25 September 2005

The Political Landscape I

© Issa Touma

Here is a link to a recent npr story on Syrian photographer Issa Touma:

The photograph above is a picture of his, lifted from the npr gallery, that prompts questions about the link between politics and photography. This is a detail of a cityscape of Touma's home town of Aleppo. The photo was taken from above so as to reveal the satellite dishes that have proliferated on rooftops across the city.

As the npr commentary makes clear this is a political image. It does not, however, portray an "event" and so lacks some of the drama we find in, say, Josef Koudelka's famous photographic record of Warsaw Pact troops invading Prague in 1968. But nor is it as bleak and inert as the various environments Koudelka portrays in the images he later collected in Chaos (Phaidon, 1999). So how is it political?

One might think of this as an instance of "the political landscape" - a phrase on whose ambiguities I was prompted to reflect by the following passage:
"I think we often forget that battlefields are one kind of landscape and that most landscapes also are territories. That is to say, they have political as well as aesthetic dimensions; on the small scale they involve real estate and sense of place, on the large scale they involve nationalisms, war and the grounds for ethnic identity. Part of what is exciting about the artwork I have been attending too is that it portrays nature and landscape as not just where we picnic but also where we live and die. It is where our food, water, fuel and minerals come from, where our nuclear waste and shit and garbage go to. It is the territory of dreams, somebody’s homeland and somebody’s goldmine." (Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent, University of Georgia Press, 2001, pages 10-11.)
Touma's landscape is political not in the sense that it captures some monumental battle or its aftermath; instead it is political because it reveals ongoing conflict between an authoritarian regime and citizenry. One might invoke here something like Jim Scott's "weapons of the weak." In so doing though we need not romanticize the situation and presume that what each household "tunes in" to is anything other than the mundane, commercial media about which we here in the west rightly complain. But we surely can see that resistance occurs largely out of sight, and thank photographers like Touma for revealing it to us and, more importantly, to Syrians who are sure to gain sustenance from the knowledge that many oif their neighbors too are looking beyond the range of official culture.

The exhibit that npr reported on is now at the Aperture Foundation in NYC.

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