Producing image activism after the Arab uprisings

Published: September 20, 2017

A Leading Research Environment Symposium

Kari Andén-Papadopoulos opens the Symposium. Photo by James Losey.

The Symposium Producing image activism after the Arab uprisings took place at Filmhuset between September 6 and 8, 2017. Organized by Professor Kari Andén-Papadopoulos and sponsored by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and Stockholm University's Leading Research Environment "Global Media Studies and the Politics of Mediated Communication" (Director: Miyase Christensen), the Symposium explored the different facets of the growing global activist image industry, with a particular focus on the Arab world.

The Symposium started on September 6 with the screening of “Houses without doors” (2016, 90’) a documentary film directed by Avo Kaprealian. On September 7, Kari Andén-Papadopoulos introduced the audience to the Symposium’s line-up of guest participants, highlighted the presence of both practitioners and academics, and outlined the critical perspective of activist image-making informing the event. Drawing on insights from the research project "Resistance-by-recording: the visuality and visibility of contentious political action in Egypt, Palestine and Syria", for which she is principal investigator, she called for increased attention to the agency of human beings (as an alternative for excessive attention to the supposed virtues of technology), for an understanding of image-making as both political and subjective, and for a focus on the complex political economy of the circulation of images. The guest presentations that followed spoke to these concerns.

Scholar Amahl Bishara discussed her collaborative research project "Permission to converse". The project, undertaken in the summer 2014, engaged two communities - one of Palestinian citizens of Israel and one Palestinians in the West Bank - in a photography exchange. These are two groups that have much in common but do not speak to each other or speak together as a collective. They are both under the aegis of Israeli sovereignty but with different statuses, and thus separated by several factors. By facilitating performance and play, as well as a poetics of encounter, the project facilitated collaboration across the Green Line that donors generally refuse to fund. Amahl Bishara highlighted how the photo exhibitions that resulted from the experience demonstrated that members of these communities inhabit different worlds but can be productively seen in relationship with one another, producing new sentiments and meanings via their collaboration. Noting that public photography is an embodied practice, she stressed the importance of play as both a research strategy and political action.

Amahl Bishara discusses the "Permission to converse" project. Photo by James Losey.

On September 8, the second and last day of the Symposium opened with a provoking presentation by Egyptian visual artist, researcher and lecturer Heba Amin, who referred to her experience as a member of the Arabian Street Artists group that in 2015 intervened the set of the series “Homeland” with a series of subversive graffiti. Hired to decorate street scenes of a Syrian refugee camp, the artists saw and grasped an opportunity to "hack" the show's set by painting subversive messages in Arabic to critique its stereotypical, racist politics. Their images made it into episode 2 of the series' season 5, and were broadcast on October 11, 2015, leading to significant coverage in the international news media and to a commission by Oscar winning documentary film director and producer Laura Poitras. The seven-minute video, entitled "Homeland is not a series", recaps the graffiti hack from the artists' perspective.

Heba Amin discusses the “Homeland” graffiti hack. Photo by James Losey.

The Symposium ended with the reflections of Marwan Kraidy, an internationally recognized expert in the communicative and media dimensions of Arab politics, who called attention to the commonalities and differences between the notions of 'artist' and 'activist' discussed during the event, highlighted the importance of practice not only in terms of creating but also of disseminating images, and invited debate regarding the link between struggles for visibility and the difficulty of engaging publics.

Importantly, the Symposium was covered by the Swedish news media: Saudi Arabian journalist and filmmaker Safa Al Ahmad, winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism, was interviewed by Journalisten’s Hanna Lundquist.

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