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Seeing Double

By
July 1, 2011

Two photographers illuminate the effects of migration in a rural village and one’s own body.

In the wide realm of documentary photography and its tradition of investigation and expression, I am drawn most recently to two artists occupying opposite ends of the visual and professional spectrum.

Matt Black, photographing in black-and-white and in film, continues the well-worn path of photographer as investigator of cultures, economies, and landscapes, both separate from and connected to his own. In his series “People of the Clouds,” Black presents the second part to his longstanding work on migration. Having first photographed the conditions of migrant farmers in his home state of California, Black travels to the Mixteca mountain range in Oaxaca, Mexico, to see the landscape that tens of thousands of rural Mexicans have fled. The grainy black-and-white scenes of peasant labor give the images a historical feel. The villages, depopulated through migration and strained by globalization and environmental degradation, are empty and ghost-like in mourning, but very much of the here and now. In one extraordinary frame, the kind that is both genuinely profound and humbly made, we see a lone man blowing a tuba. It is Saint’s Day. Women in scarves clutching flowers surround the tuba player and fill the frame. In the background, we see an arch, a crucifix, an animated sky. The image seems to move closer. It’s an extraordinary visual testament to the power of culture and tradition as enduring forces of community sustenance. It reaffirms for me the strength of documentary practice that requires the artist to be fully present and intensively committed to not just an idea, but to experiencing life. Few galleries these days seem to appreciate this kind of work. I discovered Black’s images via my Facebook friends and his Kickstarter campaign.

Natalie N. Abbassi, a young Iranian-American photographer, has a background that defies contemporary geopolitics. Her father is Iranian and Muslim; her mother is American and Jewish. She grew up in Iran and the United States speaking fluent Farsi and English. I saw her work during an artist’s visit to UNC Greensboro, where she was just completing her BFA. Many young photographers focus on issues of identity. Much of what I’ve seen feels forced, where the bored or alienated is somehow meant to signify the profound. But Abbassi really has something to say about the collision of culture and faith as experienced in her own body. She works in color, in digital, using Photoshop to create her images. When I first saw her work “Self Study” hanging on a wall in a room at UNC, I walked closer and closer and could not stop looking. I was thoroughly enchanted by her twins (twins being inherently compelling, I think, for most of us). But these were twins of herself. They appeared in love, in harmony. I wondered who they were: lovers, sisters, or actresses playing scenes in a film? I was hooked and strangely moved, perhaps because the representations of Muslims, Iranians, and also Jews are so proscribed in our culture, so wrapped in clichés and judgments according to our claustrophobic politics. Abbassi’s pictures were quite literally liberating, I suspect, for a young artist struggling to figure out who she should be and what is appropriate behavior for a self made up of two halves.

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Nina Berman is a documentary photographer with a primary interest in the American political and social landscape. She is the author of two monographs, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq and Homeland. Recent exhibitions include: the Whitney Museum 2010 Biennial, the 2010 Milano Triennale, and Lyon Septembre de la Photographie. In September 2011, she will exhibit at Dublin Contemporary. She is a member of the NOOR photo collective based in Amsterdam and she lives in New York City. Her website is ninaberman.com.

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