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Isabel Stevens – Review of Light from the Middle East at the V&A

Light from the Middle East: New Photography was on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from November 13, 2012, to April 7, 2013. For more information, click here.

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Hassan Hajjaj, Saida in Green, 2000. Copyright and courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirut #13, Modern Beirut, International Centre of Water-Skiing, from the series Wonder Beirut, 1997–2006. Copyright the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, courtesy the artists and CRG Gallery, New York and In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc, Paris.

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Jowhara AlSaud, Airmail, from the series Out of Line, 2008. Copyright and courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Mehraneh Atashi, Bodiless I, from the series Zourkhaneh Project (House of Strength), 2004. Copyright and courtesy the British Museum, London.

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Youssef Nabil, detail from the series The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields, 2006. Courtesy and copyright the British Museum, London.

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Shadi Ghadirian, from the series Qajar, 1998. Copyright and courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

From images of fists and banners in Tahrir Square to photos of resistance fighters in Syria to silhouettes of burkas amidst the ruins in Kabul, in recent years no area has been so recorded and defined by media photographs—whether hazy phone snaps or photojournalists’ work—as the Middle East.

Tampering with and staging photographs is common practice for artists today. As Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum demonstrated, rebelling against the medium’s ability to represent reality, and the ensuing visual stereotypes, is even more relevant for photographers from the region. Regardless of whether the images were found in the “recording,” “reframing,” or “resisting” sections of exhibition, many are abstracted, distorted, redacted, burnt, or manipulated to resemble mid-century studio portraits. Fictive back stories for the images are imagined, or their subjects and scenes are minutely choreographed. In the exhibition’s best moments, nothing is what it first appears to be.

Very few of the photographs have a straightforward genesis, and those that do seem out of place. For his series Sufis: The Day of al-Ziyara (1995–2006), Syrian photographer Issa Touma spent ten years gaining the trust of Sufi pilgrims in order to photograph their annual procession and flesh-mortification ritual from the midst of the pilgrimage. His fish-eye lens revels in the spectacle. No challenge to the medium is mounted here, nor in Magnum alumnus Abbas’s images of militants, protests, and morgues during the 1979 Iranian revolution, a photojournalist’s diary that can hardly be considered contemporary. Such documentary records are powerful—testimonies taken by photographers immersed in the moments they capture. But their inclusion here simply highlights what most of the selected artists aren’t doing, and points to the fact that this is not merely an exhibition, but selections from a collection, and the needs of the two don’t necessarily correlate.

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Newsha Tavakolian, from the series Mothers of Martyrs, 2006. Copyright and courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Up until this point, the V&A’s collection of Middle Eastern photography ended in the 1970s with Western views of the region, such as surveys of Iran by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Mary Ellen Mark. Recent funding, shared with the British Museum, has sought to correct this, and the institutions’ joint acquisitions make up the show. Yet while Abbas’s Iran Diary—and traditional forms of photojournalism—play a vital part in updating the collection, they feel tangential in the context of the exhibition. Abbas Kowsari, a photo editor at Tehran’s Shargh newspaper who worked previously at ten Iranian newspapers that have since been shut down, is a more fitting example of a photographer pushing the boundaries of photojournalism. Sadly he is only represented here by one image, a tightly composed close-up of a Kurdish combatant wearing a Bryan Adams T-shirt. The gaze of the Canadian singer is fixed on the weapons stuffed in the miltant’s belt, with Kowsari musing on the unlikely conflation of warfare and Western pop culture.

Elsewhere, however, manipulated images do not necessarily yield interesting results: often, the photographers fall too readily upon obvious symbolism or one-note juxtapositions. Sükran Moral’s Despair (2003) leaves viewers in no doubt about the desperate plight of a group of migrant workers huddled in a boat, even had the Turkish photographer not digitally perched nightingales on their shoulders and arms. Just in case we missed the disjunction between the symbol of hope and freedom and the wingless workers, the birds are gaudily colored in comparison to the black-and-white men. Meanwhile, Newsha Tavakolian’s scenes of elderly mothers clutching photographs of their young soldier sons killed in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war are poignant, tender protest images, but also rather familiar ones.

Too often ambiguity and subtlety are in short supply, or the theme or subject of a photograph too literally echoes its manner of execution. Amirali Ghasemi rebels against photography and the Iranian authorities by redacting snapshots of Tehran’s partying youth; John Jurayj’s images of blistered buildings, concocted by burning holes onto enlarged, found photographs and filling them with red Plexiglas, rather glaringly highlight the brutality of war.

Far more intricate and intriguing is a neighboring set of images from Lebanese artist duo Joana Hadjithomas and Kahlil Joreige, which takes as its starting point idyllic tourist postcards of pre-civil-war Beirut that are then stretched and abused. Their distorted and damaged but glossy and still seductive vistas quiver between dream and nightmare, past and present. The couple’s invention of an imaginary photographer commissioned to take the images, and the story that he burnt them during the civil war to reflect the destruction around him, adds another layer to the works.

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Nermine Hammam, The Break, from the series Upekkha, 2011. Copyright and courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Authorship comes further under fire in excerpts from Walid Raad’s fabricated log of car bombs used during the Lebanese Civil War. (Raad lurks under not one but two fake monikers: the Atlas Group, proprietors of a photographic archive, and the historian Dr. Fakhouri.) Similar questions arise in relation to Taysir Batniji’s Bernd & Hilla Becher–inspired views of Israeli watchtowers, the latter series bearing a particularly curious relationship to its original inspiration. Just as the German photographers highlighted design similarities and singularities, so too does Batniji, yet his blurred, spontaneous snaps are anything but celebratory or carefully composed. They also are far more political: Batniji was forced to commission a local photographer to catalog the watchtowers, as the Gaza-born Palestinian is forbidden to travel to the West Bank.

Indeed, investigations of landscapes and architecture provide the show with its most memorable, most enigmatic images: Israeli photographer Tal Shochat’s lush but bizarre views of fruit trees at night, preened and lit as if they were models in a studio; Yto Barrada’s views of rubble and partially built homes in Tangier’s suburbs; and, most poignantly, Iraqi-born, London-based artist Jananne Al-Ani’s ghostly, hypnotic video Shadow Sites II (2011).

Taking Desert Storm–esque aerial photographs, Al-Ani challenges the long-propagated Western myth of the uninhibited Iraqi desert by gradually advancing in on these monochrome abstracted landscapes to reveal signs of human civilization. A sense of both lyricism and strangeness prevails: these settlements and traces are only visible when the sun is at its lowest point and shadows delineate their contours. Yet as soon as the markings are on the cusp of being decipherable, she dissolves to another shot. Al-Ani here succeeds in musing on photography—its reliability and legibility—where others around her falter. Her calling card is mystery.

Until recently, the few Middle Eastern artist-photographers celebrated in the West were Iranian (Abbas, Kaveh Golestan, Shirin Neshat, Shirana Shahbazi). The exhibition strives to correct this, and to update the collections of two major institutions. The problems plague this exhibition are those that plague every geographical survey: the pressures of covering every corner of the area; limitations on the number of prints from each photographer. But they were exacerbated here by a selection of artists that was often less than inspired.

Isabel Stevens works at the film magazine Sight & Sound and writes on photography and film for a variety of publications, including Source and The Wire.

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