On the politics of the image in conservative societies: An interview with Nadia Mounier

Nadia Mounier’s first solo exhibition, “I Will Defend Myself,” is currently showing at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective (CIC).

Her previous projects “She Said: I Swear I Saw a Light Coming out of the Side of My Eyes” and “Was That Really You?” were both displayed as parts of larger group shows.

By following the maneuvers of image producers in Egypt’s conservative society that aim to hide, cover and censor, Mounier continues her research into the politics of the image and the representation of women in the public sphere. She also seeks to examine the reflection of these attempts on the relationship women have with their personal photographs, those they choose to share with others on social media platforms, and those they decide to keep to themselves.

While doing research for the work exhibited in “I Will Defend Myself,” Mounier conducted searches on digital photography archives, surveying the keywords used to search for women’s pictures, and observing how the word “woman,” for instance, yielded different results from one website to another according to geography. She also tried to map out the intersecting circles of influence and reproduction between these results and the evolution of the art of photography.

In this interview, Mounier speaks about her exhibition and her extended practice as a visual artist, in addition to a number of issues regarding the problematics of the image, from the debate on copyrights and privacy to the challenges of street photography.

Leila Arman: Your work can be divided into three phases. The first was with MASS Alexandria, the second in CIC’s PhotoCairo6, and the third and current one is your first solo show, “I Will Defend Myself.” Were you concerned with a specific question during each phase?

Nadia Mounier: I don’t really think there’s a dividing line between each. They complete one another and evolve with time. For example, some of my work in the first phase was elaborated on in the second. And, as I organized different works of mine and placed them together for the solo show, I was able to see all the phases in a more integrated manner.

In general, though, I would say that in the first phase I was concerned with personal photographs. I went through my own pictures and asked friends and acquaintances for photos just so I could study them and compare them to the pictures they chose to represent themselves on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The second phase, meanwhile, is more general. Yet, it is a continuation of the same idea, represented in pictures of closed private gatherings. I focused on photos from all-women parties, with all the virtual privacy they involve, and how the pictures moved among different circles.

I’m still exploring and developing the third and current phase. I’ve expanded my circle of interest to include images of women in the public sphere, which we come in contact with everyday. Upon its completion, I think this phase could answer a question that I’ve long been occupied with: How do images in the public sphere influence our personal photographs? “I Will Defend Myself” is an initial presentation of the ideas behind the third phase rather than a finished work. And we tried, through the way the works are displayed, to emphasize the fact that it’s still in development.

LA: What first drew you to simulate the ways women in conservative societies deal with images?

NM: I am concerned with the politics of producing images, their lines of movement and how people interact with them, as well as their relationship to technology and the psyche of their consumers. Pictures of women in conservative societies are therefore very significant for me when it comes to understanding and analyzing photographs in general, especially in their complex relationship to the concept of privacy in a country like Egypt, and their entanglement with Islam, the majority religion, and how they are approached culturally. I am also driven by a purely personal motive, and that is my relationship as a photographer with my own photographs, and the expressive parts of pictures of me that I see but nobody else can.

LA: Speaking of personal motives, sometimes, when selecting the theme of their first work, artists are driven by a strong and impulsive desire for self-expression. How deeply would you say your personal experiences are enmeshed in your work?

NM: This was my problem during the first phase of my work, when I was in MASS Alexandria. It took me some time to embrace the idea, because I was very scared that expressing a personal experience would lead me into the trap of being naive, impulsive, as you said, or even romantic in a tacky way. So, even though my personal experience was one of the drives behind my research, I tried to ignore myself and search “outside” for other people to listen to, but the outcome wasn’t satisfying. And so I went back to work on my own pictures. When I think back on that phase, I feel that it was rudimentary, yet necessary for me to understand myself, and my work has matured as a result. This realization has also helped me break free from it, to smoothly glide away from my own experiences in the second and third phases. I don’t think my latest work cares to reveal a personal aspect at all. I feel it has moved past that.

LA: I found out in my conversation with the show’s curators that throughout your quest to explore women’s representations in stock photo platform archives, searching for “Arab women” would often yield pictures of horses. Why do you think that is?  

