhere, any place, any time. The essence of street art lies in the fact that it’s subversive, it’s controversial and most importantly, it’s not pretentious.

Displaying street art in a museum perhaps defeats its core purpose and message. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether such art forms belong in the Tate at all. Even if it’s possible to institutionalise street art, perhaps this exhibition could have been better executed.

Could it be that the Tate missed a genuinely exciting opportunity to bring underground art to an increasingly enthusiastic public?

Positive discrimination is still discrimination

It’s a tragedy that the ugly disease of racial and gender discrimination still plagues our society. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, one can’t but help feel that not much has changed, or at the very least, not enough. Rather than defeating the very core of racism, British politicians seem content to replace true notions of equality with the hard, shiny, plastic exterior of mere political correctness.

This is demonstrated no more clearly than by Harriet Harman’s plans to allow employers to discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities over white males. Whilst it’s true that on-white unemployment is overall higher than for white ethnic groups (as the following statistics from the 2004 National Census show), favouring women and ethnic minorities for the sake of a quota and for mere political correctness is not only highly patronising but also deeply divisive.

Stats and chart from the UK Office for National Statistics (2004)

Harriet Harman’s recent speech in the House of Commons is riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. For example, she talks about addressing inequalities through creating a “fair and equal society”, and that “no-one should have to put up with discrimination.” That’s all very well, but it seems our politicians have misunderstood the very definition of discrimination itself:

Discrimination: treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit:

Simply put, discrimination, whether in favour or against a particular group, is still discrimination. Putting “positive” in front of the word doesn’t make it a good thing! To quote Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,

“It’s not just that our color difference doesn’t matter to her. It’s that she doesn’t seem to think there is any difference.”

How can we expect to move forward and eliminate discrimination once and for all, if even our politicans have got it so wrong?

Addressing inequality in the workplace is imperative now, more than ever, in a period of economic instability, where employers need to have access to the best skills, to sustain competitive advantage.

Positive discrimination is highly patronising. The fact is, statistics report that girls consistently outperform boys at all levels of education. And yet despite this, National Statistics Online still report a gender pay gap of approximately 12.6%. Clearly, when it comes to salary, it pays to be a man. But, the point is that forcing employers to hire women just because they happen to be women undermines the fact that women are skilled and qualified and able to perform the job just as well as men.

It’s important to note, however, that Harman said firms should be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability. In reality, however, I think one candidate always outperforms another, even if by only a slight margin, so firms should choose the candidate with the best ability, rather than using gender as a basis for a decision.

Despite all the doom and gloom, however, I firmly believe that change is inevitable, given that the gender pay gap is closing, though we still have a long way to go to achieving equality. And, more ethnic minorities are entering university and achieving the right skills that employers are looking for.

Looking at education levels, in terms of GCSE exam results, Chinese and Indian pupils are the most successful, whilst white males trail behind in last place. Even the focus on  the underachievement of Afro-Carribeans has been called “statistical racism”, as statistically, Afro-Carribean pupils do no worse than white British from similar economic backgrounds.

We need to get to a place not where we prefer to employ women or ethnic minorities over white males, but where we are blind to differences in gender and race and reward people on the basis of their ability alone. It’s obvious that deep racial discrimination still exists in our society; it’s just that positive discrimination is not the answer.

See the video of Harriet Harman’s speech in the House of Commons here.

The Apprentice: Poor Grammar Meets Cultural Ignorance

I don’t know about you, but I find cultural ignorance very funny. That’s because I think the best way to stamp out racism is to laugh at it, in order to make ignorant people feel highly embarrassed about their total stupidity. Ok, so it’s doubtful that in most places in England, you’ll find the KKK overt brand of racism, (unless it’s in the local BNP clubhouse, not that I’ve ever been of course), but the foul stench of accidental racism still lingers in various corners of the UK.

True, everyone can always serve to learn a little more about other cultures, but amongst certain groups of people, you’ll still occasionally find a rather lazy attitude towards people of other backgrounds; that it’s not worth finding out about other cultures because “they’re just not like us.”

On a slightly less serious note then, The Apprentice this week was definitely one of the best episodes of the season. 🙂

I’m starting to think that the show is specifically tailored to my own viewing pleasure as two of my favourite issues (grammar and racism) have now been covered in the past few episodes. 😉

After an argument over the correct placement of an apostrophe last week, I was equally thrilled when this week, when the pathetic cultural ignorance of the candidates was revealed:

Brushing aside the fact that in a multicultural society, really, everyone should at least know what kosher is, (let alone halal), pretending to belong to a particular religious group to curry favour with your potential employer is probably not the best idea. At least, it’s not one of the techniques they taught us at careers advice at uni.

