Sunday, 24 February 2013

Light From The Middle East

Light from the Middle East

Really pleased to have a place on this study day at the V&A, I was looking forward to see if the themes I anticipated were going to be covered and how these themes were going to be explored by 30 different photographers.

With recent events the Middle East has been thrown into the spotlight as never before, therefore it was intriguing to see how photographers from the Middle East would depict their own regions; the Middle East covering from North Africa to Central Asia. The curator, Nat Muller, admits that whilst many of the themes are those which reoccur in many exhibitions of this genre, the emphasis on this exhibition is more on the actual medium of photography rather than the politics. This is why it has been divided into three distinct sections: Recording, Reframing and Resisting.

What I found surprising was the large amount of written explanation accompanying the images and wondered why it was felt necessary and who had made that decision. Was it the curator or the artists themselves? Did they feel that being of a different culture the meaning of the images would be difficult to translate? I felt that none of them were overly complicated to interpret a meaning from, although my interpretation may not have been the intended version, but isn’t that the very nature of photography? The only problem that I could foresee was the not understanding Arabic script.


Recording as a section title seemed slightly odd for me as no matter the way the medium is used surely all the images were recording something whether it was “fleeting…..or staged….” The first set was from a series titled “IranDiary” (1978-9) by photojournalist Abbas. These are stereotypical black and white photojournalistic documentary shots, “carefully considered” and executed. This does not take away from the fact Abbas was taking photographs during dangerous times and his timing had to be spot on as some of the situations recorded were indeed fleeting. On closer examination you can see that many of the images include photographs themselves, the Ayatollah, the Shah’s image being burned, victims of the secret police, which only goes to emphasise that photographs record and can be used in many ways: to inform, educate and as propaganda. In fact a lot of the photography in this section included other images.

The role and depiction of women in Middle Eastern culture has always been contentious so I was pleased to see many of the photographers and subjects were female. However, reading some of the information, the sex of the photographer was not always made known. I didn’t think that this would affect my opinion of the images on display but I was slightly taken aback by Mehraneh Atashi’s “Bodiless I” (2004) mainly due to the fact that she had taken them, rather than the image itself. Taken in a zurkhana, an all-male preserve where tradition forbids “the breath of women,” Atashi includes herself in a reflected mirror smaller and below a muscular, half naked man in traditional attire. Possibly a nod to the fact that women are still considered beneath men yet here she is breaking many taboos, entering a male enclave, photographing them, a women gazing at a man rather than vice versa. I wonder how she managed to gain access, what obstacles did she have to overcome, proof that as a photographer if you want to record something go for it!

The blurb that accompanied “Mothers of Martyrs” (2006) – Newsha Tavakolian - was one that irritated. The title said it all really; a series of elderly Iranian women holding framed photographs of their sons who had been killed in the Iran/Iraq war. Did we need to be told that the mothers “are getting older but their boys will always stay the same age” or that their “hands grasp the frames emphasizing the photograph’s status as a tangible object”? I would rather have known what the Arabic text said that was written on the wall behind one of the women. I wonder if it would have given another dimension to the image.
“Halabache” (2003) by Abbas Kowsari depicts the torso of a Kurdish fighter, a peshmerga. Nothing odd about that perhaps until you notice that the image on his jumper is that of Bryan Adams. A clash of frivolous, western pop-culture against a backdrop of warfare in Iraq made even more noticeable by Adams being framed by worn leather and weaponry. The way the main subject has been cropped shows to me how you can tell a story; get a message across without including everything that could have been framed.

Like Atashi, Issa Touma had to gain the trust and get permission to record his subject- a series called “Sufis: the Day of al-Ziyari” (1995-2005) Again reverting to traditional black and white, Touma uses wide angle and fish-eye lenses to great effect, intimately capturing the movement and fervour of worshippers on a pilgrimage. He took these panoramic images over a ten year period which meant he had a lot of material to choose from and would have gradually known the best vantage points to shoot from. Getting to know your subject matter can only help you create better imagery. He chose to display his images in different size prints, possibly due to the lens used? Not sure but the way they were hung meant that it was not instantly noticeable and the framing worked.

“Tehran 2006” was a large, staged panorama which several of us stood in front of and discussed for a sustained period of time. Mitra Tabrizian works with ordinary non-professional models to create substantial tableaus depicting ordinary life. Not sure if by accident or design the image seems to be split into the modern and the traditional, people on one half being more traditionally dressed. There are modern high rise blocks, a dusty landscape devoid of roads and lighting which appears surreal and you wonder if it is photo-shopped, but it isn’t and as you look closer you see more of the “isolation and exile” described in the accompanying text. The whole scene is overseen by two ayatollahs staring down from a propaganda hoarding. The foreground falls away, does this symbolise a society teetering on the edge of existence? The subjects all look stiff and uncomfortable; is this because they don’t know their place in this new world that is trying to find its identity? The tension which exists in Tehran is visibly seen in the tension of the people. Looking at the image made me feel decidedly uncomfortable which is a good sign; an image that makes you feel emotion has worked.

Two photographers whose images didn’t really connect with me were Waheeda Mallulah and Yto Barrada. Barrada shot landscapes of recent constructions, not showing people but full of signs of human activity (interesting to compare to the first task in PWDPP My Neighbourhood) and Mallulah photographs herself lying next to tombs in Bahrain. Whilst I appreciate the use of light and the study of shape, form and texture the subtlety of her message went over my head.

Manal Al-Dowayan directly addresses the role of women in Saudi Arabia with her “I am...” series (2005-7) by producing portraits representing women in important professions. With women making up 55% of undergraduates but only 15% of the workforce and only 3% of Saudi women in employment, Al-Dowayan started to question what role did or could women play in her society, what occupations were they ‘allowed’ to have? Would the empowerment of women lead to the eventual loss of the Islamic faith? Only 2 images were on display from a series which include I am a Scuba Diver, I am a Film Maker, and I am a Writer. Whilst I really liked the two on display, “I am an Educator” and “I am a Saudi Citizen,” looking at the complete set online gave them deeper meaning, more context and showed the audience that Saudi women do hold down careers in architecture, computer science and medicine to name a few. This fact seems to be hidden away, as much as the women’s faces were half hidden by tools of their trade. Each woman was wearing traditional jewellery, a contrast to their modern lifestyles. Some of the pieces were huge bracelets appearing like shackles, metaphorical restraints echoing the real restraints and restrictions they face daily. However, we will never know if any of them were still proud of some of these traditions and not willing to completely discard their culture. What also struck me was their direct, assertive, defiant stares at the camera, the title “I am…” and their gazes almost a challenge…”I am…dare you to tell me I am not!” In some way they reminded me of Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” (1985). What I took from this set was that although images can stand on their own sometimes they are more resonant when part of a complete series.

The word siraat means ‘the path’ and in the Qur’an means ‘the path to God’. In Abdulnasser Gharem’s photograph “Siraat” (2007) he chose to spray paint the word repeatedly on the surface of a bridge which collapsed during a flashflood. In the 1980’s villagers attempted to escape the flood by standing on the newly constructed bridge, tragically its collapse took many lives. With this image I felt an explanation and translation fully helped you to understand the message. I overheard a conversation stating that the photograph, unlike some within the exhibition, could be considered not to be “about him” meaning Gharem, but I disagree, we invariably always put something of ourselves into an image, and I think in this instance it relates to his religious beliefs. The way I looked at it, he either believes in Allah in which case although tragedy struck the faithful would have been taking their enlightened path to God, or he does not believe, in which case the cracks in the road and the destruction of the bridge is a comment on how religions are full of broken promises, cause divides between people, they try to find safety within religion, place their faith in it (as with the bridge) yet in the end it destroys many lives. My views would be with the latter which is why I quite liked this image and my interpretation of it :oD! If the translation of siraat had not been provided, nor the history of the broken bridge told, this image would have lacked meaning for me.

