Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Liberty of Appearing- the photographs of Yasser Alwan

The Liberty of Appearing –

the photographs of Yasser Alwan

This essay was written for 'The Liberty of Appearing - photographs of Egyptian working people', the catalogue for Yasser Alwan's travelling exhibition of photographs which opens at FOYLES BOOKSHOP, Charing Cross Rd, London on Friday 7 November at 7.30pm (all welcome) and runs till Thursday 20 November, and then at THE ELDON GALLERY, Portsmouth University, Winston Churchill Ave., Portsmouth on Thursday 27 November 5pm - 7pm running till Fri 5 December.

This beautiful catalogue, containing over fifty of Yasser Alwan's wonderful photographs, was designed and published by Richard Peacock, and is available, for £10 + postage from http://www.peacockimprint.co.uk/


Yasser Alwan’s photographs express a profound humanitarian egalitarianism that is rare in the long history of art as a whole and almost unique in the relatively short history of photography. ‘Photographs of Egyptian working people’- already this bare factual description raises a multitude of issues and announces an artistic and political stance.

We live in a culture – and by this I mean the total culture of global capitalism and the total historical culture of western and non-western civilisations - in which working people (peasants, agricultural labourers, slaves, artisans, manual and non-manual proletarians) are massively underrepresented. For the last 5000 years working people have been the immense majority of humanity, but in the world’s poetry, drama, novels, film, TV, visual art etc – music and dance may be a partial exception – their presence is marginal.

From Homer to Hollywood working people are the extras, the walk on parts. For every painting of peasant life by Brueghel, for every etching of a beggar by Rembrandt, there are a hundred, maybe a thousand portraits of emperors, kings, queens, aristocrats and bourgeois. This is not prejudice but a simple reflection of reality. In class divided societies, i.e. every society after the transition from foraging to agriculture, the upper classes are few but important and the working classes, the common people, are many but unimportant. Against this background any artist who, like Yasser Alwan, turns this hierarchy upside down and places working people centre stage, is making a political statement.

Add the designation ‘Egyptian’ to the class category and the magnitude of the under representation increases many fold. This is something that applies not just to Egypt, though Egypt has its particularities in this narrative, but to all ‘non-western’ societies and cultures. The Eurocentric view of history, developed alongside racism, as an ideological accompaniment to material conquest, credits Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt with the birth of civilisation and then moves swiftly to Ancient Greece and Rome, from which point the non-European world simply disappears except, exclusively, as an object of European discovery and military engagement. The result is a profound ignorance. The ONLY figures from Egyptian history between Cleopatra and Nasser, known, at all, to the Western public are Salah ad -Din (Saladin) from the Crusades and, perhaps to a few, Mohammed Ali. Ask a British university class (I have tried this often) to name three non- Western artists, three non- western scientists, three poets, three philosophers, and you are setting a test which the large majority are destined to fail – the odd ‘Frida Kahlo’ and ‘Confucius’ and the rest is blank. Results would not be much better among the faculty.

Of course it is a question of the nature of the representation as much as its quantity. Racial, gender, orientalist and colonial stereotyping have all been substantially explored in academic and cultural circles in recent decades, but class has received less attention. However, we should remember that while Shakespeare gives us Othello, Shylock, and Cleopatra (each, incidentally, an achievement of genius) his ‘common people’ are rendered in prose and offer only comic interludes, albeit pointed ones. And what John Berger wrote about Dutch genre painting (painting of ‘low life’) of the 17th century applies to many subsequent representations of working people.

