One of the biggest exports from the Arab world is news, including photojournalism. International attention on Arab news has increased in recent years, energized by landmark events such as the Gulf Wars and the so-called Arab Spring, a Western definition for the series of revolutions (violent and non-violent) that have erupted since 2010. Today, millions of images from the region, created by local and foreign reporters, including embedded and citizen journalists, circulate to an international audience through printed media, broadcast news, and the Internet.
Within much of the Arab world, news is controlled by the state. While the concept of ‘nationalized’ news can connote and circulate a common belief system and even civic pride, it is a problematic descriptive. Several ruling autocracies or powers – be they royal, political, militaristic, or religious – monopolize the media in some Arab regions to promote particular sets of opinions and values. In other parts of the Arab world, increased private sector wealth and democratic agency have coincided with an influx of independent news media outlets, including those targeted at expatriate audiences.
In geographical contrast, freedom of information is sometimes assumed in Europe and the USA. However, our news industries also have agendas. Over the last few decades, visual referents and narratives have repeated in the representation of the Arab region, while other stories have been censored. What is distributed is a small part of what each photojournalist produces. This is part of the editorial process inherent in the photographic medium, but it nevertheless alludes to the complex, opaque systems of power that are defining what we see.
Through the channel of Arab news, Newsroom reflects upon freedom of expression, the relationship between photography and journalism, and the links between photography, language, culture, and power. The reading area contains platforms for Arab news, focusing on newspapers from the region as well as Twitter feeds that enmesh institutional and personal commentaries. The series of photographs depict a region rife with regionalized conflict, transitions, and occupation, where citizens are making demands for political freedom, social change and economic opportunities. Some of the events portrayed in these images were widely covered in Arab or Western media; others were censored or quickly forgotten. While creating these images, several of the photojournalists were the targets of violent attacks or held captive, a reminder of the embattled nature of their professions and the conflict zones from where they were reporting. The 2014 map by the non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders summarizes the idea that press freedom is restricted in a greater part of the world.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad - Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Censorship in Yemen has become heightened in the last four years, making reporting difficult for Yemeni photographers as well as foreign ‘parachute’ journalists, who were until recently the primary contributors to international news on the country. Starting in 2010 when religious, separatist, and tribal struggles became inflamed, the Ministry of Media began tightening up on its censorship laws. Foreign journalists were prohibited from entering the country and Yemeni photographers who documented protests were threatened. Since then, cameras have been seized, photographers have been detained, and a spate of killings ensued.
During this time, Iraqi-born conflict journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has reported for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Times, and The Washington Post on the embattled efforts to build a unified Yemen and stable government, tribal disputes, and the Yemeni operations of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The jihadi groups of AQAP, flying Al-Qaeda’s signature black flag, have ruled large parts of central and south Yemen through force since 2009. In many areas, security is provided by the jihadis, justice follows sharia law, and the emir governs the administration of electricity and water supplies.
On March 10, 2014, US drones killed 4 AQAP commanders and fighters in central Yemen. It is one of nearly 100 US drone strikes on Al-Qaeda forces in Yemen since 2002, which have had various reports of success in the media – allegedly resulting in nearly as many deaths of civilians as of those who were officially targeted.
Tanya Habjouqa – Occupied Pleasures
Tanya Habjouqa’s series Occupied Pleasures (2011-2014) is an alternative narrative to mainstream media depictions of Palestinians as a traumatized or violent population, at odds with Israelis in the pursuit of land. Occupied Pleasures, which received a Magnum Emergency Fund grant in 2013, explores everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OpT), which encompasses the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are confined to reside with limited freedom of movement.
A contributor to Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, CNN, The Guardian, Le Monde, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others, Habjouqa has worked on the front lines in Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur, and Gaza. This project is closer to home; Habjouqa, who was born Jordan, resides in East Jerusalem with her Palestinian family. She has experienced first-hand the restraints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Habjouqa approaches her subjects from a visual anthropological perspective. She explains: “I would argue that all good journalists are good anthropologists. You are always looking deeper and analyzing. I like to shoot slow, ideally. If I can, I like to spend my time with the community.”
She continues: “Many Palestinians when approached with this project agreed the theme of pleasure in Palestine itself is not a common topic of conversation: ‘…we often focus on our miseries. Of course sometimes we enjoy ourselves but we shy away from highlighting pleasures. Such ability to find pleasure highlights our humanity, and pleasures are also a form of resistance.’”
Zied Ben Romdhane – Waiting Zones
The Choucha camp in Ras Jdir near the Libya-Tunisia border was a 20,000-capacity transit camp operated by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR from 2011-2013. Access to the camp was by foot, or through the airport of Djerba on an island near Ras Jdir. At its height of activity, the camp received up to 10,000 people per day. The camp was divided into two groups: third country nationals from sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt who were low-wage migrant workers fleeing the violence in Egypt and Libya; and Somalis, Eritreans and other “persons of concern” who could not return to their home countries for political or security reasons.