One of my favourite images was by Ahmed Mater, described as “a sculptural installation” tiny iron filings spiral round a magnetic block. It appealed to me on many levels; I liked it as an abstract image that could be placed anywhere, in a different context and have a completely different meaning. There is nothing to give the structure perspective but that doesn’t matter. It cleverly shows if you have no concept of a different culture/religion or if you not aware of certain stories/traditions you cannot understand visual references. Nowadays there will not be many people who have not heard of the Hajj or seen images of the Ka’bah but if not you would be standing there wondering why on earth the images “Magnetism I” and “Magnetism II” (2012) had been included. Not only did they visually show magnetism they metaphorically summed up the fact that pilgrims are magnetically drawn to this huge block in Mecca. I also thought it clever that something so scientific in its nature was being used to depict religious beliefs. Hung next to “Siraat” it underlined even more that you recognise and can read into something only what you know. The more I stood and looked at it the more I could see a tree line on a mountain side, or it made me think of Stonehenge…the list was endless… I loved the fact that a simple black and white photograph of a magnet and some iron filings could say so much. By displaying two images from a set of four it was also interesting to decide which one I felt was a stronger composition and analyse why. In my opinion “II” was stronger due to the lower angle and shallower depth of field.

The one photographer who had a completely different approach was Tal Shochat whose work highlights that the more realistic an object is the more artificial it can appear. I say realistic but is a tree which has been completely dusted be termed real? Yet without dust which is not actually part of the tree surely the tree is more itself than with? Or is that getting too philosophical? Anyway back to the images…. Shochat photographs trees “heavy with ripening fruit” applying the rules of studio portraiture. The images form a typology. The dust is cleaned from the branches, leaves and fruit, they are artificially lit and isolated with the use of a black backdrop. Out of all the photographers in this section I couldn’t directly link these images to be of the Middle East although you could find more interpretations beyond the blurb of highlighting “the tensions…between reality and artifice” such as people always wanting to look their best when being photographed, the removal of the background showing how people try to hide certain aspects of their lives, they also made me think of the apple tree in the garden of Eden…Oddly enough Tal Shochat seems to be the only 
Israeli artist included in the exhibition.


In this part of the exhibition the photographers are said to have looked to the photographs of the past for “inspiration and as a point of reference”. Although it can be said that happens throughout photography there are several sets within this section which do this more obviously.

Shadi Ghadirian is one such example. She restages studio portraits made in Iran during the Qajar period (1786-1925) with stunning results. The backdrops, props, costumes and colouring all hark back to a bygone era. What do leap out are the modern consumer goods such as sunglasses, stereo and coke cans. The obvious contrast of old and new also suggests the conflict between older traditions and the modern values many people especially women now strive for. Something I discovered when researching Ghadirian is that some of the women in the original Qajar images wore clothes that revealed their ankles and faces which is frowned upon today, suggesting that society was more liberal then.

Another photographer who borrowed heavily from the past was Youssef Nabil who in 2006 took portraits of Yemeni sailors in South Shields, he then hand-colours them in the style of the 1940’s and 50’s. We are informed that this is fitting because the series is to do with the passage of time and migration. On looking at his website he has given this treatment to most of his work so not sure that it is strictly just that, the impetus to create these photographs may have been the recording of a dwindling culture, but the decision to hand colour is not just related to this body of work.

Hassan Hajjaj’s images seem to exude fun, something that seems to be missing from the other works on display. Is this due to Morocco having a slightly more tolerant attitude? Recently RABAT (AFP) - The head of Morocco's Istiqlal (Independence) party, the main ally of the ruling Islamists, asked for a cabinet reshuffle, saying 20 percent of ministers should be women. "The reshuffle is an opportunity to inject new blood... and increase the representation of women to 20 percent," Hamid Chabat said in an official request to the head of the government which was published in local media.

Hajjaj was inspired to create his images after assisting on a European fashion shoot in Morocco. He wanted to show the people who actually lived there, their vibrancy and beauty. Drawn by recycling and consumer goods and the graphics on everyday objects he hand makes frames incorporating empty coke cans and insect repellent creating 3 dimensional sculptures; he enjoys combining his photography with other media and I was interested to look at his approach to doing this. The women themselves still look directly into the camera but you can see they are smiling/ laughing, indeed mocking western fashion poses, they dress in a traditional style yet the djellabas (robes) are animal print and their babouches (slippers) carry the Louis Vuitton logo. This is yet more evidence of the hybridisation of Western and Eastern culture.

