V&A, Dec 2012
The V&A can be relied upon to present unique, beautifully curated photography shows, and Light From the Middle East is no exception. Any anxiety that the work would be either routine documentary or else highly derivative is soon assuaged by the diverse and unique collection of strategies on display. The criticism that many of these photographers studied in the west and are therefore rendered incapable of articulating an alternative cultural viewpoint is to simply ignore the weight of evidence here.
Opening with the shared predicament of oppression (whether it be home-grown religious/political or at the sharp end of US foreign policy), Amirai Ghasemi's partying snapshots have the faces of all the guests whited-out in the final prints, Jowhara Alsaud goes further and has her subjects reduced entirely to drawings to protect their identities and Taraneh Hemami's 'Most Wanted' series portrays muslims as reduced to crudely blurred ciphers for the terrorist threat, anonymised beyond the point of being identifiable as individuals.
One easily missed play on prior expectations is the series of arcane hand-tinted studio portraits which are actually an archetype re-located by Youssef Nabil to South Shields in the North East of England, with the Yemeni diaspora as his contemporaneous subject.
The signature style of the Becher's is unexpectedly appropriated by Taysir Batniji. But rather than the Eurocentric interest in vanishing industrial typologies his work is in response to the proliferation of Israeli watchtowers. A further irony being that he had to delegate the task of taking the pictures to a local photographer as it was not permitted for him to approach them as he was Gaza-born.
While Walid Raah (Atlas Group) raised issues of fictionalised evidence, Abbas Kawsari by-passed what could have been a conventional photojournalist type image of a Kurdish combatant, by framing just the torso strapped with grenades and AK47 - with incongruous Bryan Adams tee-shirt.
Tal Shochat went as far as back-dropping trees in black fabric for her Pomegranate tree series, hinting at some essence of Eden.
The slideshow of aerial photographs - taken at gun-ship or drone altitude - surveyed both abandoned, cratered compounds and barren terrain marked by the now meaningless fading gridlines of former land-use.
Magnetism I and II by Ahmed Mater al-Ziad were a particular revelation. Again expectations are subverted. For a moment these images appear to be high-viewpoint, wide field of view shots of Islamic worship at Kabah but in an instant (in a moment of conversion) they reveal themselves to be nothing more than iron filings on a sheet of paper forming dark circles around a black magnet cube, an astonishing and elegant metaphor for religious faith while also a remarkable play on how we read and misread what we think we understand.
until 7 April 2013