The Photos of Nadia Benchallal

Yesterday, while in New York City, Pierre Joris was kind enough to invite us along to NYU to see Nadia Benchallal speak about her on-going photoproject "Sisters" which photographs women in the Islamic world. Here's what her website says about the project:

“Sisters” is an in-depth and worldwide project that I am developing on Muslim women that explores how they are becoming emancipated and modernized while keeping their culture and traditions in conservative societies. I began my work in Algeria, Bosnia, Palestine, Burma, Iran, Malaysia, and France. 

It's interesting here how she writes "modernized" because one woman in the audience took issue with modernization in her photographs. The woman, raised in Algeria (Benchallal is of Algerian descent but grew up in Paris) said she was amazed by one photo where an older woman is shown sleeping on the floor of her home (link here). The woman's issue was not with the pose or anything like that but rather than Benchallal was depicting life in a seemingly rural area during the late 1980s or early 1990s versus the modern city of Algiers which, at the time, was rather modern. "We were wearing jeans, not veils or other styles of dress."

It's interesting to me because it seems like most of the photos were taken before the political upheavals that have happened in the last 25 years or so in the Islamic world. Now, I can admit easily I know very little about the Islamic world or, maybe more accurately, about the world in general. What I can say is this (and what led me to write this post) was the idea of selection. When a photographer attempts to capture A moment, they are indeed doing that but, as Benchallal's former professor said, a photographer does not necessarily know WHAT has been captured until they develop the film, at which point they must choose what they choose to depict.

Who knows what other photos Benchallal took and how she had chosen what to display at NYU yesterday. Both she and interviewer Shamoon Zamir admitted that what we saw was much smaller than what was recently on exhibition in Abu Dhabi, but I am left wondering, as a non-photographer (minus my brief foray into The New Yorker), what kind of narrative one attempts to create via their photographs.

The photo I found most interesting of what we saw (the 10th of her "Sisters" 2 set) depicts a woman with her arms around her back, the reflection of a child in the window of a psychotherapy clinic. There are children playing in the background and the woman's face is obscured by the reflections in the glass. Why is this photo the most interesting to me? Because it steps back- it doesn't require the intimacy of the other photos, the necessary involvement of the photographer in the lives of women. In a way, it's more experiential poetic in the Lacoue-Labarthe sense: there is no specific "reading" of this photo, no "answer" in it. You know, based on being human, the emotions in this photo and the feelings happening here. It's when journalism falls away that the photos make their most interesting mark upon the viewer, as in this photo.

Zamir asked an interesting question: why was Abu Dhabi the first real exhibition of the work Benchallal has been doing? She had no real answer, which I would have pointed out then, is alright because it's not her question to answer. It's an accusation on us all. We, in the West, don't want to see what life is like in the Islamic world. Why? Because if we see women without their restraints, our military missions in that part of the world immediately become void. We're not saving the world- these are people that don't need saving and we cannot accept that. We cannot accept that life is livable in this part of the world because we are hell-bent on our own supremacy. Showing us things that challenge our worldviews might have the side-effect of actually challenging our worldviews and this is where Benchallal's photos have their most important impact to be made: showing us that life, in whatever form, goes on in places where we don't want it to go on without our influence.

Benchallal has the incredible ability here to influence how we view the lives of women in the Islamic world and I believe, once we have many more photos, we'll be in an interesting position to do so. Zamir brought up the point that a book is the ultimate goal and I have to agree: selected photos (unless you want a HUGE book) need to be in a place for us to discuss them. Whether that will be available in this country- whether Stephen Colbert or someone will have her on their show- remains to be seen. I think, at the very least, there are discussions to be had.

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