In what would become four gallery visits in 10 days, this was probably the most surprising and rewarding. It was a show by a photographer that I wasn’t familiar with, being held in a space in Hinckley that I wasn’t aware of either. And while admiring the bravery of war photographers, it is an area of the practice that I struggle to engage with, not only because it is so far removed from my experiences, but because I often find the images so disturbing that I’ll avoid them. From Don McCullin to James Nachtwey, graphic images of battle are often the ultimate example of the power that photojournalism can have. This show proved to be just as powerful a commentary on the devastation war brings, but without the blood, gore and images of death.
Majid Saeedi is an Iranian photographer (although he can no longer work in his own country) who has shot the various conflicts in the region for his entire career. This set was the culmination of the last four years that he has spent in Afghanistan.
After visiting several galleries and exhibition in recent months, the Atkins Building had a refreshing lack of pretence (I didn’t see a single piercing or Smurf hat) and despite entering through the café rather than the show’s main entrance, the exhibition space was impressive. I had read little about the artist’s approach before seeing the show, but it soon became clear that his images were not to be the ones that we are familiar with from Afganistan, of western troops and the machineries of war. Instead, as inferred by the show’s title, it was about the people of the country and their efforts to live as normal a life as possible in the horrendous circumstances they find themselves in.
The artist says that ‘war is not the only thing going on in Afghanistan’, but it seems on this evidence that it shapes and informs everything in the country. The ongoing conflict and its effects are evident in every photograph. Several photographs show the children of the country and even when smiling and playing, their eyes gave away the experiences they’ve had in their short lives. The girls playing with the artificial arm belonging to a land mine victim or the children in domestic settings appear years older than they really are.
These brief glimpses of domestic life are interspersed with street scenes and portraits shot against simple backgrounds, such as projector screens or black cloth. There are also portraits in context; of farmers and bodybuilders. The group shots of training Afghan forces or children in school each cleverly feature one person making eye contact with the viewer. Our eyes scan the images but then become drawn in to the life of the subject once our eyes meet.
But the images aren’t all shocking or difficult to look at. Several are beautiful compositions showing us the Persian culture and Afghan way of life that continues in these difficult circumstances.
Since seeing the work, I’ve read more about the photographer and his practice. I find some of what he says confusing. For example he says:
I have never been able to find out how much these people have been traumatised by life, as they have always remained impassive in front of my camera.
In 2009 I accepted an offer from my agency, and went to Afghanistan where I have been for more than four years now, reaping a harvest of bitter-sweet memories. Sharing a common tongue, I found that I could live alongside Afghan people, understand them, laugh and cry with them.
I would expect that Saeedi must understand their feelings having spent so long with his subjects (many of the intimate images he has taken must have had a degree of trust that only comes from conversation and time spent together) but he chooses to let the viewer do the work, implied by his statement:
I am very interested to discover the reaction of the people that see my images.
Several of the images are shocking. The boy being punished in religious school and those of the women who have burned themselves* are not the images of mass graves or dying wounded that we often see from war zones, but are just as powerful as we read into the pictures and begin to consider the day to day effects of living with conflict. As such, the photographer has achieved exactly what he had set out to do and given us a better understanding of a country that we are used to seeing only in news bulletins about ‘our’ latest casualties.
By the time I’d spent an hour with this excellent exhibition, the café had filled with Saturday shoppers taking a break from their morning’s work. Children were being filled with sausage rolls and Coke and occasionally someone would wander in to the area displaying the photographs. For the unprepared, the exhibition must have had quite an impact…
The presentation of the black and white images is of the highest quality. The framed prints had a full range of tones, with very black blacks. Several images had been printed at more than a meter square onto a vinyl/canvas and also looked exceptional, mounted against the restored brickwork of the former mill. However, with a low sun through the windows, several pictures did become difficult to view.
Saeedi, M (2014) Majid Saeedi: In his own words [online]. Charnwood Arts. Available from: http://www.charnwoodarts.com/articles/2014/02/majid_saeedi_in_his_own_words [Accessed 24 February, 2014]
World Press Photo (2013) 2013, Contemporary Issues , 2nd prize stories , Majid Saeedi [online]. World Press Photo. http://www.worldpressphoto.org/awards/2013/contemporary-issues/majid-saeedi
*Forced marriage, domestic violence, poverty, and lack of access to education are said to be among leading reasons for self-immolation. Conservative laws and traditions in Afghanistan place women in a subordinate position. Some women find that setting themselves alight — as a form of protest, or in attempted suicide — is the only option that seems open to them.