The purpose of the ‘genre’ picture was to prove – either positively or negatively – that virtue in this world was rewarded by social and financial success. Thus, those who could afford to buy these pictures … had their own virtue confirmed. Such pictures were particularly popular with the newly arrived bourgeoisie.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin 1988, p.103

Even artists and writers avowedly sympathetic to working people have often produced representations of them that were highly problematic. Thus George Orwell, who broke with his middle class public school background to the extent of living (for a time) with the poor and down and out, and fighting with the POUM in the Spanish Civil War, and who wrote in 1984 that ‘If there is hope…it lies in the proles’, nevertheless depicted those proles as narrow, animalistic creatures more or less incapable of consciousness and higher feelings, while in Animal Farm they were represented by the carthorse Boxer, who was congenitally stupid. Even Brecht never produced a play foregrounding working class characters. (I say this not to criticise Brecht – possibly the greatest playwright of the century- but to show the difficulty of the task.)

This, then, is the general context, in which Yasser Alwan’s photographs of Egyptuian working people demand ‘the liberty of appearing’. But, of course, Alwan’s work also exists in the specific context of the history of photography, which to some extent constitutes a special case. On the one hand, the relative cheapness and availability of its means of production (the camera) and the ease of mechanical reproduction of its output, gives photography a democratic character absent from its adjacent art forms, painting and film .As a result there is a substantial tradition of the sympathetic photography of working people running from early photographers such as John Thompson, through the Americans, Lewis B.Hine, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the German August Sander, Brassai and Cartier Bresson in France, to the contemporary Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, and in which Alwan consciously stands.

On the other hand, there is in photography –due to its mechanical and instant character – a potential for domination, coldness and cruelty not present, or not present to the same degree, in painting or drawing. This is manifested in its language – the photographer ‘captures’,’ shoots’ and ‘snaps’ her subject; in its role in social control (mug shots, ID, passports etc) and as handmaiden of imperialism and colonialism (lucidly analysed and illustrated by Alwan himself in his superb study of the photographs of Lehnert and Landrock, Imagining Egypt, Cairo, 2007) and in the paparazzi phenomenon. In the world of art photography it has given rise to the elements of the freak show, objectification, mockery and exploitation, found in varying degrees in the work of Diane Arbus, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Martin Parr- a tendency to which Alwan is consciously opposed.

One way of grasping the stature of Alwan’s work is by means of comparison with some of his photographic forebears.

Lewis Hine photographed child labour in the US at the beginning of the last century to expose it and promote social reform. He photographed workers building the Empire State, suspended in the sky above Manhattan, to demonstrate the extraordinary skill and courage of working people in their daily lives. Alwan is also opposed to child labour, supports social reform and is aware of workers’ amazing feats in their work, but this is not the driving force of his photography.

The driving force of Brassai’s photography is the evocation of an atmosphere – the atmosphere of nighttime Paris in the thirties, of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There are some photos of working men at Les Halles, but they are subordinate to the prostitutes, carnival performers, lovers, and petty gangsters of bohemia, and the individuals in the pictures are subordinate to the overall ambience.

Cartier Bresson is certainly interested in ordinary people but what governs his photography is capturing the ‘decisive moment’ when those ordinary people can be configured in a brilliant composition. August Sander, who has been a big influence on Alwan, set out to document the German people of the twenties by ‘type’ according to a systematic classification, rather as in Engels’ classic prescription for realism,’the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances’. At first sight it might appear that Alwan is trying to do something similar for Egypt but any attempt at system is subverted by his interest in the particular subject, as a person, and this gives his work a human warmth lacking in Sander.

In fact there are echoes of all these photographers in Alwan but his work is distinguished from all of theirs by its greater engagement with and representation of the personalities of his subjects.

Take, for example, the photographs of the woman trader at Umm Reda, Waily and the Incense Man at Dar al-Salaam. Both are obviously poor – everyone at that level of society in Egypt is poor – but neither is photographed to represent poverty; nor are they there for their typicality. Rather it is their individuality, their respective specific spirit, that has drawn Alwan, and that Alwan has communicated in his superb photographs.

