No Ordinary Lives

30 Nov

‘Ordinary Lives’, a new book by Lebanese photographer Rania Matar, is an intelligently titled work. The photos within depict people whose everyday lives have been disrupted by terrible circumstances.  The moments Matar chooses to capture are ordinary; their setting, though, renders the mundane remarkable.  The title is a tribute to the bravery of Matar’s subjects, whose fortitude — even in the oppressive confines of a decaying refugee camp or in the heart of war — is extraordinary.

 The first photograph of the collection, for example, depicts a woman, a girl and a boy.  The woman sits in a plastic chair, calling out to someone with a glint in her eye.  The girl leans on her chair with a careless ease that suggests the woman is a close relative, an expression of giggling and secret mischievousness marking her face.  The boy is eating an apple, his entire being focused on the food.

Together, they create the foreground.  The background is a cavernous wreck of shattered buildings that seem to be collapsing at the exact moment of the snapshot.  The street is clattered with bricks, windows, balconies, shutters.

Is the outdoor chair the woman lounges on her last remnant of furniture? Is the apple the boy gazes at in such intensity the first he’s eaten for a while? Is the sparkle of the girl’s face a desperate effort to maintain a front of bravery for her family?

Like the other photos in this book, this tableau hints at stories that tease and intrigue the reader’s imagination.  Though the images are all black-and-white, no common theme unifies them, apart from the beauty in which they are rendered.  But the power of each photo is intensified by these untold stories.

Another photo shows the wavy wires of two washing lines, intersecting across a wall.  Both lines are dotted with pegs but no clothes have been hung on them.  Above the pegs hangs a large square frame; it too is empty.  Instead of holding a painting, the frame surrounds the bare expanse of a wall punctuated with bullet holes.

Sometimes the black-and-white images emphasise the barrenness that seems to govern these people’s existence. In one photo in particular, however, one wonders what might have been lost by barricading out colour.  The photo shows a woman standing at a window, her back to the camera. She is clutching the curtain that she has pulled to one side, as though what she is seeing outside the window makes it necessary for her to hold onto something for support.  A sequined sunflower pattern adorns the back of her dress; the flower’s bold outlines jar with the fear that dominates the mood of the scene.  One wonders if the vividness of color could, by magnifying the juxtaposition, add dimensions to the piece.

‘Ordinary Lives’ compiles three of Matar’s photo projects and at times the book is in danger of becoming repetitive.  The final photos of the first project all circle the issue of feminine beauty in the context of war.  Girls peer into broken mirrors, and gaze ardently at adverts or beautiful clothing; they have their eyebrows waxed and hair brushed.  The placement of these similar photos together conspires to detract from the impact of photos that, individually, are strikingly unique.

On the whole, however, the division of the photos into three different projects is effective.  It makes the variances within a theme all the more accentuated, and also encourages one to discover similarities where none might have been assumed.  Matar’s second project examines the Moslem hijab.  The contrast between these photos and the more Western-looking photos that preceded them heightens their impact.

The repetition of themes sometimes works rather well.  Having seen twenty photographs dedicated to the hijab, for instance, it is instantly noticeable when a woman in hijab appears in the midst of another project.  The head covering is the binding element in the series, yet the photos leave the spectator to focus upon the woman beneath, rather than the hijab itself.

One photograph shows a muhajiba woman walk past a row of five enormous posters, each depicting a famous Lebanese face.  Their faces are immensely naked in contrast.  In so doing, Matar draws attention to the role of the hijab and invites questions about why it is worn, even while demanding that the tradition be respected.

Matar’s photos declare her belief in the importance of art in war.  It seems appropriate, then, that New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid contributed an essay to the book.  A commentary upon Matar’s images, Shadid’s essay also seizes the opportunity to reflect upon the nature of journalism itself, in which lives are too easily obliterated and a death necessarily becomes a statistic.  He pays tribute to Matar’s ability to capture the “ordinary lives” of the people who daily face trauma and terror, and yet resiliently continue.

Vicious debates rage about war photographers. Susan Sontag once famously opined that war photography is a sickening art that ought to be banned.  ‘Ordinary Lives’ is a challenge to such a view.  Its photographs are framed with such humanism that, more than pieces of art, they are memories of and tributes to the subjects they capture.  Shadid calls the book a ‘chronicle’, and it is; it is a dedication to the mentality of a people whose lives continue livelily, regardless of the extraordinary blows that threaten them.  Far from ordinary, I think you’ll agree.

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