All What I Want is Life
On ViewGulf Photo Plus
February 27 – August 14, 2020
Seldom is civil unrest in the Arab world discussed beyond hushed dinner conversations or in the context of economic decay on corporate roundtables. In Dubai’s center for photography, Gulf Photo Plus (GPP), however, it’s the topic du jour. A pictorial and filmic essay drawn from Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan, All What I Want is Life takes its title from a cri de cur strewn across the walls of the Saadoun Tunnel in graffiti in Baghdad. “This is an exhibition of protest photography, not photojournalism,” explains co-curator Raz Hansrod over the sounds of chants emanating from a collage of found online footage of protests sweeping the region. “Most of these are taken on an iPhone and uploaded online—they aren’t the product of Reuters sweeping onto the scene.”
While disparate chants bounced off the walls, interlocking in gradual homogeneity, the striking photographs of Beirut-based Myriam Boulos stood out in stark contrast to the tear gas-filtered protests of our imagination. Using fill flash, Boulos waded into Beirut and Tripoli when the unrest first rattled the country in October last year, focusing her lens on protesters—mostly young and attractive, who ranged from shirtless rugged men on motorcycles with faces obscured in stylish clothes creating a bad-boy mystique to plastic fantastic women in Barbie pink with campy drawn-on lips and cakey eye-shadow in lurid-hues. Boulos received backlash on Twitter when Time magazine published the photos. The grievances? The subjects could be mistaken for ravers. “I personally don't see that,” she shot back. “Fill flash makes things real. I capture faces that speak to me and for me.” It’s perhaps the photographic technique often employed in nightclubs which lent them the flamboyant feel, but as a culture, it behooves us to think less about photography’s potential to desecrate a movement and more about its authoritarian capacity for mass surveillance, i.e. to identify and prosecute individuals.
Photography duo Tamara Abdul Hadi and Roï Saade’s series of diptychs hung on the other side of the wall, presenting spectral artefacts from Beirut. A tent pitched in sinister abandonment, multi-pronged CCTV cameras rearing their heads like ineffectual members of the Lebanese parliament and blocks of brutal cement sprayed with anti-government slogans–this “watching you watching me” type of documentation allows for vigilance against the excesses of the powers that be, thus propagating a form of sousveillance. A similar inversion of top-down protest documentation and communication is present in the photographs of Iraqi Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen, who followed the self-appointed “Anti-Teargas Grenade Squad” vigilante group on their neighborhood watches over the streets of Baghdad in October 2019. One wears an off-brand Joker mask and ski goggles and another dons a miner’s cap and what looks like weightlifting gloves. Easy decoys, these feeble costumes distract from the slingshots and fireworks in their pockets. In contrast, 23-year-old Baghdad-based photographer Amir Hazim’s assertive monochromatic display captures an unflinching valiance, with a veiny fist raised to the sky and piercing eyes peering through masked faces.
Similarly, in Youthupia: an Algerian Tale (2020), documentary photographer Fethi Sahraoui ventures into testosterone-addled soccer stadiums, where protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement to run for a fifth round had their roots. “They made from these bleachers a platform to express their disapproval,” explained Sahraoui, noting that 70 percent of the Algerian population is under 30.
Where Hazim and Sahraoui freezeframe a more male-dominant streak of political organizing, it’s Khartoum-based Lana Haroun’s transfixing photograph of Alaa Salah that catapulted the protester to fame as her image was blasted around the internet, becoming an emblem of the female role in dissent. Draped in white with her index finger raised to the heavens, she stands atop a car, the sunlight refracted by her golden earrings, orchestrating the chants for a sea of compliant protesters.
From all what I want is life in the nooks of Baghdad to I can’t breathe resounding through the streets of New York, the battle cry is simple: a demand for respiration, largely obstructed by the chokehold of police brutality, corruption, and state inadequacy. The grievances abound, what binds them together is the fifth estate of social media—the fill flash that brought them into sharp relief.