Alwan is interested in individual people. It sounds like a cliché, and a bourgeois cliché at that, but the moment you insert class into the statement – individual working people – it becomes artistically and politically highly charged. An intellectual who, who, in life, is genuinely interested, as an equal, in specific working class people is a rarity, and one who is interested in them artistically is even more rare. The notion that working people are simple, that they have simple ideas and emotions, compared to the complexity of the middle classes, is a prejudice with five millennia of class society behind it. Breaking with it as Alwan has done, not just in theory but organically as an artist has to do if the break is to be realised in their work, speaks of an art and a politics far more radical than that of social reform, the New Deal, or the Popular Front.

Two political points need clarification here. The first concerns the suffering of working people. In the world today, working people suffer relentlessly, unforgivably and on an unimaginable scale, but those for whom, in the words of Marx, ‘the proletariat exists only as the most suffering class’, miss the main point which is the capacity of working people to resist, to end their suffering, and to emancipate themselves and humanity.

The second concerns the relation between the individual and the collective. It often assumed that an emphasis on the individual is bourgeois and right wing, while stressing collective interests and collective struggle is proletarian and left wing. There is an important element of truth in this in that the working class must struggle collectively to defend its interests and change society, but it can easily be overstated and becomes damaging if it is understood as opposition to the individual, individual development and freedom. This was not Marx’s view. For Marx there was always a dialectical interaction between the individual and the social.

The communists do not put egoism against self-sacrifice or self-sacrifice against egoism…they are very well aware that egoism just as much as self-sacrifice is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self assertion of individuals. Hence the communists by no means want …to do away with the “private individual” for the sake of the “general” self-sacrificing man. (The German Ideology, London 1991. p105)

What is to be avoided above all is the re-establishing of “Society” as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Moscow 1967, p.98)

In place of the old bourgeois society… we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all. (The Communist Manifesto.)

How do these theoretical points translate into the language of photography and how do they relate to Alwan’s photographs in particular? The capacity of workers for resistance and self emancipation can, of course, be shown in photographs of strikes, picket lines, demonstrations etc. Such photographs are absolutely necessary, just as leaflets, banners and posters are necessary, but they are also artistically limited. (Artistically, the best demo photos I have seen are by Tina Modotti, but they tend to sacrifice the demonstrators and their aims to the achievement of a brilliant almost abstract composition). Another possibility is to produce idealised images of well toned workers gazing determinedly into the future. This was the Stalinist way and it was politically and artistically false. Yasser Alwan’s way is to show that working people, despite poverty and toil, remain complex and dignified human beings, damaged but not utterly defeated, with their own take on life and the world.

Consider for example the photos taken in the Tanneries. These show men and boys working in hellish conditions, that probably condemn them to early graves, and this is an essential part of their story but not the whole story. The key photographs in the series – the boy looking out from beneath the hides on his head, and the seated young man squarely facing the camera with a cigarette in his fingers – say more than this. In the eyes of the boy, almost welling up with tears, we see BOTH pain at the almost unendurable weight (physical and metaphorical) pressing on his shoulders AND determination to carry on, with just a glint of hope for the future. A similar contradiction beats in the breast of the seated young man as he bites his lip and looks quizzically at the camera, trying to make sense of his oppressive world.

Then there are the pictures of the limestone quarry diggers at Helwan, south of Cairo – I have been to Helwan, it is an aptly named place. The long shot gives us the overall scene and the sense of the searing heat of the desert. The close ups show us the specifics of their work, bent double, wielding their axes with pinpoint accuracy, releasing precisely cut blocks of great weight to be shouldered and shifted by hand. Then, suddenly, there is the picture of the single digger with the white turban, poised with his pickaxe ready to strike. Of course it is a work picture, he is about to smite the limestone not the international bourgeoisie… and yet…! It is an astonishing photograph.

