How was Photography used to sustain dictators? How has it supported people in fighting for freedom? Power! Photos! Freedom! at Antwerp’s Fotomuseum reveals a hidden history of photography. Curator Joachim Naudts gives us the remarkable background to a compelling exhibition at Antwerp’s Fotomuseum. Naudts reveals the race against time of the Human Rights Watch to preserve the photographic record of a brutal tyranny, and explains how imagery was used by both the state, and by those fighting oppressive regimes in the Middle East
What was the nature of Colonel Gaddafi’s photo archive? Was he a collector/curator of photography?
Joachim Naudts: First of all, I’d like to point out the fact that the archive was not a personal archive of Gaddafi’s, but it’s an archive compiled by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) with images of Gaddafi. Peter Bouckaert (emergency director of HRW) was in Libya during the revolution to secure and document as much valuable information (evidence that could be used in court/The Hague). Together with a few photographers they found lots of photographs inside government buildings, police headquarters or homes/palaces of relatives and loyals to Gaddafi. They did not take those with them (=theft), but re-photographed them to make sure they were kept from ‘looting’ etc. Peter Bouckaert wrote about it extensively, I quote 3 important paragraphs:
“Our project to secure the archives of the Libyan state was a race against time: Libyans were finally able to vent their fury against the police state that Qaddafi had built, and all too often, that fury involved burning down and tearing apart any symbols of the regime — particularly the buildings of the loathed security agencies. We arrived in the eastern city of Benghazi in late February, just days after the Libyan revolution had begun there. Control of eastern Libya had been wrenched from the security services after days of arrests and shootings of demonstrators by Qaddafi’s forces, and we found state buildings all over the city still smoldering, burned to the ground by angry mobs. It was as if somehow, the now-free Libyan people, then still under threat of a military offensive by Qaddafi loyalists to retake eastern Libya, believed that they could somehow hold off Qaddafi’s return by burning down the symbols of his feared police state.
The Human Rights Watch teams didn’t seek to haul off the files we were trying to preserve – those belong to the Libyan people. In any case, the files of a state which had just about all of its citizens under surveillance were just too massive to haul away. We quickly photographed what we thought relevant, and then worked with Libyan lawyers and rebel representatives to impress upon them the importance of securing the archives, as they surely held answers to some of the mysteries from Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. There were so many unsolved mysteries. No one knew what had happened to the bodies of the roughly 1,200 prisoners who were mowed down at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996, after they protested their detention conditions, for one. Somewhere in the files, there should be answers.
Unfortunately, two rooms with documents at the prison were already smoldering when we arrived. While our search focused mostly on intelligence documents, we noticed that the archives contained rooms literally filled with photographs and films documenting Qaddafi’s rule. The photographs were of little interest to our Libyan guides, who had been saturated with Qaddafi’s omnipresent image and exploits during his long rule. Unlike with the intelligence documents, which revealed secrets that they had not been privy to, our Libyan friends could not understand why we foreigners found images of Qaddafi, well, being Qaddafi, so fascinating. On a number of occasions, we had to stop of Libyan counterparts from reflexively tearing up any image of Qaddafi that we came across – another popular cleansing ritual in the new Libya.”
How did you get access to the archive and what was the basis of your selection?
Joachim Naudts: The Gaddafi archives are only one part of the entire exhibition. This part is co-curated by the London-based freelance curator Susan Glen. After extensive research (involving lots of interviews with Libyans, both pro and contra the former regime) she provided all the important and relevant historical context. She managed to name most of the people in the photographs. Who is Gaddafi talking to? Where is he? What’s going on What deals are being signed? Who did he trust? Who didn’t? What dates are the photographs made? This part of the exhibition came together after endlessly rearranging the selection in order to be able to make the entire Gaddafi-era visible and understandable through photography. Starting in the late sixties, ending in 2011. HRW was (of course) also extensively involved, mainly through Peter Bouckaert himself.
Is there a specific ‘Dictator’s Aesthetic’, or is there a universal visual language of the ‘Power Portrait’?
Joachim Naudts: I think you’re right that there isn’t really an aesthetic, specifically for Dictators. Power portraits in general use the same ‘style’. The thing that is specific though is the way these images are ‘used’. The omnipresence of an image, not only in official buildings, but also in public space, on the streets, in living rooms, in shops. The massive repetition of that one image, of that one person; that is really unseen, except with dictators. Some important things about this ‘omnipresence’, that are valid for most of the authoritarian countries are: – Only His (the leader) image can be shown in public, no other images are allowed (especially from ‘normal’ people or opposition) – This is a practice that lasted for decades (in Libya for instance over 40 years). The enormous psychological impact can not be underestimated. Omnipresence leads to the idea of somebody that sees everything. The image replaces the gaze of the dictator himself, the image nearly becomes the substitute for the dictator, the substitute for his fear. It’s a kind of ‘Big-Brother is watching’…
How effective a tool of Power is photography? Is it still as relevant?
