Arab Image Foundation
Arab Image Foundation
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Projects > Collaborations > Exhibitions

Not Given
An exhibition proposed by Dore Bowen and Isabelle Massu
Produced by la Compagnie and SF Camerawork, 2005

"A photograph is worth a thousand words", by which we usually mean that it replaces words, making them superfluous. This is one of the myths that imparts to the photograph its unique and authoritative status. Photographs of middle eastern women are reproduced in newspapers, transmitted on television, housed in archives, and inserted into academic studies and the extraordinary authority of the image is exploited to support a particular argument about who "arab women" are, what they do, how they think. Not Given challenges the photograph's privileged status by interrogating its discursive context, exploring the skin of words that surround photographs of "arab women" in a bold attempt to shatter the reductive label that has been assigned to them.

Not Given is based on the collection of photographs housed at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. These photographs-shown here, as they are on the Foundation's website, in digital form-are stunning in their diversity, often calling into question preconceived notions of middle eastern photography. Certain of these images-a 1940s starlet from Cairo, a Lebanese women posing with her rifle and young son, or a group of fashionable young women perched on the hood of a car in Palestine-seem to defy genre. And yet, it is an archive's job to define its collection based upon a hierarchy of terms. By exhibiting the Foundation's images with their corresponding keywords, Not Given exposes the logic that undergirds the classification system, a logic that the Foundation is itself struggling to redefine by adding terms such as "veil" or "yashmak". One of the chief innovations of this installation is its inclusion of an audio component built around photographs of women born in Algeria or Lebanon. For this part of the project we asked an initial respondent to describe herself in a photograph that she had chosen from her personal collection; later, we turned to additional respondents, each of whom, after listening to the account given by the woman pictured, verbalized her mental image based upon what she had heard. What emerges from this process is a polyphony of voices that significantly enliven the still photograph. While listening to these voices, the gallery visitor will notice that the photograph enters her or his imagination, alters its shape, and traverses geographic boundaries, traveling by word of mouth from Beirut to Paris and from Algiers to Marseille. In its ludic interrogation of word and image, Not Given pries open the static representation of arab women, makes supple again the elastic quality of images that have become ossified within political discourse.


La Compagnie
Marseille, France, December 2005-January 2006
San Fransisco, USA, March-May 2007