Whilst I was pleased with the result, I really felt that Michael should have been fired; first of all for being confused over grammar rules, secondly for pretending to be “half Jewish” (whatever that means) and finally, for thinking it might be acceptable to sabotage the other team’s efforts.

Incidentally, there’s no such thing as “half-Jewish.” You either are or you aren’t:

According to the Halacha as interpreted by traditional Jews over many centuries, the offspring of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is recognized as a Jew, while the offspring of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father is considered a non-Jew. To become a Jew, the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father must undergo conversion.

Returning to the beautiful subject of grammar, Grammarblog has very helpfully cleared up the issue of whether it was Single’s, Singles, or Singles’:

My view is that National Singles Day is a day to celebrate singles, such as Pancake Day is a day to celebrate the pancake. So no apostrophe is required.

Damn it. I have to admit at this point that I was under the impression that it was both plural and possessive, hence “Singles’ Day.” Let’s swiftly move on… 😳

Here’s one extra rather brilliant Apprentice clip, where the entrepreneurial candidates attempt to find a “Holy Man” (where’s Eddie Murphy when you need him?) to “bless” the chicken:

As a final thought, for the remaining few people who might still be confused about the distinction between kosher and halal, I thought I would be very helpful and provide some definitions, should they still be in demand. A brief run through the rules of kashrut:

Although the details of kashrut are extensive, the laws all derive from a few fairly simple, straightforward rules:

  • Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
  • Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law.
  • All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten.
  • Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.
  • Fruits and vegetables are permitted, but must be inspected for bugs
  • Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).
  • Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
  • Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.
  • There are a few other rules that are not universal.

And for halal:

Now to make meat halal or permissible, an animal or poultry has to be slaughtered in a ritual way known as Zibah. To make it readily comprehended halal is somewhat like Jewish kosher and, Zibah is with some exception similar to Shechita. The Qur`an gives following underlined injunctions in chapter al-Maida 5:3 that:

  • Zibah require animals to be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter, since carrion is forbidden and, jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe have to be severed by a razor sharp knife by a single swipe, to incur as less a pain as possible. Here the only difference is that a rabbi will read what is required by his faith and, a Muslim will recite tasmiya or shahada, which fulfils the requirement of dedication. The question of how to overcome the issue of recitation of shahada on individual bird whence we now have poultry being slaughtered at a rate of six to nine thousand per hour, has already been addressed. A Muslim is commanded to commence all his deeds in the name of Allah.
  • All the flowing blood (al- An`am 6:145) must be drained out of the carcass, as blood is forbidden
  • Swine flesh is also forbidden, and it is repeated in few other places in the Qur`an
  • Forbidden is an animal that has been killed by strangling or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall

So there you have it. Kosher and halal are indeed similar but different. So now hopefully there’s no more excuses. 😉

The New Enlightenment: The Role of Women in Muslim Reformation

First, of all, apologies for the long gap in blogging; work commitments as well as general laziness are my less than adequate excuses. Having said that, last week, I attended a lecture by Professor Madhavi Sunder, who is a leading scholar in the field of legal regulation of culture. Her lecture was deeply insightful and thought provoking, so in that respect, a week to reflect on the conclusions of the talk was most welcome.

In 2006, Sunder was awarded a Carnegie Corporation scholarship, to support her writing a new book entitled “The New Enlightenment: How Muslim Women are Bringing Religion Out of the Dark Ages.” Sunder is a thoughtful and engaging speaker and a passionate advocate of human rights. It was refreshing to hear her views on Islam because her work is mainly aimed towards a Western audience. It seeks to dispel the myths that Islam is incompatible with the Western lifestyle and refutes the Samuel Huntingdon model of the clash of civilisations. However, primarily, Sunder’s work focuses on changing the established mindset of Muslim women to secure equal rights and freedoms.

During the talk, Sunder clarified the lecture’s title, explaining that she is not suggesting that Islam itself that is in the “dark ages,” but rather how the religion is perceived, interpreted and indeed practiced in many parts of the world.

First of all, it is important to establish how the “old enlightenment” differs from the “new enlightenment.” The old enlightenment entailed taking cultural practice and religion out of the domains of the law, so that people pursue liberty and equality in the public sphere, i.e. our pursuit of freedom exists outside the realms of religion or culture. However, this does not always prevent the violation of human rights in the private sphere; Sunder conceptualises the New Enlightenment as the right of women to seek liberty, freedom and equal rights not only in the public spheres of society and law, but also in the private spheres of family, culture, and within religion.

