Review – Discordia: The Arab Spring by Moises Saman

“Magnum photographers,” Russell Miller writes in his account of the illustrious photography agency, “continue to stun an increasingly cynical world and continue to bridge the divide between journalism and art.”[1] Founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour, Magnum are historically renowned for their coverage of war and conflict.[2]

On the surface, Moises Saman’s portfolio of a hundred and forty six photographs which he took during the Arab Spring (encompassing Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and more) appear to neatly follow in the steps of his predecessors. Familiar symbols of war arise time and again. One example of this is urban destruction – a frequently used indicator of war – which recurs heavily.[3] In one photograph, a man looks out from inside a Syrian building which has been hit by a regime airstrike – structurally the building remains intact, but the majority of the wall facing the camera appears to have been completely removed.[4] A floor above the man, a chest of draws can be seen, sitting precariously as one of its legs hangs outside of the building. This juxtaposition of the ordinary household item in the centre of a warzone is a well refined trope of war photography, and Saman exploits it well here to indicate the incongruous nature of the man’s plight. By presenting this juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary Saman provides photographs which are unsettling to the audience, particularly combined with the loneliness of the solitary figure in the midst of the destruction. However, on these terms Saman fails to replicate the most memorable images that his Magnum predecessors were famous for. The majority of this collection were taken after the event, with conspicuously few showing a point before a significant moment in the conflict. There are no “moment of death” photographs which newspaper editors crave and Robert Capa became famous for.[5] The extent, therefore, one can judge Saman’s collection as following the Magnum war photography tradition is limited in examination of techniques alone.

However, to judge this portfolio on this basis alone would be an injustice. In an interview with The New Yorker, Saman said that he did not see this portfolio as “as a straightforward journalistic project, but rather an exploration through imagery of my personal experience of the Arab Spring.”[6] The title of the project, Discordia, is the name of the Roman Goddess of chaos. Some may argue that this title is purely an appropriate description of the Arab Spring: the conflicts no doubt caused chaos for those who were directly or indirectly involved. However, upon closer inspection of the photographs themselves, one finds that the title of the piece is a much more apt description of the Arab Spring through Saman’s filter. In Discordia, Saman simultaneously reinforces and refutes prior expectations in his portrayal of the conflict, providing shades of grey to the conflict.

One way in which Saman both compounds and refutes expectation is his portrayal of the main actors in the conflict. In one photograph, a Qaddafi supporter holds up a portrait of the former dictator in front of his face, his legs splayed in what appears to be a triumphant pose, as fireworks launch into the air behind him.[7] This supporter represents the Qaddafi we know: energetic, combative, and extroverted. Then, in another photograph, we see the Colonel himself: stood defensively with one arm around his waist and another clasping a cloth to his face.[8] Saman presents this as a moment of weakness or modesty which was rarely seen of Qaddafi and a feature he probably did not want people to see of him.[9] For this reviewer, what marks this photograph out – Barthes’ punctum – is Qaddafi’s eye: placed in approximately the centre of the photograph, the audience’s eye is drawn to his, with the hope that we will be able to read Qaddafi’s emotion in that moment; the eye, stubbornly, appears closed and therefore indecipherable to the viewer.[10] In this photograph, therefore, Saman provides an ambiguity over what Qaddafi was like; Qaddafi is simultaneously the evil tyrant, the ordinary tired man or perhaps neither. In this way, Discordia muddies our perception of these characters.

Saman can even provide a sense of ambiguity to the conflict just through a single figure. A photograph taken in Egypt shows a middle aged-looking man walking warily upon a pavement.[11] “A man approaches the scene of clashes between protestors and Egyptian police in central Cairo,” the caption reads, the neutral term “man” suggesting that he is not involved in the conflict – he is not a protester or a policeman. The way Saman captures the photograph compounds this idea: the conflict itself does not take place within the frame of the photograph, while the fact a street lamp and a tree stand between the photographer and the man creates a distance between the two, acting as a parallel for the metaphorical distance between the man and the conflict he does not appear to want to be part of. But only a couple of photos later in the collection, the same man now stands to the right-hand side of the tree, his hands clasped around a rock and an intent stare on his face.[12]  “A protestor holding a rock along the Corniche during clashes near Cairo’s Tahrir Square,” the caption reads, the figure transformed from the passive “man” to an active participant in the conflict. This is also represented in the way the photograph was taken: Saman has zoomed the camera out to reveal the man is standing in front of a smouldering crater which at one time may have been some sort of street ornament. In doing so, Saman presents the figure no longer as a distant passer-by but someone who is in the conflict zone, and an active participant in that conflict. This example highlights Saman’s mastery of the medium in two significant ways. First, it shows Saman’s awareness of the use of captions which provide the context emphasised by Walter Benjamin; divorced of the captions the images are open to a vast interpretation by the viewer, and their use in this instance by Saman shows his skilful manipulation of the viewer and their expectations.[13] Secondly, it shows the importance of the portfolio as a way of positioning photographs: the arrangement of the photographs in Discordia provides a wider contextual framework which allows Saman to continually surprise and wrong-foot the spectator. In this way, the ambiguities and falsities which Saman presents to the audience makes us continually question whether what we are seeing, and makes us trust them a lot less, creating that sense of chaos which the title of the portfolio alludes to.