It might seem that the photographs taken at the Gezira races don’t fit this argument. Not so. Throughout the world the poor gamble – even though gambling increases their poverty. The rich gamble too but in a different way and for different reasons, to show off, to display their wealth or their masculinity, to inject risk into their risk free lives. The poor, especially the older poor, gamble for the right to dream .For the price of a lottery ticket they buy the right to a secret fantasy life for a day or a week. For the price of a few betting slips they purchase hours of intense engagement with life, hours when they can pit their wits against the system and ‘win’, get something for nothing, get paid without working! Of course they don’t really win, but sometimes they do. And where else in poor people’s lives do they ever win, where else can they take on the man and not be instantly crushed? The gambler is not a man resisting politically, but he is a man resisting in his own way, refusing to give in completely and he is a person not just a type. He is the white haired man in photo no? about to put a cigarette to his lips (what a great photograph this is) who, at least outwardly, has kept his dignity, even a little of his authority and certainly his manners. He is the wiry old man with a strange peaked cap and a sheet of paper in his hands (a list of runners, a form guide?) What has he been in life? Where did the hat come from and what does it signify? The hopes of the man in the white jellabiya who screws up his eyes to gaze at the results board (photo no?) may be reduced to the outcome of the 3.30 but they are hopes none the less.

Everyone who appears in an Alwan photograph is shown in a social context that constrains and shapes them, but does not totally define them. Each is a person and personality in his or her own right, making their lives albeit in circumstances not of their own choosing. This is what I mean by the ‘profound humanitarian egalitarianism’ of this work.

‘The Liberty of Appearing’, the title of this exhibition, is a double reference. It is taken from a sentence in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man ‘But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.’ But this quotation also appears in The Family of Man, the book of Edward Steichen’s famous photography exhibition from 1955. Both references are appropriate for these photographs but the phrase also points in a third direction.

At the beginning of this essay I spoke of the cultural invisibility of working people, especially working people in the poorer parts of the world. In recent years however the working people of Egypt have been making themselves steadily more visible. Paradoxically, working people make themselves most visible when, together, they stop working i.e. when they go on strike. This, Egyptian workers have been doing with increasing frequency. Earlier this year food riots caused by rising prices were followed by a wave of strikes emanating from the Mahalla textile factory, the largest workplace in the region. In political circles the name Mahalla has become symbolic of working class struggle internationally.

The objective political importance of Egyptian workers is also becoming ever clearer. This is the largest and potentially most powerful working class in the whole region between Europe and India, that is in the central battleground for control of energy supplies and the front line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. It holds the key to the defeat of the brutal Mubarak regime and hence to the overthrow of the other pro- US dictatorships in the area, which in turn would open the door to the defeat of Zionist Israel, in a way that is beyond the power of the Palestinians acting alone.

There is a photographic/artistic reference point here as well as a political one. The photographer whose work might seem to precede, and even preempt Alwan’s is Sebastiao Salgado. but there is a fundamental difference. Salgado’s photographs of the Serra Palado gold mine in Brazil are brilliant but his study of workers as a whole, Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, is premised on the mistaken (though widely held) notion that the working class is in the process of disappearing. This affects the photography. Salgado, deliberately I think, gives his pictures a grainy elegiac quality as he commemorates this dying breed and so engages in a kind of romantic mythmaking. There is none of this in Alwan whose working people are insistently present in the here and now and have no need of idealisation.

And in fact the world working class is here, is present, in Korea and China, Indonesia and India, the Middle East and South America, in larger numbers than ever before in history. Concentrated in great cities like Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Canton, Mexico City, it possesses awesome potential power. Cairo is one of the greatest of these cities and the Egyptian working class is a key contingent in this international army.

Yasser Alwan’s photographs do not give us the demos, strikes and uprisings, but they give us the people in all their human contradictions. It is highly appropriate that this exhibition should appear at a time when these people may be about to take ‘the liberty of appearing’ on the centre of the world stage. There is a chance, only a chance but a real chance nonetheless, that the young brick and shingle maker who shoulders a bucket the size of his torso and whose face is obscured by his own arm (photo no ?) and the boy with folded arms who is on the front cover of this book will grow up to make history.

John Molyneux

27 August 2008

3,264 words


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