Friday, 7 December 2012

Light from the Middle East: Victoria and Albert Museum

As it’s name suggests this is an exhibition of work by photographers from the middle east (fairly widely drawn in this context) – either still living in the region or as part of the diaspora. If you can’t get to visit the V&A while it’s showing there is a fairly good selection of the images on show on the museum’s website.

The exhibition takes as it’s opening premise that, because of its accessibility, photography is an ideal medium for photographers confronting the social and political challenges of the region. It then develops this in three sections:


This covers ground from straight documentary through to images which question the reliability of photography as a documentary process. I don’t doubt the ability of documentary photography to make very strong political points, but I’m not kind of animal so I was more attracted to some of the more ‘staged’ images. Mitra Tabrizian’s “Tehran 2006” is a case in point. It is very reminiscent of Jeff Wall – a tableaux designed to make a particular point. It consists of a group of Iranian citizen’s somewhat artificially going about their ‘daily business’. The lighting hints at the staged nature of the shot, and to my western eyes the surroundings seem odd – as the museum notes suggest, they are strangely lacking in real infrastructure. The other thing that leaps out at me is the picture of the religious/political leaders staring down from the large bill-board on the right – keeping a careful eye on their citizens.

Tal Shochat’s ‘Trees’ are another example of documentary photography which is not quite as it seems. The trees are carefully groomed and lit, with a huge artificial backdrop sop that in the final analysis it isn’t quite clear if I’m looking at a model or the real thing (it’s the latter). The absence of scale adds to the confusion, only partially resolved when the titles give the clue to the kind of fruit on the tree.

Taking deception to the point of an optical trick, Ahmed Mater’s Magnetism I and II (unless my memory fails me completely these were the only two on display) looks at a passing glance to be a shot of pilgrims in Mecca. A closer inspection reveals them to be iron filings circling a magnet – an obvious metaphor for the draw of religion and the desire to undertake pilgrimage.

The final exhibit to really catch my eye in this section was a video installation of human imprints on the desert – giving the lie to it’s uninhabited reputation – but shown from the air without scale or significant reference points (Jananne Al-Ani, - 'Shadow Sites II'). Run with what I assume to be ambient noise from desert landscapes the looped video is eerie and somewhat disconcerting viewing, again making the point that it is often difficult to determine what an unsupported image is telling you.


This section looks at a number of artists who have appropriated images or techniques from the past to make points about contemporary issues. Youssef Nabil’s hand coloured studies of Yemeni sailor’s who have settled in South Shields was a touching study of one of the oldest Muslim communities in the UK. Its hand colouring conveyed a sense of otherness and tradition. In contrast, Hassan Hajjaj  uses modern fashion photography techniques to illustrate the clash between contemporary consumer culture and tradition. “Saida in Green” was made even more effective in this context because it was one of the few photos in close proximity to a “Do not touch” label, which seemed to highlight the implications of the veil being worn by the subject – I can’t be sure that this was accidental – but it was not the only such label in the exhibition space.

The final photograph I really noted in this section was a series of watch-towers photographed in typical Becher-esque style. Monochrome, similar lighting, similar composition. The exhibition notes suggest that this resemblance is superficial - they are not as uniform or clear as the work of the Bechers, but this is understandable given that they are military facilities in an area of ongoing tension and conflict. What I struggled with more was that they are credited to Taysir Batniji – who, as the exhibition notes state, was unable to take the photos himself because of travel restrictions from west Gaza – so he delegated the task to local photographers. The only sense in which I can see that Batniji is the artist is if – and I can’t make my mind up on this – the context which raises these issues is the whole point of the image.


An interesting choice of title for a section which consists largely of images which have digitally or physically manipulated. The notes suggest that this activity is questioning the truthfulness of photographs, but I feel the exhibition is well beyond that simple question at this stage. The earlier sections were much more effective at making that point – this section felt to me as if it were about the ability of photographs to convey messages even after manipulation, or when the clarity and detail for which photographs are generally admired have been removed. As a case in point Taraneh Hemami’s “Most Wanted” features a series of portraits which have been blurred and damaged to the point of total anonymity, yet they are still recognisably the western stereotype of Muslims with veils and headscarves. In some ways this undermines one of the claims of this part of the exhibition – that photographs are fragile things in the hands of photographers and censors alike. The messaging of some of the images in the previous sections is much more subtle and insidious, whereas in the defaced and damaged images the changes are manifest.


Overall this was a fascinating and, I felt, well selected exhibition. No one part of the region received undue attention, and there was a varied range of techniques, interests and perspectives on show.

I went to this exhibition a little unsure what to expect – mostly I feared that it would be a long series of documentary images about tension in the middle east. There was  of course, a measure of that. It would be rather odd, given the social and political circumstances, if the range of conflicts that cover the area did not feature quite highly. And yet they did not dominate. Instead there was an interesting and well developed theme about the un-reliability of photography as a documentary medium which implicated not only the censor and the photographer but the viewer as well.

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