Susan Meiselas, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History

“Another development sees documentary image-makers focussing [sic] on the publicity and distribution channels of documentary photography. They study and comment on the way that the media shape history and the political and commercial interests that influence this. Stories that do not fit into the collective image of the world or are regarded as undesirable by those concerned can be ignored by society or even deliberately suppressed.” (Heuvel, p113)

From the Magnum website:

“The book traces the history of the Kurds by presenting photographs and accounts by colonial administrators, anthropologists, missionaries, journalists, and others who have traveled to Kurdistan over the last century. The book’s mode of organization is influenced by collage, and its environment juxtaposes different orders of historiographic evidence.

Pictures, personal memoirs, government reports, letters, advertisements, maps, etc. all vie with each other and present different constructs. The reader discovers the voices of the Kurds that contest the Western representations of them.”

Map presented by the Kurdish League Khoybun to the San Francisco Conference on March 30, 1945

While the nation of Israel was established and recognized after the Second World War, the Kurds as a nation were overlooked, their land claims trumped by the mapmakers of the time who decided to divide the area shown on the map here between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is what the map looks like now:

From Meiselas’ website:

Today “Kurdistan” does not exist on the map. Since 1918, the Kurds’ homeland has remained divided among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and what is now the former U.S.S.R. In each country the Kurds have been continuously threatened with either assimilation or extermination. But as a place, Kurdistan exists in the minds of more than twenty million people, the largest ethnic people in the world without a state of its own.”

Meiselas visited Kurdish refugee camps during the Gulf War and began to take an interest in the Kurds and their plight. The genocide of Kurdish people was a pretext for the second Gulf war and subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds are still fighting for their autonomy.

Meiselas muses on the history of US relations with the Kurds:

“There’s a history of Kurds feeling betrayed by the United States. At best, U.S. policy has tended to be confused. On the one hand, the United States has enforced a “no fly zone” in northern Iraq to protect Kurds. On the other hand, it has passed over the Thrkish invasions of northern Iraq, which were aimed at Kurdish guerrillas. The United States is not interested in protecting the Kurds as a whole. The bottom line is, when they’re convenient for our purposes, we’ll protect them, and when they’re not, we won’t. That’s the contradiction of protecting Iraqi Kurds and rebuilding their homes while doing nothing about the burning of nearly all the Kurdish villages in the southeast of Turkey.” (Metz 1998, p 38)

Meiselas worked alongside forensic anthropologists as they exhumed and analysed the remains of people interred in mass graves. The remains were then reburied.

Meiselas, as a seasoned photojournalist manages to capture atmospheric and dynamic pictures that speak volumes, while her attention to detail and composition are impeccable. Her captions are brief and accord to stylebook requirements.

Jamal Keder Osman shows a picture he carries of himself as a peshmerga fighter from the 1963 rebellion. Northern Iraq, 1991

Family members wear the photographs of Peshmerga martyrs, Saiwan Hill cemetery. Arbil, Northern Iraq, 1991

She also includes rephotographed images to add a vernacular dimension:

And then contrasts them with ethnographic photographs and reports from the colonial period:

In this way she is challenging Western representations of the Kurds and empowering them to represent themselves:

This book allows you to deconstruct that process [of Western distortion]. It’s probably harder to read in the visuals, but definitely the language reveals those biases. And at the same time, the Westerners have helped preserve the history, preserve it by bringing it out of the region, by writing, and having the instincts to ask questions that at the time the Kurds themselves were not.” (Metz, Holly. The Progressive. April 1998, Vol. 62 Issue 4, pp 36-39)

So the Westerners were not all that bad!!

“Over time, my role divided between maker and collector. I stopped taking photographs, except to reproduce existing family photos with a Polaroid system. I felt immense pleasure sitting with families, first peeling off a positive image, then watching with my host as the negative appeared in the tray of sodium solution. Their precious originals stayed with them, but they allowed us to make copies to take away. These were privileged moments: to be invited inside, to listen to the storytellers, then to eat and sleep on their floors. Everywhere we were strangers, yet we were welcomed with trust as soon as people understood that they were contributing to a collective memory.” – S.M. from “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History”

She had a group of people working with her (probably interns) rephotographing and developing the old images from family albums and negatives.