Sunder also cited the recent Gallup World Poll, which asked Muslims across the world what they think of education, democracy, religion and culture. The findings of this poll are to be published shortly in a book entitled “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” The book, written by Dalia Mogahed and John L. Esposito compiles six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews, representing some 1.3 billion Muslims in 35 nations, that are either predominantly Muslim or have sizeable Muslim populations.

The research is thorough and extensive, but some highlights include that when asked about what they admire about the West, Muslims frequently cited political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. Muslims were also asked to critique their own societies; extremism and inadequate adherence to Islamic teachings were cited as their top grievances. Furthermore, between 82% and 99% of Muslims (varying by country) wanted freedom of speech as part of their constitution.

In their report of extremism, a key finding of the Gallup poll was that both moderate and radical Muslims affirmed religiousity, through stating that religion was an important part of their lives, or through attendance of religious services. Thus, despite the difference in the politics of both groups, it seems that clear that to be against terrorism does not necessitate abandonment of religious beliefs. This supports my assertion that the roots of terrorism do not lie in Islam itself, but rather it stems from its (incorrect) interpretation.

It is interesting to note that whilst 33% of US citizens (at least, perhaps more) believe that Islam encourages violence, the radical group represented just 7% of the total Muslims polled. Whilst I would argue that even 7% is too much, this means that 93% of the world’s Muslims are moderates, dispelling the myth that the majority of Muslims are against the West.

But, I digress. The results of the poll make for interesting reading, and I would highly recommend that you check out the findings for yourself. However, the overall conclusion of the poll debunks the myth that the majority of Muslims support terrorism. Rather, the research suggests that there is no battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world; rather the majority of Muslims want liberty and embrace democratic values.

The problem does not lie in convincing Muslims of a democratic, egalitarian vision, as this is the sort of constitution that the vast majority seeks. However, the problem lies in operationalising these rights, such that Muslims countries have human rights alongside their religious rights and freedom to practice their faith. Madhavi Sunder says:

“Islam is stereotyped as regressive, anti-modern, anti-Western and incompatible with democracy. Too often, the media ignore those people doing the much harder work of exposing Islam’s modern side.”

In other words, religion is not the dark sphere that the West perceives it to be. Muslims have a desire for human rights and freedoms within religion and culture, and this is the essence of the modern enlightenment.

Readers of this blog have asked me about the right of people to leave Islam, and this is indeed one of the basic human rights that must be attained in every nation across the world. With regards to this restriction, Sunder also quoted John Locke’s letter on tolerance:

“No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but every one joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.”

I would assert that this restriction is not imposed by Islam itself, but rather by interpreters of its laws. Indeed, there are many verses in the Quran supporting this:

2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion”

16:82 “But if they turn away from you, (O Prophet remember that) your only duty is a clear delivery of the Message (entrusted to you).”

88:21, 22; also see 24:54
“And so, (O Prophet!) exhort them your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe.”

And this reconstructivist approach was the essence of Sunder’s lecture. For centuries, Muslim women have had their rights violated by patriarchal societies who impose the belief that their abuse of human rights comes from a higher power. Sunder argues that Muslim women must take a critical, textual approach, where they are encouraged to examine the Quranic verses for themselves and challenge the widely held beliefs about the text.

The reality is, that there is no conflict between Western democracy and the practice of religion.

With regards to Sharia law, Sunder argues that whilst the laws of Islam might be divinely guided, they were recorded by men and thus have a historical and temporal basis. Now, whether you believe the laws are divinely guided or not is irrelevant; the vision of new enlightenment is a world where Muslim women do not have to abandon their faith in order to pursue freedom.

The point being, that there is inherent flexibility in these laws to interpret them for the modern era. However, the patriarchal society means that many Muslim women simply do not realise that they have a choice within the religion. Just one of the groups working to change the mindset of Muslim women includes Sisters In Islam (SIS). Their mission statement is well worth reading, but here is a short extract:

“We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.”

Such organisations work with women on the ground to operationalise the liberties and rights of women. SIS works with women to create dialogue about the intepretation of the Quran and challenge their beliefs about what the religion states. They help women to realise that religion, in part, is a human creation, enabling women to separate that which is divinely guided from that which is part of human construction, to redefine and reconstruct the interpretation of Islam.

This reconstructivist approach enables democracy and freedom both within the private realm as well as the public realm, since women are empowered to make autonomous decisions.