NM: I’m still trying to figure out the correlation between horses and Arab women. When I used keywords like “Arab beauty,” the search results would often show pictures of both women and horses. But the results in international websites differ from those in Arab websites (which are mostly Gulf websites partnering with global agencies such as Getty Images). The words “Arab woman” on websites outside the Middle East, for example, give you war-related images: sad women, a man helping a woman up, refugees. Yet, if you remove “Arab” the results become entirely different. Apart from horses, there is also a fixation on Arab women’s eyes, perhaps because they tickle fanciful ideas of the burqa and the hijab in the Western imagination

The word “woman” on its own, on websites outside the Middle East, shows results that relate to other keywords, such as “hot” and “sexy,” and are therefore completely different from the results of “Arab woman.” Meanwhile, on Gulf-based websites, the word “woman” yields results of pictures of women at home with their families. It is very difficult to find a picture of a woman alone. She is always in a domestic setting.

Reading into these differences opens several doors to understanding the effects of widely circulated public images on the way we deal with our own personal photographs. For instance, the results you get when you search “happy couple” say so much about the preferences of Egyptian wedding photographers. They recreate the same compositions and employ the same poses and the same lighting. The couples being photographed also ask for these same aesthetics, which leads to the reproduction of cookie-cutter images that represent a specific kind of life perceived to be desirable.

LA: This makes me think of one of your videos, which depicts the photoshopping process of a couple’s picture in a photography studio in Sharm el-Sheikh, after they ask to have a few people in the background removed, so that they would be alone in the picture with the pretty landscape behind them.

NM: I’m really interested in following the movement of the image from the camera to the screen, and then to another screen. I want to discover how the medium affects the image. That video tackles the relationship between photography and the “beautifying” processes the pictures are later subjected to.

For these customers asking for modifications to their picture, the criteria for a romantic photo is background with a natural landscape, a lake and a bridge for instance, with a man and woman whose body language expresses love and pleasure found in each other’s company. The strangers in the background compromise that romance. Is the photographer helping them alter the photo himself affected by the search results for “happy couple” in stock image websites? Or is the norm of producing such photos in this particular way the reason why the results come up looking like that? Who influences whom?

LA: In another video in the show, you display the interactions between a photographer and a woman who wants to have her picture taken on the beach, as he shows her how to pose, but the colors in the video are inverted. Why?

NM: After a discussion with [curator] Andrea Thal, we agreed that it might be morally problematic to show the woman in the video, and so I searched for a visual solution. And this inverted effect seemed the most appropriate, especially since I’d used it in earlier works with the same purpose of hiding subjects’ identities. This effect also evokes the mechanism of calling an image from one’s memory, as though it simulates the very process of “remembering,” and in this way it is expressive of the image’s journey from its original private state to public display, which is the main idea of the exhibition.  

LA: In one part of the show, you focus on the representation of women in Arab women’s magazines, and there is a video where you flip through the pages of a magazine where you’ve cut out parts of the pictures. To what extent does this exercise relate to your project?

NM: This is the part that is still under development. Women’s magazines are one of many ways in which women are portrayed in the public sphere. In the upcoming period, I will be working on women’s images on different products, for instance.

At first I wanted to collect different eyes, and to examine how — even in suspended existence — they emit certain vibes, so I used to cut out eyes specifically. But after I was done, I was really taken aback by how the pictures looked without eyes. I felt that I had practiced a form of unconscious violence on those pictures, and I was scared that, if I threw out the magazines, somebody would find them in this appalling state.

Afterward, I thought of how this process relates to the idea of “hiding” or “covering” and the obsession of searching for women’s pictures online. There is one common thread between most of the works in this show, which is the fact that the characters in the images have semi-surrendered to my power over them, and I am trying to better understand this kind of power. Let me elaborate by speaking about two pictures: The exhibition’s poster, and the “ruler” picture.

In the poster image, I have hidden the girl’s identity, and she submits to this. In the other image, I use a technique that perhaps most of my generation is familiar with, which simulates the ruler on which the picture changes according to the angle in which you hold it. In that image, a woman covers her face with her hands, and her posture is somewhat tense, alert. If you look at the same picture from another angle, you will see the girl twice; there’s two of her. This is the only image where the person being photographed is present. She is the one hiding herself. In the other images, my power over the subjects is very clear, in a way that makes them unable to defend themselves.

This is how the magazine video ties in with my project, and also where the title of the exhibition is derived from.

LA: Apart from the ruler image, I noticed your use of mirrors as a visual solution in more than one picture.

NM: The idea behind my visual choices in this show is that, in its journey from the private to the public realm, the image undergoes a kind of mutilation, losing and gaining certain elements. I do not necessarily mean mutilation in the sense that it becomes ugly, but that it’s dichotomized in a way that strips it of its appeal. The mirrors and the “repetitions” they reflect are a translation of this concept of duality that images are subjected to.