Joachim Naudts: Depends how you define Power. In the exhibition we focus on two sides of it: the power of the people and how they use photography in that respect, and the power of the regime that also uses photography. Some small examples:
– Mosireen is a civil journalism group of young activists from Cairo. In the exhibition we show 9 videos they made. They filmed on the streets, also battles between protesters and the army. Immediately after filming, they edited the film and set up their own ‘Cinema Tahrir’: a projection screen and a beamer, in the middle of Tahrir Square. With this, they simply tried to convince people to stay on the square. They convinced others with imagery (photo and film). They showed what was going on in other parts of Cairo, other parts of Egypt and in other countries from the Arab World – ‘Uprising of Women in the Arab World’: A Facebook campaign/group that uses photography to get their message (womens rights) out in the world. People made simple portraits of themselves holding a piece of paper with a text, stating why they agreed with the message of the Facebook group. By having a message AND a face, the message comes across much more strong and fast. The portraits make way for an immediate identification. Photography as a tool used by regimes is different: photographs are often staged, portraits need to express power, …
A good example of the psychological side of this, can be found with the Artocracy project. Some info on this: “The Tunisian Artocracy project is a side-track from the more well known Inside Out project by French street artist JR. Six Tunisian photographers (Sophia Baraket and Hela Ammar among others) travelled their country to take pictures of 100 ‘normal’ Tunisians. Portraits were made of men and women, young and old, from all corners of the country, rich and poor, business people, workers, farmers and unemployed. These black and white photographs were subsequently printed in large-format and hung in the streets. The portraits were displayed in strategic places of symbolic importance for the fight against the dictator. ‘Regular’ people in the streets, where previously only portraits of the ruler were shown. Naturally it caused controversy, also with the ‘regular man on the street’.” “Hamideddine Bouali photographed what was going on the morning of March 18, 2011. In the early morning bystanders have spent long minutes to meticulously remove the pasted portraits of the Inside Out project. Artocracy in Tunisia is an artistic project with intervention by the famous photographer JR. It was a democratic action, both on the side of the photographers that hung giant photos on the Bab Bhar gate, as of those who removed them again. The performance took place and that is the most important thing to remember.”
Can you tell me a little about the Syrian imagery?
Joachim Naudts: We show quite a lot of Syrian imagery. Interesting to note is the comparison between the work of Swiss photographer Nicolas Righetti and Syrian photographer Issa Touma: “Swiss photographer Nicolas Righetti documented Bachar al-Assad’s as yet last election campaign in 2007. He combines these photographs with some unmistakable quotes from the Syrian president. Assad got re-elected for a new mandate of seven years. According to official figures, published on Tuesday 29 May 2007, he received 97.62% of the electorate, compared to 97.29% in 2000. Righetti’s photographs put it sharply: colorful, joyful aesthetic contrast with the underlying, sinister political messages.”
“Issa Touma is photographer and founder of Le Pont Organisation in Aleppo, Syria. To the present day both art and photography serve him as a counterweight against the violence in his country. In his photographs the image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seem to emerge uncritically.” “In the Middle East, we don’t need to leave our homeland in order to be in exile, because we are exiled in several ways. Mostly, it is our inability to live within our essence. We pretend to have a healthy family life, yet there is distance between the members. We also pretend to have a warm social life, yet, in reality, are miles away from each other. We can’t express our points of view clearly; we can’t see them clearly. Trust is almost vanished among people. We claim that we are living in Utopia. The media is very optimistic about everything. One cannot even hear about a car accident in the daily news. It is as if everything bad and harsh only happens outside of our borders.
Politically, I belong to a generation that grew up with one government, one president, and have never tasted democracy in any way. We cannot practice or participate in our own political issues. The only ones concerned are also exiled in their high and fancy towers.” – Issa Touma
And the stills from Imaginary Guillotine?
Joachim Naudts: Joachim Ben Yakoub made a films based on photographs he found on-line. He juxtaposes different image of Tunisian former President Zine Abedine Ben Ali. On one hand he uses images of the ‘regular’ portraits of the president as they hung in the streets, on the other hand he uses image of that same portraits being ‘defaced by the people, demonstrators, …
By doing this he reflects on the way the image replaces the president and the anger of the people is being addressed towards these portraits instead of the president himself: “The photomontage of Joachim Ben Yakoub looks at the role of the portrait of former Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali. Guillotine Imaginaire approaches the decapitation of the portrait as an essential element in the liberating repertoire of the revolutionary movement. Zooming in on the transition between dictatorial and revolutionary mis-en-scène shows a far better understanding of this historical upheaval and the role of the image in this context. Juxtaposing different images that circulated the internet during the revolution, entails a righteous pleasure, but simultaneously warns for the spirit of the dictatorship and its re-embodiment. Unless people in post-revolutionary Tunis get whatthey claimed”.
Power! Photos! Freedom! is running at The Antwerp Fotomusem from the 15th February 2013 to the 9th June 2013. Visit the museum’s website for more details.