Much has been written about Raeda Saadeh and “Who Will Make me Real” so part of me wants to say hmmmmm I’m not going to add anything new to what has been said but (isn’t there always a but) to not say anything would be to ignore a strong message that has much to say and borrows heavily from previous artwork and ideals. With much of the imagery on display it helps to have background knowledge of both the artist and the references she borrows from. Born in Palestine Saadeh then moved to Jerusalem where she gained a BFA and MFA and holds an Israeli passport. In herself she feels a conflict of interests, a juxtaposition between keeping faith with her heritage yet enjoying and thriving living in Israel and working alongside those so opposite her in culture and belief. In many of her images she “inserts herself into recreations of Old Master paintings” and has been compared to Cindy Sherman as she appears in many different guises. When you understand her inner conflict and choices that those of her generation have to make as to where to go, how to live their lives you can understand why she was influenced by the poem by Jordanian poet Nadia Tueni

Threatened, therefore living
Wounded, therefore being,
Fearful, therefore frightening,
Erect, therefore a flame tree.
Who will make me real?

Her pose is supposed to be sensual, yet it is awkward, she is trapped literally and figuratively by the paper that encases her and the stories that they carry. The figure in Manet’s Olympia is naked yet she is covered, presumably because she didn’t want to be naked and she is alluding to the modesty forced upon Middle Eastern women yet defiantly showing obvious curves. Information given mentions the harsh realities of the newspaper headlines but it was only because Gareth told us it was to do with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that it made more sense. Why not actually tell us that? If you are going to write blurb make it relevant. Many of the Old Masters’ work included slave girls from exotic places yet here is a women from an exotic place poses as the main subject and holding eye contact with a defiant stare. As with the “I am” series almost challenging us to tell her she has no right to be in that position.

Doing further research I came across her body of work “True Tales, Fairy Tales” and loved Cinderella (2010). Here she poses in her own photograph, wearing a renaissance, pink ball gown with puffy sleeves and a tiara. The scene is set in front of golden stone houses with stoned steps and old-fashion light fixtures. As she looks back you can see in her eyes the danger that pursues her. Saadeh has cleverly chosen the moment in the tale when Cinderella is running away from the ball before the clock strikes midnight. She has had a glimpse of a better life yet knows everything will revert to nothing more than rags, mice and a pumpkin. The ball and meeting her handsome Prince was the highlight of her life, but she was forced to escape that lifestyle in the middle of the night because she is unable to change who she is or the social status she was born into. Saadeh uses this fairy tale to echo real events; this photo was taken at 4 am on the street called Jaffa, where wealthy Palestinians lived before fleeing the city in the dark hours of the night during the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine. Jaffa was at its height with a strong economy, but residents had to flee from that lifestyle because they were Palestinian Muslims in a Jewish country, something that was out of their hands and they could not control.

Another series which has raised debate is Watchtowers, West Bank/Palestine (2008). Unable to travel to the West Bank Gaza-born Palestinian Taysir Batniji delegated the task to a local photographer. Comments have been made as to how he can put his name to the series when he didn’t actually take them. A valid comment but this happens over and over again. For example Gilliam Wearing wears masks made by others and poses in her own photographs while someone else takes them. Using the Brecher’s typologies of industrial architecture as inspiration Batniji set out to capture the watchtowers in Occupied Palestine. Knowing this would be an issue he solved the problem by sending out someone else. As photographers we often have similar issues and looking at the later exhibition of collaged work we get into the other argument of if you make something new with someone else’s work it can then be claimed to be new. So someone else shot them, but he made the editorial choices and turned them into the typology on display. Not sure I am totally convinced with my own argument here but it is a valid one given previous precedents. For me the fact that they are not technically perfect does not matter either, the subject matter, the menace behind them and the circumstances behind their capture are better conveyed by the fact some ore blurred and out of focus.

More typology but with a different approach, Walid Read created a fictional character and archive of documents relating to the Lebanese civil war. An innovative approach to problem solving; How do I tell a story in a certain way? I know, invent a character to do it for me! Dr Fakhouri ‘kept’ a log of every car used as a car bomb exploring the “absurd idea that a photographic archive could possibly make sense of the chaos of war.”


This section concentrates more on the obvious manipulation of images, both physically and digitally. How the artists resist “the authority of the photograph” as well as the censorship prevalent in many of their countries.

