The first major exhibition of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East, Light from the Middle East : New Photography (until 7 April 2013 at the Victoria and Albert Museum) features over 90 works by some of the most exciting artists from across the region.
Photography is a powerful and persuasive means of expression. Its immediacy and accessibility make it an ideal choice for artists confronting the social challenges and political upheavals of the Middle East today.
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.
Photography is a seemingly accurate means of recording people, places and events. A photograph can serve a commemorative purpose or document a historic moment. It can reveal something not otherwise visible, such as a place or event the viewer would not have access to, or a particular vantage point available only to the photographer. It can also create a lasting image of a fleeting performance, or of a scene staged only for the camera.
But how reliable is a photograph? Despite the apparent authority of photographic images, they can trick or disorient. They can be ambiguous and difficult to decipher. Their meaning can shift according to context, cropping or captioning. What are the limitations of photography?
The photographers in this section use a range of approaches to exploit and explore the camera’s capacity to record.
The artists in this section appropriate or imitate images from the past in order to make statements about the present. Their sources range from studio portraiture to fashion photography, from Old Master paintings to Modernist photographs. Using a variety of techniques, they update and interrogate, knowingly combining past and present, East and West, fact and fiction. Whether emulating or critiquing, these artists reframe existing images to new ends.
The artists in this section question the idea that a photograph can tell the truth. Some digitally alter images. Some scratch negatives and prints, or even burn them. Other artists reject clarity and detail in favour of processes that rely on chance. The results are murky, atmospheric images that require effort to interpret.
These manipulations demonstrate the fragility of the photograph, whether at the hands of artists or censors. They also lay bare the power of photographic imagery to influence and control through propaganda or surveillance. These works resist photography’s claim to accuracy and authority.
You can find a review of Light from the Middle East and lots of links for the show on Jonathan Jones blog. A video and another short review at Al Arabiya. More at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Photo on top of page by Mehraneh Atashi’s Bodiless I. / Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum