January 15: Current exhibitions present compelling images of the refugee crisis, and the prejudice faced by migrants in Europe.
VB-valokuvakeskus (VB Photographic Centre) Kungsgatan 14-16, 70100 Kuopio, Finland houses one of the continuing international showings of the World Press Photo-winning Where the Children Sleep (Where children sleep) by Magnus Wennman. Mehdi Bahmed shows Entre-Deux to confront issues of integration and rising nationalism in Europe at Okazi Gallery Türrschmidtstraße 18, 10317 Berlin, Germany until February 16, while A quieter, but no less affecting exhibition continues at Impressions Gallery, Centenary Square, Bradford, UK deals with the aftermath of migration in the long-term project You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain (till 24th Mar 2018), the starting point for which was the question, ‘what does it mean to be a British Muslim male today?
Wennman’s and Bahmed’s work is distinguished by their realism, or hyperreality in the case of Entre-Deux. Bahmed’s mother is French, his father Algerian and his background makes his responses complex;
With my pictures I want to ask questions and make suggestions without offering clear answers. My work is trying to create an alternative space for encounter, reflection and dialogue.
His solution is to stage his photographs rather than to rely on documentary images in order to access and represent thoughts and emotions of the protagonists. Though in doing so he worries;
…is a highly aestheticised Photography on current and sometimes very tragic events counterproductive?
We are grown used to the frozen cinematic tableaux of American photographer Gregory Crewdson, and a little suspicious, after his recent Cathedral of the Pines that such pictures are still in search of a subject other than a First World unease or ennui. Bahmed builds as much tension in his photographs, but with an urgent purpose, inspired to begin his series by the rise of Pegida, the far-right anti-Islamic party in Germany;
empowering people in the west to understand the difficult role Arabic people are facing in this conflict, and to build bridges between both worlds, is an essential strategy to ensure a peaceful life for both of our cultures…[and]…if we don’t try to understand this inner tension between the western and Arabic realm, the despair of Muslims and their attempts at radicalisation will grow.
He employs any means to disturb the viewer’s equilibrium and shake us out of our assumptions. There is no denying that we live in a surreal world in which liberties that we hold sacred in our own culture, we deny others and the violence of this unfairly loaded logic is made tangible in the precarious or even precipitous poses of Bahmed’s subjects. The young man in La Danse is more likely to have been tripped or punched to have taken this tumble, than to be in the throes of break-dancing! The encounters between two cultures in La Promenade and La Rencontre are fearful and apprehensive, and again unbalanced.
Jeanne (above) may easily have stepped out of one of the closeted, perhaps fundamentalist Christian rural communities of The Cathedral of Pines. Is it out of homage that Bahmed’s imagery taps into the static, or suspended animation of Crewdson’s or Jeff Wall’s imagery? He has dealt in other series with both the dream world and the posed portrait that have both the American and Canadian artists. He is savvy enough to use reference to them as shorthand for, or as a shortcut into, the non-Muslim consciousness, and then to turn the tables.
In Magnus Wennman’s exhibition Where the Children Sleep (to March 11), children may have escaped the seemingly endless war in Syria, but it has deprived them of everything, even the sleep of innocence. The Syrian government’s air raids against its own people often take place at night in a strategic effort to disrupt the population it regards as ‘terrorists’.
Wennman’s approach, in depicting child refugees, bypasses Assad’s justifications by going to the one undeniable humanitarian threshold to ask how young a person constitutes an enemy, to tap the shoulder of our universal belief in the right of the child to innocence and safety.
Where his photographs stand at that threshold is at the side of a child’s bed, whether it is in a tent, a hospital, on a sheet of cardboard in the street or on the forest floor.
In keeping with the idea of night and sleep, Wennman’s lighting and printing is muted, low-key and desaturated, but does not stray into territory in which he may be accused of image manipulation as was fellow Swede Paul Hansen, who won the 2013 World Press Photo award for his 20 November 2012 image of Palestinian mourners carrying the corpses of child victims of an Israeli missile strike. Underexposure intensifies the natural vignetting of full-aperture photography, and the shallow depth of field closes the perspective to that of a child.
There is little information on how his subjects were approached and permissions to photograph secured, but a level of trust is apparent in the expressions of these young subjects;
I felt this project was more personal for me than others, perhaps because I have a 5-year-old son and I know how important it is for him to feel safe every night when I put him to bed. The children are the most innocent victims of this conflict. They did not choose to leave their homes. Many of the children have told me that they especially remember the sounds of the bombings.
Wennman (*1979) traveled through refugee camps and borders to document these stories, and to Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, Damascus and other Syrian cities. As intended, this is a difficult series to forget and consequently they are being used effectively to support the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
In You Get Me?, Mahtab Hussain shifts the power relations of Wennman’s and much other photojournalism in which the photographer is white and the subject a middle-eastern ‘other’. The thin veil of beautiful photography may merely hide a latent colonialism, a desire for the exotic; and however well-meaning, it is often driven by our well-warranted subconscious guilt.
Born in Glasgow in 1981 and of a Pakistani background, Mahtab Hussain set out on this project in 2008, to ask ‘what does it mean to be a British Muslim male today?’ through the critical questions of masculinity and identity among young working-class British Asian men who identify as Muslim.
They feel culturally ridiculed by the constant flow of derogatory media representation of their lives, and threatened by Islamophobia and xenophobia. Over the nine-year period in Birmingham – where he grew up – Hussain struck up conversations in the street which led to a portrait being made;
Almost throughout my childhood as I grew up in Birmingham, in a white working-class neighborhood, at my school with about 1,100 students, there were two children with South Asian roots – including me. I was constantly turned on because of my skin colour. But it was not all bad. I also won very dear friends. And later in college, I experienced a different type of discrimination. There, most students had an immigrant background, while I was too British.
The title of the exhibition is a phrase that Hussain repeatedly heard in his conversations with the young men. ‘You get me?’ is an urban street expression that can sometimes be used in an aggressive way, but also expresses vulnerability and ambivalence: “Do you understand me?” “Do you know where I’m coming from?” and the images likewise project such sentiments.
The portraits are a negotiation pivoting around those positions and as they result from a collaboration between photographer and subject they fit the category of fine art rather than photojournalism. Bahmed’s and Hussain’s reference to the tradition of portraiture in photography as fine art takes into consideration that their likely spectator, encountering the work in an exhibition, is likely to be middle class, white and cultured, the very audience their subjects would wish to engage with their own outrage at injustices endured and an assertion of their dignity.
The large-scale portraits are exhibited with quotations from the 24 young men themselves, who as Mahtab Hussain has said,
These young men face unemployment, discrimination, and racism. Yet, they identify with Britain and have a strong sense of Britishness. I didn’t want to make portraits that made you feel sorry for these young men. I wanted to show that despite the pressures, these men have still found a way to hold themselves up as proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities.