Light from the Middle East, New Photography


Newsha Tavakolian. From the series Mothers of Martyrs, 2006

When on a dark day in January you find yourself in the middle of Brompton Road in London, then you might seek enlightenment in two ways. Either you choose the eastern route to have yourself blinded in the glitter of decadent Harrods’ luxuries, giving in to guilty pleasures, or you walk to the west, to the V&A Museum for the photo exhibition Light from the Middle East: New Photography. Being partial to photography I don’t take long to convince myself. To the real east it will be.

Hassan Hajjaj. Saida in Green, 2000

Hassan Hajjaj. Saida in Green, 2000

With over 90 works, Light from the Middle East calls itself the first major exhibition in the UK of contemporary photography from and about the Middle East. In this exhibition 30 famous and upcoming photographers from the Middle East render their creative reflection on the social questions and political revolutions that shaped the region over the past 20 years.

Iranians burning a picture of the Shah during the Iranian Revolution of 1978, veiled women holding rifles, four executed generals: Light from the Middle East opens with a series by the iconic Iranian Magnum photo-journalist Abbas. This serves as a taste of all the usual suspects to come out of the Middle East: violence, war, oppression, … Still, this exhibition does not just narrate the political and social situation in the region. Light from the Middle-East expressly addresses the reliability of the medium photography. Therefore don’t expect the exposition to just show a random series of images from the Middle East. Light from the Middle East is more than a display of a photoarchive. It is split in three sections: Recording, Reframing, Resisting, each depending on how the artist uses the medium.

Provoking, reframing and manipulationg

In the first section called Recording the photographers are provoking the viewer. Photography is a powerful medium to record people, places and events. But how reliable is a picture? Do images always give an objective rendering of reality? This section explores the ambiguity of images. Among others, photos from Manal Al-Dowayan’s I am… and Magnetism by Ahmed Mater are on display here.

The artists in the Reframing section take pictures from the past as a point of reference. They reframe existing pictures to create new images. We for instance see photos from Shadi Ghadirian’s Qajar series by which the Iranian female photographer comments on the tensions between tradition and modernity.

Shadi Ghadirian. From the serie Qajar, 1998

Shadi Ghadirian. From the series Qajar, 1998

The last section, Resisting, steps up the effort. Here, the photographers undermine the autority of photos as ‘absolute truth’ by editing them digitally or manually. Thus, Nermin Hammal creates a form of escapism in her series Uphekka.

Nermine Hammam. From the series Upekkha, 2011

Nermine Hammam. From the series Upekkha, 2011

The three sections might come in handy to guide one through the exposition. But as much as the curator did her best to categorise the photographs, I cannot but feel the thematic arrangement doesn’t always cut it. Some images obviously do not fall into one of the three categories. Did the curator just decide a bit too hastily to give the 90 plus photographs from the archive a destination? Still, the exhibition shouldn’t just be judged by that. Its merit is also to showcase photographers who exclusively, by birth or origin, show up an affinity with the region. That notion of being both observer and participant expresses itself in powerful imagery.

My advice? When in London, leave the hustle and bustle aside for a moment and be sure to visit this exposition. And for those unable to curb his or her consumerism : the expo Light from the Middle East is accompanied by the book of the same title available at the museum’s giftshop. For only 20 pound I bought my copy. To each his guilty pleasures.


Light from the Middle-East: New photography, until 7 april 2013.

Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London UK.

Translated by Mark Eijkman


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