Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Olivia Arthur’s photobook Jeddah Diary is a fascinating insight into the role of women in Saudi society. Photographed over a period of two years, Arthur reveals aspects of this culture which usually remain hidden from the West and indeed within Saudi Arabia as well. In that regard, the first image immediately sets the tone for the rest of the book. It shows a huge wall built next to a swimming pool of a private property. In the accompanying text Arthur writes: ‘The first thing I saw in Saudi were the big empty roads and houses with impossibly high walls. Everything seemed to be happening somewhere else, out of sight, behind closed doors.’ In the book Arthur thus metaphorically climbed behind this wall to depict lives that would otherwise remain out of sight.
In the first instance, Arthur photographs women, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in a group with other women who mostly wear variations of the abaya, the black cloth that covers the body, and the hijab which covers the face. In these photographs, their individuality is signified by various fashion accessories that are visible: sunglasses, handbags, or perhaps the shoes. The marginalized role of women is dramatically symbolized in a photograph that shows the packaging of an inflatable swimming pool. The package design, aimed at a Western market, depicts a white middle class couple happily playing with their children. Yet on the shelf of a Saudi store, the woman (bikini-clad one must assume) has been painted over with thick black paint. The recent scandal in which all women featured in an Ikea catalogue were digitally erased is part of this complex discourse.
Beneath the veneer of strict laws that seek to socially and physically separate men and women, Arthur equally represents a culture that creatively adapts to these laws. As the accompanying text explains, one photograph shows the digits of a phone number flashing in the window of a car. Whenever the male driver passes a car driven by a woman, the digits light up, encouraging total strangers to call the number and meet up. Behind the tall walls of private properties, Arthur is thus witness to parties and social gatherings were women wear Western-style clothes for a night out, dance and socialize with their friends from both genders. The colourful lights from a disco ball and the bare legs of a woman dancing stand in complete contrast to the mythical conception that these things do not exist in this culture.
Arthur’s role as photographer becomes that of an agent: switching between a medium format and a small format camera (depending on the accessibility of the subject), she frequents exclusive parties, girls’ bedrooms, social gatherings or private beaches. Inasmuch as Arthur reveals elements that would otherwise remain hidden, she is extremely careful in protecting people’s identities. While photographing sometimes-spontaneous reactions and perhaps revealing a little too much of a subject’s face, a number of photographs are actually re-photographed at a slight angle.
Similar to Jorma Puranen’s series Shadows and Reflections, the light reflecting on the surface of the re-photographed print neatly disguises the female subject’s face. Yet here the subjects are not hidden or metaphorically painted over, but rather, their physical presence and their individualistic identify constitute the very subject of the photograph. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
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The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is the messianic title of Yaakov Israel’s series of photographs brought together in a recently published book. The series tells the story about both Israel the country, and Israel the photographer exploring his country. Taking his cue from photographers documenting the vastness of America ‘on the road’, Israel habitually returned to locations he encountered since his childhood.
One image perhaps functions as a self-portrait: it shows a young boy, apparently unmoved by the presence of the photographer, holding a bird with one hand while photographing it with another. Many photographs in the exhibition have a similarly candid appearance: a naked girl jumping into the turquoise waters of the Sea of Galilee, an elderly man collecting herbs, a woman sleeping in the desert. The candidness of these apparently innocent records of everyday life camouflages very effectively Israel’s method of working with a large format camera. That the photographs in the exhibition are in fact carefully constructed images is best highlighted by blurry leaves blowing in the wind – a visual effect caused by a photograph taken with a tripod and a long exposure time – juxtaposed with an otherwise razor sharp focus in the photographs.
The ‘constructedness’ of Israel’s work becomes most apparent in a number of full body portraits which mirror the typological photographs of August Sander. The people that Israel photographs in this way are, perhaps like the photographer himself, lone drifters. While Sander photographed mostly workers in their social and economic environment (a baker in a bakery, a farmer on his farm etc.), the relationship of Israel’s subjects to their environment is mostly unclear. Why is a young man called Ali standing by himself in the desert? Why is a soldier named as Ytzhak standing in the skeletal remains of a destroyed building? Similar ambiguities are raised by the landscapes photographed by Israel. Why are water parks abandoned? Why is a carpet buried in the sand? Why does a road look as if it leads to nowhere?
These questions, mixed in with the scarred appearance of both the natural and the man-made landscape in the photographs, relate to the religious, political and ideological frictions at the very centre of this project. The landscapes, and the people traversing these landscapes, are visibly marked by the constantly shifting power dynamics of a peace process that has no end in sight. The road does not simply lead to nowhere, but rather, it signifies the uncertain future faced by the citizens of Israel and Palestine.
Amidst the abandoned spaces, Israel’s photographs also reveal an unexpected sense of beauty. His images flatter those willing to be photographed by him. Even the landscapes, as scarred as they may be, are flattered by the light, the colours and the textures revealed on the photographic print. In one photograph, depicting a young Arab woman called Eman, Israel combines the narrow focus of the camera with the sunshine streaming in behind the woman to create an image that equals the intensity of his subject’s gaze. The luscious green shoots of grass growing out of the desert in the background of the photograph tell the story of a land that is unpredictable and constantly in flux. III The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is available as a book.
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The World Press Photo of 2011 has been awarded to Samuel Aranda from Spain. His striking photograph produced for The New York Times shows a woman holding a wounded relative during protests against Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on Oct. 15. Similar to past winners of the World Press Photo award, arguably the most important professional distinction for photojournalists, the image is highly charged, dramatic and evocative of a painful event. It is, at first sight, an image that is easily understood precisely because it alludes to feelings and emotions that are universal: the physical pain endured through injury, the emotional pain endured through a relatives injury, and, in extreme, the traumatic pain endured through death. Apart from this schema that can be attributed to a whole range of photojournalistic images, in this blog post I wish to dig deeper, and discover why particularly Aranda’s image was chosen.
The power of the photograph is partially based on its simplicity. The viewer is confronted with two figures embracing each other. The fact that the male figure is half naked and the female figure fully veiled further alludes to a binary construction: male and female, naked and veiled, dirty and clean, wounded and unwounded, and finally, vulnerable and protecting. Importantly, neither the man’s nor the woman’s face are visible which adds ambiguity to the image. Yet the subjects’ anonymity also allows the viewer to glance at a moment of intense pain and grief. If the man’s and woman’s face were visible, the photograph would have been too intrusive, too invasive, too exploitative. In other words, the very anonymity of the embracing figures distinguishes this photograph from others.
A number of intriguing details in the photograph add to a increasingly complex narrative. The background of the photograph appears to show a simple piece of wood suggesting the subjects are in a make shift shelter. The man, whose wounds are not actually in the frame of the photograph, has a code written on his forearm. The man is thus marked in more than one way: by the wounds he has inflicted and by the pen that presumably gives the doctors and nurses an indication of these wounds. I cannot help but wonder what the quickly scribbled code on the man’s arm might refer to? How severe is his condition? In part, I am asking myself these questions because his wounds are not visible in the photograph. Again, comparable to the subjects’ anonymity, the very invisibility of the source of pain heightens the dramatic effect of the image. The veiled woman meanwhile, we assume, is able to see and understand the severity of the man’s pain while she seeks to comfort him.
There is, of course, also a religious dimension to this image. The photograph was taken in Yemen in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. Unlike comparably secular countries of Northern Africa, namely Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the full veil signifies the extent of islamist rule in Yemen. In fact, only ten days after Samuel Aranda took above photograph, a number of women burnt their veils on the street of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in defiance of President Saleh. Yet, in spite of the strong islamist connotations of the full veil, I cannot help but be reminded of the Christian iconography of the Pieta in which the Virgin Mary holds the body of Jesus after his death. While the subject of the photograph is taken within the context of an islamic culture, it should be remembered that the photographer, who framed this context, is of Spanish descent and therefore, culturally speaking, informed by the iconography of the Catholic church.
A close up of Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta illustrates the many similarities to Aranda’s photograph: the downward gaze of the woman, the slightly tilted position of her head, the low vantage point of the viewer who is invited to emphasize with the subject’s pain, and of course the veil itself. Rather than crudely superimposing the iconography of one religion on top of a culturally complex event, I believe that Aranda’s photograph encapsulates deep felt human emotions that have no religious, cultural or geographic boundaries. It is an image that can easily be read as one person feeling pain, while another tries to give comfort. The photograph is a powerful symbol for the dramatic shift in the Arab world in which some elect to fight, in spite of death, so that others can be free.
For more on this topic, please read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.