While the camp officially closed in the summer of 2013, it is currently home to an estimated 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers. The majority repatriated, sought refuge in European countries, or resettled in urban areas in Tunisia, some with help from local authorities and international NGOs.
Tunisian photographer Zied Ben Romdhane describes the current situation at Choucha camp as largely forgotten in the media, as unrest in Egypt and Syria are ‘bigger news’. Press was restricted from accessing parts of the Tunisian-Libyan border for several months during the camp’s operation, yet Romdhane made three trips from Tunis to the region. Stylistically influenced by the works of Sebastião Salgado and FSA photographers, Romdhane created black and white journalistic narratives of his subjects, deviating from hard media depictions of these ‘waiting zones’.
Rémi Ochlik – Arab Spring
Born in Eastern France, Rémi Ochlik (1982-2012) was best known for photographing the Haitian riots in 2004 and the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria in 2011-2012, reporting for Le Monde, VSD, Paris Match, Time Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.
His coverage of the “Arab Spring” began in January 2011 in Tunisia: revolution sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor whose produce cart was confiscated by the police. Ochlik documented the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in February and March 2011, including those for and against then-ruler Hosni Mubarak. Ochlik then traveled to the Libya-Tunisia border to document the movement of displaced workers. He later photographed violent riots in Libya throughout 2011, including the fall of Tripoli and the death of the controversial dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
On February 21, 2012, Ochlik reached Homs, Syria to photograph the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad that turned into civil war: “I just arrived in Homs. It’s nighttime but the situation seems incredibly tense and desperate. I’ll start making pictures tomorrow.” Ochlik died in a rocket attack on the media center that evening, along with American war correspondent Marie Colvin. Fellow journalist William Daniels recovered Ochlik’s camera, which included these final three images.
Austin Tice – Children of Syria
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported in March 2014 that there are currently approximately 1.5 million refugee children from the Syrian Arab Republic. More than 1 million have fled to neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, while others remain in poor living conditions with a shortage of food and drinking water and severely compromised medical care.
In May 2012, Houstonian photojournalist Austin Tice traveled to Syria to report on the unfolding crisis for McClatchy News, CBS, The Washington Post, and other publications. He traveled extensively across the country to cover various aspects of the Syrian revolution for these media outlets; his personal interest was photographing children. A former captain in the US Marine Corps, Tice was scheduled to begin his final year at Georgetown Law School that autumn. He was taken captive by unknown persons near Damascus in August 2012. He remains missing.
“I have more pictures of beautiful Syrian kids than I could ever possibly use. It breaks my heart to see what is happening to them. No kid should even have to know that things like this happen in the world, much less be forced to live and sometimes die this way." - Austin Tice
Freedom of the Press Worldwide Map 2014
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières)
The Freedom of the Press map categorically ranks freedom of information in 180 countries. The 2014 report rated the Middle East – where 22 Arab countries are located – as the gravest region for press freedom; Syria is ranked 177th.
Founded in 1985 by four French journalists, Reporters Without Borders is a non-profit organization that defends freedom of information. It provides financial and psychological assistance to persecuted journalists and their families. It also gives aid to war correspondents such as legal assistance, bulletproof vests, insurance and VPNs. It collaborates with governments and organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO to combat censorship and laws that restrict freedom of information. It actively reports on censorship and surveillance practices worldwide, as well as journalists who are detained, held hostage, are missing, or killed.
Newsroom Twitter Feed
The “Arab Spring”, a series of political and social uprisings across several Arab countries since December 2010, has been widely covered in the media. Its revolutionary momentum gained traction through social media, arguably the most widespread use of the medium to galvanize vast populations to-date.
This twitter feed reports news, mainly of the Arab world, from more than 500 sources. It follows a diverse group of individuals, NGOs, think tanks, political parties, and news agencies – a sampling of a larger network of information gatherers and reporters that operate within the region. Furthermore, it is a platform for the general public to share opinions.
Twitter is an important avenue for breaking news. Examining it critically raises several questions: what role does citizen journalism play in circulating the news? How transparent are news sources as well as their agendas? What competition exists for being the first to report news events, and how does news become viral?
The collection of newspapers from several Arab countries is for exhibition visitors to peruse. Updated weekly throughout the exhibition, it includes dailies and weeklies operated by independent parties, governments, and ruling autocracies. The installation explores how literacy informs our perception of images, and how news in parts of the Arab world may differ from Western media reports.
14 March – 4 May, 2014
Houston Center for Photography for FotoFest 2014
Artist / Photographer
Zied Ben Romdhane
Reporters Without Borders
Preston, Madeline Yale "The Newsroom" In: Watriss, W., ed. (2014) FotoFest 2014. Amsterdam: Schilt Publishing.