By Akanksha Raja
(800 words, 8-minute read)
The second edition of Objectifs’ annual Women in Photography 2016 programme, co-presented with the Magnum Foundation, is a group exhibition featuring photographic works from 18 contemporary female artists associated with Magnum. While Magnum has a storied history in photojournalism and documentation of socio-political and human rights issues, its name tends to bring to mind primarily male photographers: from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa in the early 20th century, to Steve McCurry and Sebastião Salgado in recent times. Women in Photography is a refreshing change, highlighting the women photographers associated with the renowned photo agency.
The exhibition offers an anthology of vastly varied stories and viewpoints: the photographers come from different backgrounds, different concerns, and each of their works depicts a perspective from a unique region of the world.
We witness the social lives of HIV-positive girls in Swaziland in Krisanne Johnson’s I Love You Real Fast, and we hear stories from South America of marginalised transgender women in Danielle Villasana’s A Light Inside; we hear of the everyday struggles of women in rural parts of middle Asia in Olivia Arthur’s The Middle Distance, to miners in rural China coping with a hazardous lung disease in Sim Chi Yin’s Dying to Breathe, a series of portraits superimposed with chilling X-rays of ailing lungs.
The underlying thread that weaves through the works speaks of survival against adverse odds, and coping with various forms of injustice or dislocation.
Tanya Habjouqa’s Occupied Pleasures offers a particularly humorous view on everyday life in Jerusalem, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. It stems from the wordplay in the title: the series depicts life under the Israel occupation, but the Palestinian subjects are wholeheartedly occupied in hobbies, dance, sport and other leisure activity that defy the apparent tyranny of their circumstances. One of the frames features a carriage on a roller-coaster, apparently captured in motion at the most enthralling point of the ride. Its occupants beam with excitement against the bright sun behind them. In the frame under that, two girls are deeply engaged in a yogic pose. Other pictures in the series see friends laughing together, young girls practising a dance, or a family having a picnic by a worn-out yellow car during what looks like a road trip – vignettes of liberty and unrestrained joy.
While some of the works, like Habjouqa’s, are documentations of regions with socio-political tensions, other works examine socio-political attitudes towards female bodies, or prevailing stigmas against them. One such work is Poulomi Basu’s Ritual of Exile, which depicts a group of women living in isolation, subjected to the traditional ritual of Chhaupadi in rural Nepal. Here menstruating women are ostracised and have to move to isolated huts known as ‘chhaupadi’ sheds for the duration of their period, enduring poor conditions of sanitation and safety.
Another work exploring the politics of the female body is Heba Khalifa’s Homemade, which had its origins in a private Facebook group where women shared raw personal stories of prejudice or discrimination. The artist worked with these women to orchestrate their stories into photographs, and discovered in the process how therapeutic it was for the participants involved. The photographs themselves are a little more conceptual than confessional; the stories behind each picture are elucidated in the label text of the work. Even without this point of reference, the pictures speak for themselves: a gaze of defiance or a posture of resignation convey attitudes that tell their own stories.
The most viscerally powerful work for me was Natalie Naccache’s Our Limbo, bringing forth a perspective on Syria missing from the mainstream global media coverage of the region. The multi-media work features print-outs of diary entries, photographs, screenshots of Instagram publications, and video clips of interviews with Syrian women who, after having left their homeland for school, were forced to live in exile as the civil war unfolded. The girls discuss their struggles of displacement and longing for childhood memories they are barred from returning to – a home that most of the rest of the world associates with danger and instability.
Women in Photography 2016 presents the works of female photojournalists across nationality and ethnicity, operating in a field long monopolised by the Caucasian male eye; it’s also noteworthy that most of the works depict women as the subject. Refreshingly, none of these depictions adhere to the reductive white-male-gaze tropes of the female figure that tend to dominate the history of visual culture either by apotheosis, sexual objectification, or even as an exoticised symbol of the “human” face of war (recall the Orientalist portrait of the iconic Afghan Girl by McCurry).
It’s an edifying and insightful show that provokes a shift in perspective with regards to pertinent social and political issues around the world.
Photographs within article courtesy of Suhana Zainal; header photo courtesy of Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film
Women in Photography 2016, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, Singapore, 20 October – 20 November 2016. The exhibition is held in conjunction with Women in Film, a series of movie screenings by female directors at selected timings between 20 October and 20 November. More info here.