The two exhibitions at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery through November 16, in conjunction with Atlanta Celebrates Photography, display a nuanced understanding of cultures near and far. Eliot Dudik’s “Road Ends in Water” is a loving picture of a complicated South, while “Rawiya: She Who Tells a Story” is a shocking and powerful portrayal of life in the Middle East.
Dudik’s photographs are a tribute to a rapidly disappearing South. The artist traveled U.S. 17, the highway that passes through South Carolina’s Lowcountry, photographing scenery and inhabitants along the way.
Some of these pictures feature traces of human presence, such as “First Snow in Twenty Years, Rosa Scott Road.” This view of a snow-covered field would be pristine if not for tire tracks forming a circle reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” In other photos, locals stand like proud sentinels. “Anthony, North Edisto River” shows a young black man preparing to fish or perhaps interrupted in the act.
“Road Ends in Water” exposes the tenuous status of people whose rural lifestyle will likely be upset by the expansion of cities and industry.
Viewers will find a strong correlation between “Road Ends in Water” and Richard Misrach’s “Cancer Alley“, which just closed at the High Museum of Art. Misrach’s images focus on a stretch of land along the Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the local community was relocated due to toxic industrial complexes. Where Dudik presents a Southern people being edged out, Misrach shows a section of the South already bereft of people as a result of industrial and commercial expansion. Their photos can be seen as a before and after of similar scenarios, though there is hope in Dudik’s pictures of stoic locals, in contrast to Misrach’s savaged, almost post-apocalyptic landscapes.
The images of the Middle East in “Rawiya: She Who Tells a Story” are at once stunning and heartbreaking. Rawiya – Arabic for “she who tells a story” — is a fitting name for this collective of six female Middle Eastern photojournalists. In this exhibition, each presents a series of works dealing with themes of pain, loss and identity.
Laura Boushnak’s series “Survivor” centers on a Lebanese boy named Mohammed who lost his legs in a cluster bomb accident when he was 11. These images are unsettling, not because they are gruesome but because Bourshnak displays Mohammed’s torn body and prosthetics in domestic settings, emphasizing the irrevocable impact the accident has had on his life. In “The Prosthetic Legs of Mohammed,” his artificial legs, detached from their owner, clothed in jeans and shoes and cocked at a relaxed angle, rest on a couch. The composition is so casual and unambiguous that it took this viewer a moment before the reality of what is shown became clear.
In “Nour, 5, and Farah, 4, Look at Their Brother Mohammed,” the boy, relaxing in the foreground, looks at something in the distance. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the two girls in the background, both wearing youthful sweatshirts bearing cartoons, who gaze at something with sober and weary expressions that seem incongruous with their young age. Following their gaze, the viewer realizes that they are staring at Mohammed’s bandaged stumps, which dominate the front left plane of the photograph.
The photographs in “Rawiya” alternately tap into or deny Western media’s depiction of the Middle East. Dalia Khamissy’s series “The Missing” is made up of portraits of Lebanese women holding photographs of male family members who have gone missing, alongside images of the few possessions they left behind. These objects, ranging from a passport to old cassette tapes and a worn pack of Marlboro Reds, serve as meager stand-ins for the missing men. The woman in “Mashida Bashada” stares directly into the camera. Her clear blue eyes seem like twin pools of tears, conveying a strength and anguish reminiscent of Steve McCurry’s famous photograph of an Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985.
Tamara Abdul Hadi’s series “Picture an Arab Man,” on the other hand, consists of sensitive portraits of semi-nude Arab men meant to combat stereotypes of hyper-masculinity. Stripped of clothing and environment and caught in wistful and contemplative expressions, these men seem to possess a hopeful innocence and vulnerability.
The photographs by Rawiya Collective offer a rare glimpse into contemporary Middle Eastern life and the challenges facing residents after years of war. Though they depict painful reality, these images are not without hope, and in the face of scars and heartbreak they impart great beauty.