Witness of the world: photographers capture history and society in Vantage Point Sharjah 7

We take a closer look at the work that could make the Sharjah Art Foundation’s latest annual photography exhibition its best yet

Powered by automated translation

From afar, they appear to be ordinary family photos –relatives gathered around a dining table; a father and son in a toy car. Then you notice the black hoods draped over the men's faces, blotting out their identities.

Suddenly, the images seem to be more visual elegy than memento. These haunting photos are part of Christopher Revelle's series Fallout, a set of digitally manipulated pictures that speak of the grief and violence caused by the Second Gulf War.

Revelle's project is part of Vantage Point Sharjah 7, this year's instalment of Sharjah Art Foundation's annual photography exhibition. The open call for submissions attracted more than 200 applicants, of which 36 were selected for the show. Now in its seventh year, the latest exhibition is one of the most diverse yet, driven perhaps by the inclusion of international artists – the first time this has been done since the introduction of the programme in 2013.

Curated by Sharjah Art Foundation president Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the exhibition this year features photographers from more than 20 countries, including the Republic of Congo, France, Sudan, Nigeria, Russia and the US, as well as GCC states.

Seeing photography and art as historical tools

Their works are tied together in the way they confront the human condition, with the photographers witnesses to a changing world. Documentary and street photography feature heavily in the show, along with a focus on portraiture.

Compared to previous exhibitions, which looked at architecture and performance, the latest iteration seems rooted in societal concerns, seeing photography and art as historical tools. This can be seen in the works of Revelle, which capture the truth beyond the facts, and his visuals are defined by his exploration of social issues. The photographer, who lives in Atlanta, marks 9/11 as a pivotal moment in his practice. "[The attacks] shocked me in every way possible: emotionally, visually and politically," he explains. "I did not recognise the impact of 9/11 on my creative direction then, but looking back it was a driving force that led me to question what I had been taught about the United States."

Fallout he says is a way to "humanise and personalise those who are often described as numbers during war and occupation". During his research, Revelle came across photographs recovered by Italian journalist Sergio Ramazzotti from the Saddam International Tower, now known as Baghdad Tower, and used them for his project. "The photographs were pre-2003 and gave a very different view of Iraqis and Iraqi life and culture before the war," he says.

Part of Christopher Revelle's Fallout series from 2011. Courtesy Christopher Revelle
Part of Christopher Revelle's Fallout series from 2011. Courtesy Christopher Revelle

By using the motif of the black hood, he references the abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners and implicates the US forces in the unlawful detainment of thousands of men during the war. "In this work and in the original photographs found by Ramazzotti, it makes the lives of Iraqis imaginable while connecting them to our own."  

Revelle transforms abstract notions of loss and the ramifications of war on a human scale.

Others work on display

History weaves itself into the work of Bahraini photographer Hanan Hassan Al Khalifa, who documented his travels to Yemen in 1987. These everyday snapshots of marketplaces and shopkeepers preserve a piece of the past.  

The lines of street photography and documentary are blurred in the works of Logo Oluwamuyiwa, whose monochromatic vignettes of Lagos (Monochrome Lagos, 2014) capture the relationship between human beings and their built environments. Rendered in black and white, the chaos in the settings recedes as architectural lines become emphasised.

In chronicling these scenes, we see how photographers contribute to our collective human archive, documenting social issues that transcend time, such as in Rachid Ouettassi's Children from Nowhere (2009), that capture hope amid poverty through the children of Tangier.

Turkish photographer Olgac Bozalp's approach is more conceptual, as he investigates the phenomenon of diasporas across the world. His series Home: Leaving One for Another (2016-2019) pulses with movement and characters, rife with metaphors drawn from the artist's personal experience.

Olag Balzap’s image ‘Rain Jackets’ from his ‘Home: Leaving One for Another’ series. Courtesy Olag Balzap
Olag Balzap’s image ‘Rain Jackets’ from his ‘Home: Leaving One for Another’ series. Courtesy Olag Balzap

No less powerful are the various examples of portrait photography throughout the exhibition. Beyond representing character, these portraits assert the identity of their subjects, allowing new forms of representation. This is most evident in the performative works of Thania Petersen (I am Royal, 2015). Staging her photographs in South Africa's sites of slavery and apartheid, she declares her Cape Malay Muslim identity through elaborate traditional clothing and attempts to reclaim these colonial spaces.

Emmanuel Koto Kongogbi Eko follows this trajectory, photographing mulattoes, or mixed race, communities as a way to document the legacy of colonialism in the Belgian Congo (Les derniers des mulatres, 2019). Also notable are Hana Gamal's The Last Galabeya (2018), which highlights the contributions of women in Egyptian agriculture, and M'hammed Kilito's portraits of Moroccan young people exploring "alternative" lifestyles.

Even without a human subject in the photograph, traces of human’s presence persist, such as in the dystopian compositions of Zakaria Wakrim that depict desolate urban sites taken over by nature. There’s something jarring in these infrared photos, due in part to the electric purple and pink shades that illustrate the clash between the rural and the urban.

The works point out the tension between real and fake, natural and artificial, desire and repulsion, utopia and dystopia.

Another standout is Bahar Yurukoglu's vibrant interventions on natural landscapes. Using scrap materials as such as gels and films, the artist, who works in Istanbul, manually sets up filters to create this effect. Aided by natural light and the colour of the landscape, she "paints" these seemingly utopian visuals. In truth, however, these sites are under threat from the climate crisis.

"The works point out the tension between real and fake, natural and artificial, desire and repulsion, utopia and dystopia," she explains. "The installations and photographs in the landscape using highly saturated human-made materials is a response to the meeting of these binaries. It is an awareness that both extremes exist with an urge to both reconcile and depict how we are reshaping – to the point of no return – the environment in our own image."

Perhaps the show's main strength is how it demonstrates the multiplicity of this medium, which allows photographers to function as artists, documentarians, historians, anthropologists and activists. In an image-­saturated world, it is easy to forget the power of the picture, especially when it is mediated through a screen. In an exhibition setting, and one that plays with scale and arrangement like Vantage Point, these visual narratives can speak for themselves.

Vantage Point Sharjah 7 is at Al Mureijah Square in Sharjah until Sunday, October 6