BEIRUT: Manu Ferneini’s photo series “A Bigger Room” reflects upon her Lebanese family’s long relationship with their domestic servant Priya. Ferneini says she is her “second mother.”
As is customary for domestic servants, Priya lived for over a decade in an undersized maid's room. The photo series documents that history while updating the story with shots of Sri Lanka, where Priya now lives in her own house, financed by her labor in Lebanon.
“A Bigger Room” emerged from the Arab Documentary Photography Program, one of several high-profile funding and mentoring initiatives overseen by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. AFAC casts a broad net these days.
Since 2020’s various disasters upended the arts sector, the fund has been conspicuous for the Lebanon Solidarity Fund, an ad hoc mechanism to support artists and cultural institutions in Lebanon. A collaboration with Culture Resource, the solidarity initiative has echoes around the region.
AFAC’s core programs tend to be less reactive, more forward looking – whether the thematically or regionally focused platforms or those targeting specific facets of cultural production: visual arts, performing arts, documentary film, fiction film, music, creative and critical writing, and documentary photography.
Launched in 2014 in partnership with Amsterdam’s Prince Claus Fund and New York’s Magnum Foundation, ADPP was founded to address the imbalance in the region’s production – which mass media tends to pull toward photojournalism.
The program’s remit is formally diverse – from classical photo documentary to more experimental narrative approaches – its grants solvent, its mentors international (not infrequently award-winning) professionals.
In past years AFAC has supported its ADPP laureates with exhibitions of their work around the region and beyond. With public health concerns restricting movement, and the proliferation of online exhibition platforms, AFAC has launched a new Arabic-English website dedicated to the 50-odd projects produced for ADPP since 2014.
The new site presently features the work of the nine photographers participating in ADPP’s sixth tranche of grants, from 2019-2020. These nine projects are diverse in their formal approaches and subjects, though there are commonalities as well. Original photos mingle with found or archival images and document reproductions, as well as simple, perhaps hand-drawn, maps.
Photographers tend to have a personal connection with their subjects, and several projects, like Ferneini’s, center on photographers’ families.
“De l’air,” the project of Lola Khalfa, collects snatches of a family history she witnessed as a child growing up in rural Algeria during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war. Her main protagonists are her father, whom Islamists murdered, and her brother Tarek, whose relationship with his family migrated from alienation to reconciliation to acceptance.
Dania Hany’s study “I Have Been Here Before” focuses on a family narrative that begins in the 19th century, when her Caucasian-born ancestor Ali Pasha Hilmi was uprooted as a child and trained as a Mamluk – the Ottoman Empire’s corps of slave-soldiers – which ensured the photographer’s family would be Egyptian. The project artfully juxtaposes historic photos, documents and hand-rendered texts and maps with contemporary photo portraits and landscapes.
Other ADPP projects have a broader community focus, relating affecting stories of groups formed not by blood but shared alienation.
The most harrowing of the projects exhibited on this site, “A Permanent Wound,” by Egyptian photographer and visual artist Somaya Abdelrahman, is also closest to the practice of classic photo documentary. The series grew out of Abdelrahman’s fieldwork investigating female genital mutilation in Egypt and Sudan. Tales of little girls’ traumas undergoing FGM are juxtaposed with black-and-white images of the victims, the women who mutilate them and the poverty in which they live. The power of the photos and narratives is compounded by the photographer herself having survived the procedure – as did her mother, who escorted her daughter through the process.
Two projects take up migration stories in a manner that veers toward the artful.
The more successful is “I Was Younger Yesterday,” by Yemen-born Thana Faroq, which looks into the experiences of six migrants fighting deportation after The Netherlands denied their refugee status.
For her pictures, Faroq finds ways to avoid the crisp clarity of commercial photography – obscuring her subjects with objects (screens, curtains, shadow) or colour or light saturation, accentuated in post-production. Her portraits may capture the backs of heads. Landscapes sometimes seem out of focus, or else frame their subjects so as to valorise shadow and color over form. Interiors are so crowded with shadow as to accentuate their claustrophobia – redeemed somewhat by the color of an umbrella or balloons that share the frame with her subject.
The accompanying text is a “have-done” list, reproduced in clusters of five, that so excruciatingly captures the banal tropes of immobility as to approach poetry.
Somewhat more disjointed is “The Home Seekers,” by Sudanese-born Salih Basheer. It comprises a journalistic narrative illustrating the difficulties facing black Sudanese in Egypt, complemented by written recollections of the migrants’ dreams. The photos of Basheer’s two subjects and their ambit vary from documentary-flavoured to more self-consciously artistic – snaps of the nude man in bed, for instance, or, at another extreme, a diptych of a dead cat lying in the road.
“Margined in a Supposed Green,” the series of Egypt’s Fathi Hawas, also takes a group of young men as its subject. Hawas and his pals Yunis, Suliman and Mo’men aren’t literal migrants but artists living and working in the internal exile of Kafr El-Dauwar, a bedroom community of Alexandria, “displaced away from artistic, cultural, and ?nancial resources.”
The four have launched their own label, Kafr El-Dauwar Records, “as a form of resistance,” and Hawas’ series is a sort of illustrated manifesto for the label. His images tend to be obscured by color (true to the series title, radioactive green is favored), blurring, resolution-reducing filters and such, though he’s also fond of framing his pics (still lifes and portraits) in triptych. Several of Hawas’ portraits have a promotional quality, showing young men at a turntable or holding an instrument.
The bio of Bahraini photographer Mariam Alarab suggests her practice documents the “connection between culture, politics, history and environment [blending] collaboration with people and communities, and immersion in place and landscapes.” The site features one photo from her series “But Hope Is Born from the Suffering Womb,” showing a boat beached upon a grassy seaside field outside a wall, with palms and other trees on the far side.
Mohammed Alkouh’s “Failaka Is a Beautiful Island” also has a community focus but his interest in urban geography makes the series distinct from those of his colleagues, which take up the stories of individuals. Though the research-based visual artist and photographer does mention that he first saw Failaka while on a family trip, he demonstrates little interest in documenting or mythologizing himself or his family.
Instead, Failaka Island’s dilapidated structures are juxtaposed with historic documentation from before the Iraqi occupation, offering empirical evidence for Alkouh’s suggestion that “Failaka Island is a metaphor for generational trauma.”
Alkouh has a bittersweet sense of humor about Failaka. His final photo shows a rear-view mirror vista of Failaka, the its Arabic-language warning, that “objects shown in the mirror are closer than they appear” altered. It now reads “Objects in the mirror are further than they seem.”
All nine recent ADPP projects may be viewed here: http://arabdocphotography.org/home/