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French Version

Home photos and tourist snapshots

'Baghdad Stories' unveils images of the Iraqi capital between Saddam and insurgency

The dahiyyeh, "Beirut's southern suburbs" to interested English-language readers, is a little off the beaten track of this city's thriving gallery circuit.

Here, a few blocks away from the Jisr al-Mataar intersection, the NGO "UMAM Documentation and Research" has a space that's hosting the exhibition "Baghdad Stories."

There are three components to "Baghdad Stories." In June 2003, a couple of weeks after President George W. Bush declared the most recent war in Iraq to be at an "end," German journalist Philipp Abresch and his collaborators gave Baghdadi children an opportunity to tell their own stories - or at least to take their own photos - by giving them disposable cameras. It also put cameras into the hands of some American servicemen who'd just occupied that city.

The project exhibits a selection of the resulting images, along with some of the questionnaires that Abresch asked his informants to complete in order to get a better sense of who was taking the photographs. Finally, at the far end of the gallery, there screens a video that documents the project. It's a sweet and amusing little piece that functions to introduce the audience to Abresch and a few of his more entertaining subjects - an aspiring hip-hop urchin here, a maternalistic African-American soldier there.

Projects like "Baghdad Stories" could be ads for our throw-away consumer economy. Technological advances that allow the cheaper production of acceptable-quality images have fuelled guerrilla filmmaking (ranging from imaginative to mediocre to indulgent) around the world. As still photography remains a more rarefied craft, low-fi exhibitions like "Baghdad Stories" tend to mingle aesthetic and humanist intentions.

This is the most obvious link between the exhibition and the space it's exhibited in. Part of UMAM D&R's work is concerned with recording non-hegemonic narratives. In this regard it received international attention when its film "Massaker," a documentary about the perpetrators of the 1982 Sabra/Shatilla massacre, took the FIPRESCI (Critics' Guild) Prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival.

By now the conceit of putting cheap cameras into the hands of the poor, and particularly poor children, has been played out in a number of Southern locales, Lebanon included. It's seen as a more democratic, less imperialist-touristic, alternative to having the disenfranchised made into aesthetic objects for professional Euro-American cameramen. Since these projects are premised on "giving voice to the disenfranchised," they are difficult to disparage - regardless how marginal the artistic worth of the resulting product, and despite the fact that image and voice aren't really the same thing.

Abresch himself has participated in two similar projects. In 1999 he distributed disposable cameras among young Kosovar refugees (Albanian and Serb) under much the same rubric as "Baghdad Stories." Later he worked with a German government body in "Imagine ... your photos will open my eyes," which had over 500 youths from 45 countries take photographs of their ambient reality as they saw it on 30 April 2002. Like Abresch's previous projects, "Baghdad Stories" aims to trigger inter-cultural dialogue, though he is also using the exhibition to raise funds to build a school in Baghdad.

The thing that gives this project its own special flavor - aside from its taking place in a city that remains exotic territory for all but a handful of journalists and Western contractors, huddled in its high-security compounds - is its implicit comparison of its two subject groups.

The exhibition's subtext is that Iraqi children (10 to 17 years) are co-equal with U.S. soldiers (18 years and up): not only that their stories are equally valid, but that they share a maturity of vision. Indeed, once you watch the "Baghdad Stories" video, you're tempted to suspect that Abresch first approached the U.S. soldiers with his cameras and only then, once he got a sense of their intellectual competence, decided on the age range of his Iraqi informants.

Though he admits that the first batch of cameras were in fact distributed to some soldiers guarding his hotel, Abresch insists that any impish intentions that might be read into his project are mere happenstance.

"So the age difference between the Iraqis and the Americans was an accident," he says after an off-the-record preamble. "We wanted access to Iraqi adolescents but we ended up mostly with children."

In fact, he continues, most of the cameras were distributed to Iraqi participants before the American GIs.

Abresch says he was amazed at how co-operative the U.S. military was in allowing him access to its servicemen.

The result of this free access is that, in the video portion of the exhibition, the soldiers are portrayed as people, rather than automatons of U.S. imperialism. It isn't in the nature of this project to pursue the class similarities belied by the relationship of occupier to occupied. Nevertheless - given the fact that the U.S. military particularly leans upon its country's disenfranchised classes, and how they are recruited into such employment - it's something of a relief to see the soldiers represented as human beings.

Being human doesn't necessarily make you good photographer, of course. Strolling among the photographs that are the meat of this exhibition, you are impressed time and again by the fact that the Iraqi kids consistently take more interesting shots than their American counterparts.

This is clearly not happenstance. Some 170 Iraqis and Americans contributed over 3,500 images to this project. Abresch selected 140 for this exhibition. The show has been mounted several times in Europe and the German journalist says the editorial process of selection has always been consultative insofar he's given priority to images that the photographers liked best. The photos on view in the Haret Hreik show, he says, are different from those seen in previous versions of "Baghdad Stories" and in that it's been him who's made the editorial decisions.

Most of the kids' images, at least most of the ones Abresch has chosen for this exhibition, capture the day-to-day realities of their own lives: wide-eyed baby sisters, brothers at study, families enjoying a meal. Some have photographed servicemen - one inadvertently artful shot excises the heads of four soldiers in full kit, thereby rendering them indistinguishable from one another. Such images reflect how, in the early days of occupation, the soldiers (inexperienced, ignorant and soon-to-be terrified) had some of their most human contact with Iraqi children.

As for the work of the soldiery, there are plenty of shots of GIs posing on tanks or alongside other materiel, or else in candid off-duty poses. A more interesting shot features a pair of indulgent women soldiers in the midst of their toilet, one with an "AfroComb" nestled in her impressive expanse of hair, the other grinning like a prom queen through a mask of white face cream. The image is interesting principally because, for this exhibition, it's been paired with a photo of two Iraqi ladies being preened.

Undertaken in the brief spell before insurgents began hunting American soldiers and their Iraqi allies in earnest, "Baghdad Stories" basically pairs home photos with tourist snaps. Neither is essentially more interesting than the other but the images from the Iraqi children exhibited here more or less correlate with audience imaginings of "the authentic exotic."

The authenticity of the soldiers' photos recreates a more mundane photographic precedent. Their subjects' faces are generally given over to the convention of the pose, but occasionally they evoke the tension between expectation and experience. Replace the uniforms with Hawaiian shirts and halter-tops. Exchange the heavy armour and pancaked buildings with beach vista or hotel frontage. You'll be left with images of lower middle class package tourists, surviving uncomfortable within the narrow horizons of the known.

"Baghdad Stories" runs daily at the UMAM D&R gallery space, from 4-9 p.m. until May 7. For more information call +961 1 553 604 or check www.umam-dr.org.

Beirut,05 09 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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