Atiq Rahimi lived in exile in France for 18 years before returning to Kabul in 2002. Instead of using modern equipment he favoured a primitive box camera. The resulting images were printed on small irregular shaped scraps of textured paper. Being so small the viewer needs to stand really close, making it a much more intimate experience, you can’t stand back from the devastation caused by the war you have to peer intently at them to take in the detail. On first glance they look like archival images but then you slowly notice the modernity of the architecture and clothing.

Using borrowed images John Jurayji, a multimedia artist, totally altered his source image to create Untitled (Large Embassy with Red Mirror #1 2007). Originally a press photograph of the bombed US embassy in Beirut in 1984 he “translates the brutality of war into an attack on the photograph itself.” It was enlarged and blurred to near abstraction, printed on watercolour paper. Further treatments include burning a series of holes into the paper which are then filled with red Plexiglas. The holes accentuate the damage done to the building while the glass reflects the damage done to the people. I really like the idea of mixed media and installation photography as mentioned in previous posts so it was great to see yet more examples of this type of presentation and application.

In “Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer” Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige also take a fictional character, Abdallah Farrah, to tell a narrative. A “photographer” who was commissioned in 1968 to produce a set of postcards of tourist attractions the images on display document his reaction to the Lebanese Civil war of 1975. Using found photographs Hadjithomas and Joreige continue the fiction of Farrah retreating into his archive to burn his negatives reflecting the damage being inflicted on his city. This echoes their feeling of disbelief when after the war had ended pre-civil war postcards were back on sale as if nothing had happened and they wanted to explore the nostalgia being presented in contrast to the reality of their experiences. I thought this yet another brilliant way to link past with present when possibly the photographers did not have images of what had been.

Jowahara AlSaud uses a hybrid of drawing and photography, by scratching into negatives and removing personal detail she explores censorship on visual communication in Saudi Arabia. In her series “Out of Line” (2008) the fact she prints them on envelopes adds to the difficulty in communicating across great divides. Many of the figures are embracing or are in poses which suggest unhappiness, all which could be interpreted to mean unhappiness at not being able to be yourself and say what you want within your own environment.

As with the previous section a few artists I appreciated but didn’t connect with as strongly, namely Taraneh Hemami, Camille Zakharia and Sadegh Tirafkan.

Amirali Ghasemi explores the social rebelliousness in present-day Tehran within his series “Party” (2005). Many of these scenes were taken at farewell get-togethers for friends leaving Iran so there is an added pathos that many of the faces are obscured, showing the extent people to go to hide that mixed gender, unsanctioned parties occur where they dress inappropriately, drink and dance together. These images also are a comment on the censorship that occurs with imported magazines where models have parts of their bodies erased by black markers something that he would have been very aware of seeing as his grandparents ran a cultural magazine Arash in the 1960s, while his parents work in journalism and social communication. The whited out figures reminded me of the ipod adverts so linked the clash of Western/Eastern culture even more. This was also highlighted by the emphasis on painted red fingernails and modern shoes.

While I liked the idea behind “Despair” (2003) by Sukran Moral I felt the execution could have been better. Addressing the theme of migration Moral takes a black and white image of a dozen men and boys huddled in a boat with colourful “digital nightingales” super-imposed on their heads, arms and shoulders. Analysing the image the nightingales are migratory birds and in Turkish literature symbolise hope, love and separation. Their colour contrasts against the black and white despair of the men. As I say I love the idea and the symbolism but the birds were too fake for me.

Finally, Nermine Hamman used obvious manipulation to lift soldiers from Tahrir Square to locations far removed from civil war. I think it helps the viewer look beyond the uniform and see the men who wear them, that they have secret dreams that they would rather be in peaceful, tranquil places.

All in all I found it a fascinating exhibition; the tutors were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and great to bounce ideas around with. I loved chatting to other students and seeing new faces and discussing what we felt worked or didn’t. As per usual there was a lot to take in and I probably have forgotten to mention parts that I noticed at the time despite making copious notes. The huge range of ideas and ways to present the images meant there were different sizes and different framing techniques all peculiar to the individual series. Some had black frames, others brown, some not framed at all. Sizes ranged from huge panoramas to tiny intimate images smaller than postcards, new artists to research.... lots to take away and think about.