Samira Yamin

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Shortly after the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I began impulsively collecting war photography from various sources, and in time noted that all the people that look like me in news media were either dead or dying. So, I began exploring the narrativization and representation of war through an interrogation of documentary war photography, both sociologically and through my artistic practice. What began as a mistrust of photojournalism grew into a full indictment of contemporary war photography as perpetuating both a canon of representation of the Middle East and North Africa, and, in turn, the wars waged against the regions. Where the West once saw the East through Ingres and Delacroix as a world of deserts, harems and barbarous kings, today we see a war-torn, history-less place of death, mourning women, and men and boys we need to protect ourselves from. While the specifics may have changed to suit the official narratives of the time – the 19th century’s “Civilizing Mission” is the 21st century’s “War of Terror” – the fact of a narrow canon remains, to the extent that Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya are not only synonymous with war but metonyms for it.

As a result of my findings, my work seeks to bypass, or empty, the content of images, and look, instead, to the structure of representation. I aim in my work to reveal the ways in which narratives are constructed from events, to make visible, for example, the thousands of hours of mediation that go into producing a single news magazine.

My main body of work, Geometries, is a series produced by mapping one system of knowledge production, sacred geometric patterns drawn from Islamic architecture, onto another, TIME Magazine articles about current wars in the Middle East. In Islam, as in most religions, sacred geometries are visual representations of the universe as a place of structure, as opposed to the seemingly chaotic world we experience day-to-day. In this context, however, the patterns also suggest an ornamental, read Orientalist, image of Islam, the lens through which the Middle East and North Africa are almost exclusively represented. In other words, both the magazine and the patterns are at once systemmatic ways of organizing and knowing the world, as well as the gaze that mediates a view, and an understanding, of not only the war photography in question, but also the wars themselves.

By privileging photography, the work examines the various ways a single vocabulary functions throughout the magazine – alone on the page, with respect to surrounding information, or from one page to the next. Cutting through the photographs not only obliterates the image, often beyond recognition, but also brings the two sides of the page together, allowing for a reading of one page through another, and further flattening the object into its underlying system. The resulting collision of image and pattern produces an awe and a beauty that is instantly condemned upon recognition of the source images, while simultaneously unfolding the magazine’s internal architecture, revealing how narratives are constructed. Once the system is exposed, each unfolding revealing a series of smaller, load-bearing pleats, the focus shifts from the magazine’s content to it’s inner mechanics: layout, framing, cropping, palate, etc. This revealing eventually points back to the magazine’s content, but now questions the images’ status as visual facts of war. The photographs, despite having been stripped of their informational value, have been restored to their position as “windows,” but with the frame shifted away from the Middle East they claim to represent, and onto the very system they attempt to conceal. What begins, then, as a cutting through, becomes, rather, a seeing into.

Ultimately, the work is the way in which I cultivate a critical relationship to the systems – science, news media, religion, etc – we use to narrate a chaotic world back to ourselves as a place of structure. It is a mode of research, of meditation, a search for ways to intervene on the representations against which I have had to compose my identity, and on the systems that construct, narrate and perpetuate the very wars that brought my family here from Iran, and scattered my extended family across the globe. What I mean to say is that the objects I make are a small, but necessary, part of my work: trying to see inside and intervene upon a system that depends on concealing its own structure, a system whose stakes are profound and global in nature, but which turn, in large part, on something so seemingly banal as a magazine one reads while waiting at the dentist’s office.