“Every picture tells a story and has another story behind it: Who’s photographed? Who made it? Who found it? How did it survive? I wonder what we can know of any particular encounter by looking at such a picture today. We have the object, but it exists separated from the narrative of its making.” – S.M.

In the present work I’ve tried to re-create the Kurds’ encounter with the West and ask readers to engage in the discovery of a people from a distant place without knowing exactly where that process will lead. In no way is this a definitive history of the Kurds. Texts and images are presented as fragments, to expose the inherent partiality of our knowledge. This is a book of quotations, with multiple and interwoven narratives taken from primary sources — the raw materials from which history is constructed.” – S.M.

Fragmentary, personal, parochial but dealing with history and representations; this is the kind of thing I really enjoy! Presenting a challenge without attempting to predict or forecast the result – a risk? Maybe but intellectually engaging. The result emerges as a kind of scrapbook, an archive containing documentary evidence (maps, photographs, newspaper articles, passports etc) as well as personal account and third person reports. The fact that the archive is online and continually growing means the Kurdish people are writing their history and it will not be lost to future generations.

In an interview with David Campany, Meiselas explains the original idea for the project:

The idea was that there’d be the book, with a fixed nature, a CD ROM with everything from the outtakes from the research as well as video material and then through the CD a link would connect to the internet to tie the reader via active websites to an ongoing history. It was the perfect concept for that project. But I could never get the sponsorship to make it happen. It was a problem of marrying this cutting edge information technology with the story of the Kurds, about whom people cared very little.” (Campany 2010)

She also speaks of the importance of not only having the digital archive, but also a physical publication:

Looking at the book of the Kurdistan project one does feel that it should be a published entity, of a certain size. It has a certain gravitas, it goes to libraries, it doesn’t rely on a big apparatus or electronic technology to access it. It’s also a history book, of a certain kind, although unconventional in its form. The visual material is made up of archival and contemporary photographs along with document facsimiles that have quite a physical relation to the page. The book as a physical object in the world which can’t be erased simply by wiping a hard drive or unplugging a computer. Plus of course books do have a status, for good or bad, that CDs and the internet don’t as yet. So it seems important that a book exists for practical as well as symbolic reasons. It marks a presence where there was once an absence.” (Campany 2010)

She also mentions that the different formats coexist, working differently in different contexts and carrying different cultural weight.

“Excerpts from diaries and documents make public what was often a personal record or private exchange. Suggesting the randomness by which history gets made, newspaper clippings and selected bits of memoirs reveal what was presented by the media and commonly believed at the time.” – S.M.

“Rather than emerging as a completed puzzle with every piece fitting neatly together, this book project has revealed a mosaic — only from a distance is there a shape to discern. This is a reconstruction based on what remains and has been retrieved; we cannot know what is gone. Certainly, much is missing.” – S.M.

Meiselas is neither offering solutions nor asking the viewer to side with her or to follow any political opinion, merely to reflect upon the issue she presents. She conveys fragmentary stories without recourse to grand narratives and allows each personal tale to emerge through the first person narrative and documentary evidence that she has managed to amass.

What Meiselas does is remind us that although these stories have disappeared from the headlines, they are still impacting on peoples’ lives and the repercussions are now being felt worldwide. In fact Kurdistan may be a whole new concept coming into being.

The documentary evidence includes videos and interviews embedded on her website, and it is so easy to navigate. The information presented is not overwhelming but repetitive at times (hammering the point home?). The whole is an engaging and thought-provoking project. Kudos!

At the end of the Metz interview, Meiselas has the final word when she explains the problem of photographing serious issues:

We’re not interested in the world. Very few people are. It’s painful to be on both sides of that: to see the desperate way that people want us to know about their plight and want us to do something about it, and to be inside the public that is really not thinking too much and doesn’t have a desire to know more” (Metz 1998, p 39).

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