She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World
Get a room together of the most prominent photojournalists working today and you’ll hear a discussion about whether they perceive and document their subjects as “the Other,” or stated more bluntly, is there legitimacy to the question “who is the white person holding the camera?”
The latest photography exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston strongly underscores that in documentary photography it is very important who holds the camera. She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World hands over the lens to twelve prominent women photographers from Iran, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon whose work challenges what photographer Tanya Habjouqa calls the “chronic misrepresentation of the Middle East”.
The result is over 50 photographs telling various stories and addressing topics such as the veil, exoticism, the impact of war on domestic life and the life of teenage girls. What radiates through these images are the strength, voice, boldness, creativity, femininity and individualism of the featured photographers whose collective works offer a unique perspective challenging many of the notions we may have of women in the Middle East.
In Iraqi-born Jananne Al-Ani’s family portraits of women in progressive stages of veiling and unveiling, the subjects’ unabashed and forthright stares get to the root of the Western viewer’s own discomfort, while the subjects emotions remain inscrutable. A favorite photograph is the elegant I am Its Secret by Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, the calligraphic bullseye over a women’s partially covered face calls attention to how often religious conflict is centered on the control of women’s bodies, and more specifically, fixated on their mode of dress.
Analogously, in the series Mother, Daughter, Doll by Boushra Almutawakel (Yemen) the subjects’ smiles slowly recede in reaction to their progressive concealment behind the veil, or hijab, until the troubling final photograph where they are completely invisible, as if we are perilously close to the total erasure of women and girls from society.
The photographs of Iranian artist Rania Matar and Jordanian Tania Habjouqa address the everyday lives of teenage girls. Matar’s series A Girl and Her Room are intimate portraits of teenage girls in their bedrooms, ranging from pink walls and multiple beauty products, to the austere room of a refugee camp. The fragility and delicateness of this transitional period perhaps mirrors the fragile and transitional state of their environment. Habjouqa’s Women of Gaza series depicts some of the common joys of daily life for teenage girls in Palestine. The most poignant image is of a group of schoolgirls enjoying a boat ride on the six nautical miles of the Mediterranean that is free from Israeli-control. These photographs are a clear contrast from the usual treatment of women as either victims of war, such as Steve McCurry’s famous Afghan Girl, or as a singular oppressed “class.”
The subject of war is given treatment here but the images provide a uniquely feminine perspective of war, instead of battlegrounds and destruction, the focus in on the struggle to create a home and family within the fabric of constant conflict. Goshar Dashti’s Today’s Life and War series depicts a newlywed couple trying to celebrate their marriage amongst a fictional battlefield and in Shadi Ghadirian’s images implements of war are embedded within domestic objects of femininity, such as combat boots resting next to red pumps, or a grenade within a fruit bowl. Ghadirian explains, “I wanted to talk about the woman and the man both inside the house. And show also the war, there is a war. The man is in the war. The woman is inside the house. She is waiting for him”.
When putting together the show, curator Kristen Gresh was warned that focusing on Arab and Iranian photographers might confirm the stereotype of women as oppressed and powerless, but her assertion is that “the works do the opposite,” and instead challenge these preconceived notions. By shifting who holds the camera, She Who Tells a Story is not about us looking in, but a voice coming out.
She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, MA until January 12, 2014.