Perhaps the best example of Saman creating confusion surrounding the subject matter is his representation of death. As aforementioned, Saman’s choice of photographs truly lend a nuance to the conflicts and the countries where they took place. A stark example of this is a photograph of a boy, dressed in white, smeared blood on both his hand and his clothing. The wall behind him and the ground below him also appear to be covered in blood. The blurring of the figures in the foreground of the photograph suggests a hurried movement, as if a crisis of some description had taken place and people are coming to resolve it. But as the caption to the photograph suggests, this is not the case: “A boy participates in the traditional slaughter of a cow during Eid celebrations in the Shobra district of Cairo,” it reads. Through these photographs, therefore, Saman not only normalises death; he also shows that death is celebrated. To suggest death, the worst aspect of any conflict, could be anything other than unambiguously horrific to the people involved, provides a real point of confusion for the spectator by challenging what they believe they already know about the Arab Spring, and war in general.

The themes which Saman presents thus brings us back to Miller’s original quote, that Magnum photographers “bridge the divide between journalism and art.”[14] One could argue that this rings true of Saman’s work, purely on the inclusion of certain photographs: while some report important events in the uprisings, others (such as a photograph of pieces of plastic hanging from a tree in a park in Egypt; the tree bisects the image while the light shining off the plastic gives a divine quality to the photograph) appear to be included purely on the basis that they are aesthetically or formally pleasing.[15] Others achieve both: Saman captures a series of palm tree-cum-barricades down a stretch of road, creating a series of triangular geometric patterns reminiscent of modernist photography.[16] Some photographs, however, appear both irrelevant and poorly composed: there is a hazy photograph of a road sign in Libya, for example.[17] By including both the immediately relevant and the irrelevant, as well as the artistic and the unappealing, Saman’s approach to this portfolio becomes rooted in what Pierre Bourdieu labels the “facile”: this is a participatory narrative of the Arab conflicts, in which the range in subject and quality of the photographs provides a greater sense of the range of characters involved in the Arab Spring but arguably lowers it from the “bourgeois entertainments” and the Platonic high art of grander narratives of the conflict.[18] However, while for many observers this participatory approach to the conflict may distort their prior knowledge and feelings towards the uprisings, one believes that by doing so Discordia provides a much fuller representation of the Arab Spring, the nations and the people involved than other similar projects. As a result, Saman’s portfolio achieves the demanding task laid out by Miller of bridging journalism and art: by accumulating these rudimentary images Saman lifts them above their base value, providing what is not only a complex journalistic narrative but also highlighting the artistic merit in all of the subjects he photographs.

As a result, Discordia both follows the long tradition of Magnum photography and lives up to its name to illustrate the ambiguities of the Arab Spring which is often overlooked in most journalistic reporting of the conflicts, attaining an artistic value far greater than its component parts as a result.

 

[1] R. Miller, Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History (Secker & Warburg: London, 1997), p. ix.

[2] Miller, Magnum, p. 224.

[3] C. Brothers, War and photography: a cultural history (Routledge: London, 1997), pp. 101-102.

[4] M. Saman, Discordia: The Arab Spring, Magnum Photos, http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG6C4OFN [accessed 22nd January 2015], http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/e/4/e/2/NYC155620.jpg.

[5] Miller, Magnum, p. 27.

Brothers, War and photography p. 183.

[6] W. Johnson, Discordia: The Arab Spring, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/discordia-arab-spring [accessed 22nd January 2015].

[7] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/7/5/0/0/NYC112640.jpg.

[8] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/2/c/8/3/NYC155570.jpg.

[9] J. Bowen, The Arab Uprisings: The people want the fall of the regime (Simon & Schuster: Great Britain, 2013), pp. 84-85.

[10] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida (Vintage: London, 2000), p. 43.

[11] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/8/9/9/8/NYC155610.jpg.

[12] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/6/c/3/8/NYC132925.jpg.

[13] W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ in H. Eiland and M. W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writing Volume 4 – 1938-40 (Harvard University Press: London, 2003), p. 258.

[14] Miller, Magnum, p. ix.

[15] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/7/b/b/d/NYC155584.jpg.

[16] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/1/e/6/f/LON131817.jpg.

[17] Saman, Discordia, http://www.magnumphotos.com/CorexDoc/MAG/Media/TR2/1/9/c/9/NYC155573.jpg.

[18] P. Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste (Routledge: London, 1984), pp. 188-190.

 

Bibliography

Barthes, R., Camera Lucida (Vintage: London, 2000).

 

Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,’ in H. Eiland and M. W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writing Volume 4 – 1938-40 (Harvard University Press: London, 2003), pp. 251-270.

Bourdieu, P., Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste (Routledge: London, 1984).

 

Bowen, J., The Arab Uprisings: The people want the fall of the regime (Simon & Schuster: Great Britain, 2013).

 

Brothers, C., War and photography: a cultural history (Routledge: London, 1997).

 

Johnson, W., Discordia: The Arab Spring, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/discordia-arab-spring [accessed 22nd January 2015].

 

Miller, R., Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History (Secker & Warburg: London, 1997).

 

Penrose, A. (ed.), Lee Miller’s War (Thames & Hudson: London, 2005).

 

Rabinovitch, S. and L. James, The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism (Citadel Press: 2002).

 

Saman, M., Discordia: The Arab Spring, Magnum Photos, http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG6C4OFN [accessed 22nd January 2015].

 

Sontag, S., On Photography (Penguin: London: 1979).

 

Taylor, J., War Photography: Realism in the British Press (Routledge: London, 1991).

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