Images as ammunition
Photography has the power to make and break regimes. That is at the heart of the striking exhibition Power! Photos! Freedom!, part Gaddafi archive, part activism via camera in the Arab world.
Antwerp’s FotoMuseum shows Gaddafi archive and Arabic artists responding to dictatorship
In the Arab world, the power of the image has often been misused as propaganda by dictators. With the help of a camera and the internet, local artists and activists are using the same images to their advantage, throwing them like a boomerang in the faces of the leaders they used to fear.
These artists make up the work in the second part of the exhibition Power! Photos! Freedom! at Antwerp’s FotoMuseum. The first part displays the once-secret archives of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, found by Peter Bouckaert, the Flemish director of emergencies at Human Rights Watch.
To survivors of his regime, the glamorous pictures of Colonel Gaddafi – a handsome and charismatic man in his younger years – alongside other world leaders may feel like a slap in the face. For curator Susan Glen, showing these photos is necessary to reveal the brutal truth behind his dictatorship and is an integral part of the healing process of a people.
“Without understanding their past, the Libyans can’t understand their future,” she says. “The problem with the fall of these regimes is that the good things are destroyed with the bad. But if you cut something away, it doesn’t mean it’s gone. You just don’t have any evidence of it anymore.”
It was Bouckaert’s team, hunting for evidence to convict the regime on crimes against humanity, that discovered thousands of photographs in the abandoned Gaddafi headquarters. “Because there was too much to take with them,” explains Glen, “they snapped photos of the scene,” including of Gaddafi’s photographs. This is why broken glass can sometimes be seen next to the original photographs.
Bouckaert is fully aware that the first reaction of a people confronted with the fall of a dictator is to destroy everything that reminds them of the regime. “He anticipated this,” says Glen. “My job as a photo editor, receiving the raw material, was not to interpret these pictures but simply to add the basic information, so the Libyan people could start to reassemble their history.”
Coming up with the right names, dates and locations turned out to be a massive job, and Glen started reading accounts written by diplomats. “For instance, the memoirs of the Egyptian ambassador in Libya, who was with Gaddafi every single day for six years, were a great help. I also spoke to various Libyan expatriates living in London, some connected to the Gaddafi regime. Obviously, they didn’t want to be identified.”
For Libyans, it’s extremely difficult to look at this exhibition, Glen admits. “There is always going to be something in it that will offend them, whether it’s the allied period, the green book period... For instance, in the green book period Libyans were forced to paint their front doors green, as a sign of loyalty to their leader.”
Gaddafi had installed a regime of fear, even interrupting popular shows on state television to broadcast live executions, so it would be clear to everyone that opposing the regime was not an option. In an improvised Libyan living room within the exhibition space, there’s a television screen, showing such a hanging, under, of course, a portrait of the leader. It gives the visitor cold shivers.
For Glen, this is the perfect illustration of how Gaddafi controlled the population through terror in their own homes. “He had control not only over people’s lives but also over their minds. Not even children could escape. As a result, most Libyans really find the glamorous pictures from the early period – which I call the period of hope – distasteful. They can’t even bear looking at them.”
That’s why it’s far too early to show the pictures in Libya, but Glen is thinking of building a virtual exhibition, giving everybody worldwide access to the archive.
The opening show of the archive in London contained more than 300 artefacts and pictures. The Antwerp display – the first in mainland Europe – is limited to 120 pictures because it’s included in a larger exhibition focussing on the reactions of photographers and activists from the Arabic world.
In that section, artists openly criticise their leaders’ personality cult. Take Dancing for the Big Father, the photo series by Syrian photographer Issa Touma: On every picture you see an image of one kind or another of Bashar al-Assad. The banality intrigues, putting the deformity and destruction of the iconic portraits by other artists into context.
Or take “Guillotine Imaginaire”, a photomontage by Joachim Ben Yakoub, a Belgian with Tunisian roots. He mixes the image of the expelled Tunisian president Zine Abedine Ben Ali with photos found on the internet during the revolution, expressing at once hope and fear.
An anonymous graffiti artist on a wall in the streets of Cairo summarises the show best. Next to his image of a gun, he wrote in Arabic “their weapons”; next to his image of a camera, “our weapons”.
Until 9 June
Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp
The poetry behind the ritual
Who are these people who dress up every year, when the season’s right and a parade is coming up, as a bear, a goat or a devil, covered with animal skin, feathers, straw, or cow bells? French photographer Charles Fréger travelled the remote European countryside – from Scotland to Bulgaria – to look for these “savages” for his series Wilder Mann, also on view at the FotoMuseum until 9 June. Putting them in a rough, primitive-looking landscape, he brings ancient traditions back to life.
The ancient fertility rituals to which these masquerades refer have become a sort of folklore. You can read about them in tourism brochures. But once they did actually celebrate the birth of new life, the cycle of the seasons.
The composition of Fréger’s meticulously prepared pictures always follows the same rule: one of the wild men standing in the middle of the image surrounded by an uncultivated, wintery scene. “I wanted to show the masquerade without the ritual,” says Fréger. “I thought it would fit best in a pure and natural environment of wide open, hibernal space. Also, winter reflects new life that’s on the way. The search for the right spot took me at least two hours per photo.”
This very consistent method, at the border of an ethnographical study and an artistic project, distances us from the spectacle and emphasises its poetry.