After the lecture, I had the opportunity to ask Madhavi about her views of Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad. The key point is that human rights and injustices are not challenged because they come from a tradition or history within Islam but becaue every human being has the right to assert and challenge injustice. In that way, it is a universal message for all women who have had cultural patriarchy and injustice imposed on them. Some may call it Ijtihad, whilst others assert that we must attain basic human rights, not because Islam says so, but on the basis of our universal humanity. However, one could argue that the end goal is the same.

I really appreciated Madhavi Sunder’s approach and the lecture was deeply inspirational and refreshing. It challenged the notion that secularism is the only solution to securing rights in the Muslim world. Clearly, given the importance Muslims ascribe to their religion, securalism and abandoning faith, whether in the public or the private sphere is not a viable solution.

The lecture gave me much to think about, and was a welcome change from the bleak picture painted by traditional media outlets, who talk about the deep conflict between Islam and the West and leave me with a sense of hopelessness and despondency. Organisations such as Sisters in Islam are a beacon of light and hope in this dark era. Change will take time, it always does, but with the good work of women such as Zainah Anwar, perhaps we will see the New Enlightenment take shape, challenge traditional ideas about women’s rights in Islam and attain the freedoms and liberties that the Muslim world so greatly desires.

The Gallup Poll reports are available as free downloads from the website of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
“Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” is now available from Amazon

As always, please feel free to add your comments.

A Reminder of the Ugly Side of Blogging

Opinions are like butts. Everyone has one.

Yesterday, I Truemored the case of Paul Tilley, an advertising executive from Chicago who recently committed suicide. Rumours are rife that the suicide attempt may have been linked to malicious, anonymous posts from the blogosphere that referenced Tilley’s management style.

We will never truly know what drove Tilley to take his own life, and in this difficult time, it’s easy to shift blame and find a scapegoat. However, I assert that regardless of the reasons behind Tilley’s suicide, there is an important lesson here about responsible blogging. As blogging rapidly proliferates, there will inevitably be similar cases in the future.

New media represents the zenith of democracy, as the Internet epitomises the liberty of free press, empowering the masses and allowing anyone to voice their opinion. Citizen journalism is revolutionising traditional media, and Truemors is the quintessential example of this rapidly evolving phenomenon.

Whilst the democratisation of information is undeniably an encouraging trend that we should all embrace (Would I be writing this if I didn’t believe that?!), nevertheless, I think it’s important not to dismiss the ugly side of blogging in an off-hand manner.

One of the key differences between traditional and new media is accountability. Whereas bloggers are free to write whatever they please, newspapers and television stations are at least accountable for the views that they portray. In addition, there are basic quality standards, which mean that writers cannot simply write whatever they want with blatant disregard for other people.

Even still, the consequences of living under the watchful eye of the paparazzi can be devastating, as the recent death of the young actor, Heath Ledger clearly demonstrates. The celebrity gossip columns time and time demonstrate the cruel irony of fame: it can elevate you to the height of success, but it can also destroy you.

Consider then, the power of blogging, which can push ordinary people into the spotlight, even when they don’t seek notoriety.

This is why I think that bloggers need to be responsible. I don’t advocate censorship
or regulation of the blogosphere, as this would completely defeat its objective. However, I do think that blogging is a powerful medium, and as my favourite super hero likes to reiterate: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The typically libertarian view would probably hold that people should be able to write whatever they want and other people should just be able to handle it. This is fine if we were living in a bubble, perhaps in a world without cause and effect. The undeniable truth is, our choices in life, and subsequently, our behaviours and actions have a profound effect on the people around us.

The justification of what basically amounts to cyber-bullying, also blatantly disregards the notion that the most powerful in society have a responsibility towards the most vulnerable. Sure, we all handle things differently, but surely, we cannot dismiss people who may be adversely affected by what we write. I agree that that in this new media age, all of us perhaps need to be a bit thicker-skinned, but bloggers themselves also need to be responsible and think about the consequences of what they write.

These bloggers were also anonymous. To some extent, all of us hide behind our online identities, our Facebook profiles, and our instant message platforms. However, I think that where possible*, bloggers need to adopt an open and honest approach.

I include myself in this view, by the way. I was personally reminded of the need for responsible blogging, when I dismissed Irshad Manji’s book as perhaps “mediocre,” without having actually read it …

So I think that responsible blogging is something that all of us who partake in the blogosphere need to work towards, perhaps by creating some sort of responsible blogging manifesto. 🙂 If there are any bloggers who are reading this and feel the same way, perhaps we should form a consortium of like-minded people.

In English literature class, I was fortunate enough to study J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, and as I write this, I am reminded of a quote from its central character:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

My thoughts are with Paul Tilley’s family and friends at this difficult time.

