GPP Photo Week highlights stories from the Arab world

The event involved more than 13,000 people visiting Alserkal Avenue exhibitions, workshops, talks, activities and other events during six days in February.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Rima Mismar (L) with Abdulmonem bin Eisa Alserkal (2nd L), founder of Alserkal Avenue, view one of the exhibits at GPP Photo Week. (GPP)
An eye on Arab talent. Rima Mismar (L) with Abdulmonem bin Eisa Alserkal (2nd L), founder of Alserkal Avenue, view one of the exhibits at GPP Photo Week. (GPP)

DUBAI - “Photography doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t make it a better place but, hopefully, it can help people think about things that they have not thought about,” said Mohamed Somji, co-director of Gulf Photo Plus (GPP), Dubai’s centre for photography.

Somji was introducing GPP Photo Week 2019, which in its 15th edition focused on the theme “Get Closer.” The event involved more than 13,000 people visiting Alserkal Avenue exhibitions, workshops, talks, activities and other events during six days in February.

The headline exhibition was “The Shortest Distance Between Us: Stories from the Arab Documentary Photography Programme,” presented by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), in association with the Prince Claus Fund and Magnum Foundation.

The exhibition, curated by Jessica Murray, featured works from seven photographers who were awarded grants and commissions by the Arab Documentary Photography Programme.

Elsie Haddad’s “Stranded — On Life after Imprisonment” captured the intimate stories of a group of ex-convicts in Beirut who had met in jail. Meanwhile, her youngest brother was jailed on a drug charge. “Suddenly, the project was inside my home. It had become very personal,” she said.

Each story became its own small book, done in collaboration with its subjects in which the viewers could “reflect on the psychological effects of incarceration and what that meant for their re-entry back into society.”

Heba Khalifa, from Cairo, in “Homemade” analysed how women’s bodies became a burden through norms imposed by society and family. She created a private Facebook group in which women shared their stories. She persuaded some of them to work collaboratively to reconstruct their lives through image-making.

Khalifa said she noticed a change in her subjects. They decided to show their faces, not caring about the consequences any more. They said they felt liberated. “Story telling offers us a way to heal, to free ourselves from the weight of experience,” she said.

Alexandria-based Mohamed Mahdy in “Moon Dust” documented Wadi al-Qamar, a residential area where 60,000 people live next to a cement factory. The cement dust that layers the streets and homes causes tremendous health issues among the residents. “Moon Dust” highlighted the conflict in zoning that created the situation and the struggle for survival by residents.

Mahdy said “he believed in people” and shared the work to initiate conversation.

AFAC Executive Director Rima Mismar said: “This medium of documentary photography is not very much developed in the Arab region. These seven projects are trying to look at certain issues that concern the artist as well as the society as a whole. It is bringing fresh new narratives from very personal perspectives of the artists themselves.”

“The problem today is with the channels of distribution. So these works of art are not having the chance to be seen by national audiences. There is no scarcity of work. The problem is where is this shown? So this initiative by GPP and Mohammed Somji is really very much welcome,” added Mismar.

Murray, during a panel discussion on “The Shortest Distance Between Us,” said she was “humbled by the courage of the young people, so driven to tell so difficult stories that are so personal.”

GPP also presented “Facade to Facade” by Emirati artist Hussain al-Moosawi, which explored the rapid urban redevelopment in the United Arab Emirates, in its Gallery Space.

Moosawi, a graphic designer in Abu Dhabi, said: “It is part of my bigger effort to document the architectural heritage of the UAE of the first three decades starting in the ’70s.”

The 27 buildings across the UAE whose facades he photographed represent the aesthetics of its time. “We always used to look at heritage as something very old. So now it’s acceptable to say that the ‘80s were part of the heritage,” he said. “For one reason, mainly that the country has been witnessing rapid growth. For us to appreciate what we have now, we have to look at what we had 30 years ago.”

GPP Photo Week included workshops, demonstrations and talks by internationally renowned photographers Zack Arias, Maciej Dakowicz, Nick Fancher, Tanya Habjouqa, Mike Kelly, Sara Lando, Asim Rafiqui and Paolo Verzone.

The workshop topics included Street, Architectural and Fine Art photography. In addition, the video workshops by Valentina Vee covered the fundamentals of videography, an increasingly popular field.

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