Study Visit: Light from the Middle East and Laura Letinsky

Light from the Middle East

It’s an impressive task to attempt to encapsulate the photography of an entire region in one exhibition. In the introductory wording on the V and A’s web site:

Light from the Middle East: New Photography presents work by artists from across the Middle East (spanning North Africa to Central Asia), living in the region and in diaspora.

The exhibition explores the ways in which these artists investigate the language and techniques of photography. Some use the camera to record or bear witness, while others subvert that process to reveal how surprisingly unreliable a photograph can be. The works range from documentary photographs and highly staged tableaux to images manipulated beyond recognition. The variety of approaches is appropriate to the complexities of a vast and diverse region.

Light from the Middle East is divided into three sections, Recording, Reframing and Resisting, each of which focuses on a different approach to the medium of photography.”

There were too many works to discuss in detail, here are some notes on the artists and works that made the greatest impact on me.

Recording reflected a photograph’s ability to depict a seemingly accurate record of people, places and events.

There were three photographs of trees in full fruit by Tal Shochat. These were photographed like a portrait in a studio with leaves and fruit dusted and polished. They were artificially lit and photographed against a black backdrop. The result was very effective visually. There are often questions about whether a portrait is an accurate portrayal of its subject. By taking the tree out of the context of its orchard, this set does the same for a “portrait” of a tree.

The description of the series “Light” by Waheeda Malullah explained that the artist used humour to explore social rules and that the photos were staged of someone lying down next to tombs, exaggerating the shi’i muslim custom of seeking blessing by touching the tombs of revered people.  In one picture the subject was lying between two tombs with arms outstretched. The contrast between the black clad figure against the white background meant that at first the picture looked like a cross. I doubt if the very Christian symbol is what the artist intended.  This called into question the context and cultural differences between the photographer and viewer. The picture viewed in a Middle Eastern context would have a quite different impact and meaning. Visually, the series were an interesting use of light and form.

Ahmed Mater photographed the pattern of iron filings around a black cubic magnet and used them to represent the “…pilgrims circling the Ka’ba, the sacred building at the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca”. On close inspection they looked exactly what they were but a more distant view revealed the symbolism. This is possibly another example where a western interpretation might differ from a contemporary one, might not get the true significance. Nevertheless, the image is one of centrality, which is a feature of any monotheistic faith.

“The Path” by Abdulnasser Gharem shows a bridge where many lost their lives attempting to escape a flash flood. When viewing the photograph, it’s only after a while that you realise that the bridge does not go anywhere! The artist repeatedly painted the word siraat on the bridge. Siraat means path and in the Qu’ran means “the path to God”.

Reframing refers to the appropriation or imitation of images from the past in order to make statements about the present.

There was a nice set by Shadi Ghadirian of sitters posed in period costume and in a period setting (specifically the Iranian Qajar period) with modern props. The contrast makes a comment on the tensions between “tradition and modernity that women in Iran face today”. For me this has a wider resonance, western society in general struggles with balancing development with history, progress with tradition.

My favourite picture in the exhibition was “Jama Fna Angels” by Hassan Hajjaj. This picture of four muslim women with black Niqābs and other clothing that is bright in colour and traditional in style. The result is an obvious collision between western consumerism and Middle Eastern ideology that is equally accessible to either culture.


The artists displayed in the Resisting section question the idea that a photograph can tell the truth.

Atiq Rahimi used a box camera to photograph the ruins of Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. The result was a series of photographs with an ethereal, timeless feel to them. They looked like a historical record rather than a contemporary account.

When Nermine Hammam saw the soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square he was struck by their vulnerability, and their seeming want to be elsewhere. So he photographically took them elsewhere. We see tanks amongst trees and soldiers in alpine settings; all in an idyllic setting quite distinct from the hostility of their origin.

Sadegh Tirafkan’s ‘Human Tapestry’ is a photo mosaic of innumerable portraits assembled to look like a Persian carpet. This depersonalises the subjects, so representing the depersonalisation of population growth.

The region is represented in the western press so much by its conflict, we tend to think this is its main characteristic. There was inevitably a degree of space in the exhibition showing this aspect but it was refreshing and educational to see so many other aspects of muslim culture and lifestyle.

Laura Letinsky

Laura Letinsky is a Canadian photographer, best known for meticulously arrenged still life pictures apparently of the aftermath of a meal, with empty plates, spilled wine and crumped table cloths. On first entering the exhibition of her new series “Ill Form and Void Full”, the impression was one of photographs with lots of areas of white, with fruit in varying stages of decay. To say that these pictures combine broken glasses, discarded and rotten fruit, pictures and pieces of white paper in arrangements of still lifes would be true and, as tutor Robert Enoch clearly explained, a gross oversimplification which does not do justice to her work. The way she plays with the arrangement, lighting and perspective challenges many assumptions we make when looking at a photograph. Many visual clues to depth which give us impression of the third dimension are absent. She makes no attempt to hide the fact that they are collages with tape and pins in evidence. This is visual trickery and like when watching a magician we are left trying to work out how the tricks are performed.

We were given three objectives for this study day:

  • gain a personal perspective on a wide range of photographic work
  • reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery
  • network with other OCA students

There was a wide range of photographic work in the first exhibition only and Laura Letinsky was a whole dimension apart. I am finding that the more exhibitions I attend, the more value they have

During his preamble, Gareth mentioned the fact that we see so many pictures on the web, we can become immune to their impact. I had previewed many of the pictures from “Light from the Middle East” before the day on the V and A’s excellent web site, yet that was poor preparation for seeing the actual pictures, in the size and framing the artist wanted, in the colours the artist had intended not some diminuted web friendly colour space, in the context of neighbouring pictures.

There was a healthy turn-out of 25 fellow students, at various stages of study and on different courses. It’s refreshing to hear other student’s challenges with their course and studies and their impressions of the exhibitions we attended. It’s a valuable grounding for the remoteness you can feel with distance study.

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