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FABB Photographers Reshape Violent Narratives

ROSIE RUDAVSKY // APRIL 13, 2018 

On April 6th, Femme Artists Breaking Boundaries (FABB) hosted Eman Mohammed and Cameron Granger for a panel entitled Capturing Resistance. Both guests are photographers, Mohammed a photojournalist, and Granger a photo and video artist. The panel, led by junior Octavia Burgel, a photographer herself, focused on the ways that Mohammed and Granger use their art to tell stories. Eman Mohammed, a Palestinian refugee, was born in Saudi Arabia but educated in Gaza City.  After experimenting with other forms of journalism she settled on photography as a way to tell the stories of people living through war and violence, especially in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and violence in Gaza. Cameron Granger, who grew up in Cleveland and is now based in Columbus, channels the comics, drawing, and writing he created about his family and community growing up into the new media of video and photography. His work deals with Blackness and the American dream, and most recently on the role of education as a flawed tool for mobility.

 

Mohammed and Granger both use photography to bring untold stories to the fore, in such a way that combats the harm photography can do as a medium. Burgel shed light on this history of harm, explaining that photography has been used as a tool of colonialism, a way to portray “facts” about other cultures by representing their differences in biased and detrimental ways.

 

Mohammed’s approach to wartime photography seeks to undermine this objectification by staying away from violent imagery, and opting instead for the evocative. For example, her photo of a mother holding up the shirt of her recently killed son, eyes closed and solemn, invokes both the violence that she has experienced, but also, and most importantly, her humanity. Mohammed’s use of such imagery, as well as her snapshots of daily life – a child doing homework in a graveyard, a man drinking tea by a fire – serve as necessary contrasts to the photos of bombings, bodies, and blood that overpopulate our screens and daily newsfeeds, and to which we have all but become indifferent. Her photos offer another way to understand tragedies, allowing the audience to view the subjects as individuals and to empathize with them and their daily human experiences. In their composition and empathetic subject matter, Mohammed’s photographs look strikingly like what one might call “art” – but she resists this term, fearing that it will delegitimize the truths she conveys with her photos.

 

Granger also spoke of the importance of being in control of one’s storytelling. He described photography as an inherently violent process of “taking the essence of a living, breathing person and boiling it down to something of your own design”. However, he sees photo and video as mediums through which he can capture his own story, as a way of claiming responsibility. If he doesn’t tell his and his community’s stories, he posed, then someone else might, and might do it in a harmful way. For example, in his exhibition “Grad Party” he uses framed images of Black graduates in their graduation gowns, among them a portrait of Michael Brown, to expose education’s failure to protect Black people from the police, even while it is viewed as a path toward freedom. Beyond just using his work to disseminate unseen narratives of the inner, familial, and educational lives of Black people, Granger uses his presence in the formal art world to shift the audience of the gallery. He highlighted the gaze that exists within the space of galleries, which are generally attended by affluent, educated white people. He makes a point of bringing friends and family from his home community who do not frequent art galleries in order to create a comfortable atmosphere, where the work is consumed by those it is meant to address.

 

Both Mohammed’s and Granger’s work contend with extraordinarily relevant issues – those of violence toward Palestinians, and toward Black people in the US. As reported by the New York Times, a protest movement in Gaza has arisen with as many as 30,000 Gazans gathering at the border in protest of its blockade and in support of a return to their homes within Israeli borders. At least 31 Gazans have been killed in the past two weeks and a thousand injured. Unlike the photographs taken by Eman, most photos of the protests show Gazans in offensive stances, among smoke, fire and bombs.

 

In addition to the blatant racism displayed by continued police killings of Black people like Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill New Yorker shot and killed this past week, Granger’s work highlights a Black experience that centers the lives of Black people, showing their successes, struggles, and relationships, rather than depicting explicit violence against Black bodies. Granger and Mohammed address the way these narratives are told by popular media – flipping the script by offering personal and empathetic narratives instead of images of violence for the public to consume.


Burgel, who planned the panel, expressed how affirming it was as an artist of color herself, to have Mohammed and Granger on stage. She explained, “We as people of color are so used to being questioned and second guessed in our authority… I feel really excited to continue watching how people of color of all backgrounds and in all creative fields reshape and restructure the narrative while commanding and holding space.”

Contact contributing writer Rosie Rudavsky at rrudavsk@oberlin.edu.