LA: In the show, you interview three people, each of whom works on images of women in different contexts. On what basis did you choose these interviewees? And what are the differences between each one’s approach to images?

NM: Well, the first is a woman who is an event photographer and hired by women to photograph private gatherings. She is made to hand over all the pictures she took and to delete them from her camera before she leaves. As a result, she has no control over her production, and often finds it difficult to market herself.

The second person I interviewed, Ommu Tatu, is a housewife who uses Photoshop to play with images in a way that is aesthetically very unconventional. She manipulates them to hide what she views as “seductive,” such as faces or uncovered parts of the body, in order to make them fit for publishing on women forums.

The third interviewee is a man who paints photographs. He treats photographic images as a source he draws from and a space where he practices his talent. So he intervenes to beautify them, altering colours, adjusting lighting and so on.

I met each of them during different stages of my research, and the reason I decided to put them together in this show is because they have something in common when it comes to how each of them practices a certain power over the image as a sort of censorship, not only in terms of “covering,” but in other ways as well.

LA: Sometimes I feel that attempts at simulating popular artistic models and displaying the results in a contemporary art context actually mock this type of art, that they carry within them an implicit feeling of superiority. What would you say to that?

NM: I’ve always felt the opposite. When it comes to Ommu Tatu, for instance, I was actually in awe of her visual solutions and was stuck in there for a while. I couldn’t translate them into a language of my own. To me, she was like a treasure nobody knew of. She is really rich, visually and aesthetically, and fresh, because she is free of any restricting artistic rules.

Perhaps you got that superior vibe from the language of the interviews, and this particular point does stop me every time I revisit it. What you saw in the exhibition are only parts of the longer interviews, though, and in the full versions the specific circumstances of each conversation are caught on record, further explaining the choice of language used.

In my view, understanding these forms of popular art is indispensable in the attempt to understand the politics of the image and its relationship to society and contemporary arts. I, for instance, am fed up of all forms of production pertaining to photographic images. The people I interviewed, however, were a great source of inspiration for me, because they work in a completely different context and don’t run in the same circles we young artists do.

LA: How do you usually begin work on a theme that interests you?

NM: I mostly work slowly and entirely on my own. This was one of the reasons why I applied to MASS, so I would be forced to speak about my work, discuss it, and adapt to the process of research that requires meeting with people and expanding my network of resources. Working on your own makes you your only reference, which could, in turn, limit your possibilities.

LA: Recently there have been several debates on photography in public spaces and the implications of photographing people’s faces without permission, posing the idea of the photographer as a voyeur. How do you view boundaries when it comes to artists or photographers taking pictures in public?

NM: I am a little bit aggressive when I take part in these discussions, especially since most of my work takes place on the streets. I am against the notion of permission in general. Since its conception, the art of street photography has not had to deal with this issue, but the evolution of people’s awareness of concepts like privacy and copyright dragged photography into the argument. This is why street photographers are currently facing problems around the world, and dealing with ethical discussions that are relatively new to them.

I do not reject the need to ask for permission, and I am not saying voyeurism is a photographer’s right. The whole thing requires a special way of interacting with the street and with the people in it that makes my presence with the camera there an acceptable matter, in spite of not being granted permission.

There is a kind of violence in the very presence of the camera between me and others, with its size, color, and the way it is held. The only way to avoid being viewed as a voyeuristic photographer and rather as a person normally practicing their livelihood on the street and taking pictures, is to break this violence through how I deal with the presence of the camera itself.

For example, when I’m taking pictures in a public but closed space, like a restaurant or a cafe, I take the camera out and put it on the table for a while before I hold it. This really helps. The presence of the camera in the public space is a way of asking permission in itself. There is also a fine line between a stolen photo and a voyeuristic one.

LA: Going back to your interest in representations of women in conservative contexts, have you recently viewed any artistic works dealing with the same theme that caught your attention?

NM: I cannot think of anything in particular right now, but most of the time I feel that works tackling this issue are redundant, and that all of them center on freedom and violence. Perhaps my own work includes this, too, but I hope that my approach helps me steer clear of the overused representations I personally try to avoid.

“I Will Defend Myself” is showing at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) and was initially scheduled to run between September 19 and October 26. It has been extended until November 2.  

Translation by Yasmine Zohdi

Leila Arman 

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