Photo credit: Monky.cl on Flickr

Professor Muhammad Yunus on Removing the Seeds of Poverty

“They cripple the bird’s wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they.” –Malcolm X

On Friday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director of the Grameen Bank, at the London School of Economics. It was humbling to have the opportunity to meet someone who has done so much to change the lives of so many. On a more personal level, Professor Yunus is a deeply engaging speaker, with a great sense of humour.

Profit Maximisation: The Means or the End?

A central theme of the evening was about changing mindsets and challenging conventional ideas. Time and time again, economics professors tell us that the objective of business is profit maximisation. Professor Yunus, however, says that taking into account profit maximisation alone is a robotic view of the world that fails to take into account the multi-dimensional nature of humanity. Making money is the means, but somewhere along the line, society has made making money the end goal.

Challenge Existing Conventions

The business model of the Grameen bank defies traditional banking conventions. In fact, Professor Yunus said that prior to starting the Grameen Bank, they looked at how conventional banks did business, and then they did exactly the opposite!

In the traditional lending model, the more you have, the higher retention you get. Grameen Bank turned that model on its head, lending money to those who are most impoverished, what one might describe as a trust-based banking system, one that includes no collateral, no guarantee and no lawyers.

Empowering Women

When Grameen first started, one of its objectives was to make change the ratio of male and female borrowers to 50:50, which it achieved six years later.

Not only do conventional banks not lend to poor people, they also do not lend to women. In 1970, less than 1% of borrowers were women, and in 2008, the situation remains largely unchanged.

In many places in South Asia, the man as the head of the household controls the division of the family income. By lending money to the women, Grameen empowers women and overturning the voice of history that says that women have no place but to look after the house and take care of the children. Now women are empowered to take decisions for their family and for their children.

After Grameen achieved the 50:50 rule, they set up opening up lending even further. Remarkably, today, 97% of Grameen’s borrowers are women.

Educating Children

Just some of Grameen’s achievements in furthering education include:

  • Today 100% of borrowers’ children are now attending school.
  • In 2007, 51,000 children were given scholarships.
  • 21,000 students are engaged in higher education programmes, with scholarships being offered by Ivy League universities, including Harvard and MIT.

The Five Star System

Grameen has approximately 2,500 branches in Bangladesh alone. Each branch is awarded stars using the five star system, depending on its achievements.

  • Green stars are awarded when a branch achieves 100% repayment
  • Blue stars are awarded once the branch becomes profitable.
  • Grameen does not offer handouts, so the first task is to mobilise deposits. When the branch has generated surplus deposits, they are awarded a violet star. This means that they are not dependent on handouts even in emergency situations
  • Amazingly, the brown star is awarded once every child of every borrower is in school. This is a remarkable achievement when you consider a branch has on average 4,500 borrowers.
  • And the fifth red star is when each of those 4,500 has worked themselves out of poverty. In this way, Grameen empowers people to work themselves out of poverty at no cost to the taxpayer.

Criticism of Microcredit

One of the criticisms of microcredit is that it requires an entrepreneurial spirit, so only the entrepreneurial poor are able to work themselves out of poverty.

Professor Yunus addresses through his firm belief that all human beings are born entrepreneurial, that we all have innovativeness within us, but not all of us discover it within ourselves.

Some human beings are simply not allowed the opportunity to ever unwrap that precious gift.

My own views on this are that we have to start somewhere. We could sit back and criticise Professor Yunus’s achievements, but at the end of the day, if we only look at the negative, then nobody would try to change anything. Change does not come overnight. Of course, there will always be things that Grameen could do better, but just consider the scale of the goal that they are trying to achieve.

It’s these same people who criticise fair(er) trade, but that is because they have the one-dimensional view that Professor Yunus is talking about. Should we just sit back and do nothing then? Or instead, should we look at the millions of families that Grameen has helped to work themselves out of poverty?

Nobody said that changing the world would be easy. But surely, if you can make the life of just one human being better, then that’s progress.

Removing the Seeds of Poverty

The central message of the talk was that individuals do not create poverty. Poverty is a product of our existing institutions and pre-existing concepts, which leave the most vulnerable in society impoverished. Like Malcolm X once said: “They cripple the bird’s wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they.”

Getting out of poverty does not mean simply crossing a line. Rather, social business offers a genuine, sustainable way to permanently remove the deeply sown seeds of poverty.

If you want to find out more, please check out Grameen’s website, and read Muhammad Yunus’ s book, Creating a World Without Poverty. I just got my copy, so I’ll let you know what I think of it! 🙂

Photo credit: New Life by Justin Tosh on Flickr.