New Documentary in “She Who Tells a Story”

NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World is organized around three themes: New Documentary, Constructing Identities, and Deconstructing Orientalism.

She Who Tells a Story artists use artistic and documentary techniques to both depict experiences and address concerns about the medium of photography. Through staging, editing, and other manipulations, artists like Gohar Dashti and Rula Halawani question the objectivity of the photograph while expressing deeper truths about their subjects.

The Legacy of War

Gohar Dashti’s series “Today’s Life and War” shows the everyday activities of a couple in a fictionalized battlefield. Dashti, who grew up during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88), says that her series “represents war and its heritage, how it permeates all aspects of contemporary society.” Concerned with capturing moments that ”reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope,” Dashti’s staged photographs convey the legacy of war.

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #2, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008; Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weintz Family Harbor Lights Foundation, 2013.555; © Gohar Dashti

Gohar Dashti, Untitled #2, from the series “Today’s Life and War,” 2008; Chromogenic print, 27 5/8 x 41 3/8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Weintz Family Harbor Lights Foundation, 2013.555; © Gohar Dashti

Untitled #2 depicts a female figure hanging white cloths over barbed wire. In the blurred background, viewers can detect a male figure and military vehicles. The scene’s strange, dramatic elements emphasize its artificiality. Dashti’s photograph symbolizes the presence of war in everyday life rather than depicting real events. The barbed wire enclosure evokes borders and restriction, while the act of hanging white cloths suggests both mundane tasks like laundry and a longing for peace.

Violence and Erasure

“Negative Incursions” was Rula Halawani’s first artistic project after she left the field of photojournalism. A Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, the artist captured these images during the 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank. Rather than produce standard journalistic images, Halawani enlarged the negatives and printed them with a thick black border.

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Her use of negatives suggests military imagery and draws attention to the technical processes of photography. “Negative Incursions” acknowledges the bias of all representations, even photographs, and encourages viewers to look for distortions elsewhere. Thick black borders framing the images—reminiscent of a television screen—echo this by critiquing media bias and inattention to Palestinian suffering.

Halawani’s technique also encourages viewers to approach these scenes from a fresh perspective, eliciting new responses from audiences whose exposure to the conflict has been oversaturated with graphic images of war and violence. Her disorienting negative images draw the viewer into an alien landscape, prompting shock and horror upon closer inspection. Not only a document of real events, Halawani’s series represents a collective experience of suffering, the subjectivity of the medium of photography, and the “negation of [Palestinian] reality” by military violence and media indifference.

New Stories

Dashti and Halawani both document their own experiences and the collective experience of their generation, community, or culture. Using art photography together with documentary techniques, they question the links between photojournalistic photography and a single, objective truth. Their creative interventions infuse their works with meaning and challenge the neutrality of mainstream narratives, making room for other stories to be told.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Rula Halawani

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World offers a vision of the world she has witnessed.

NMWA visitors study two of Rula Halawani’s photographs in the She Who Tells a Story galleries

NMWA visitors study two of Rula Halawani’s photographs in She Who Tells a Story

Rula Halawani

(b. 1964, Jerusalem; lives East Jerusalem)

Rula Halawani began her career as a photojournalist. She then changed course and started creating art photography—she said, “I had to find a different way to relate my photography to how I was feeling, to being Palestinian in Palestine.” Her images incorporate carefully chosen photo techniques to reflect the deeper meaning behind images.

In Her Own Words

“‘Negative Incursion’ was my first project after I quit photojournalism. It happened a few months after my return from London, where I was doing my Master’s in photography. . . . On 28 March 2002, I was in Ramallah when the Israeli army invaded. . . . No one was in the streets that day except the Israeli army and its tanks. I felt depressed, cold, and scared. The only Palestinian I met on the road that day was an old man who sold coffee. Later he was shot dead. . . . That night I could not take away his face from my memory, and many questions without answers rushed inside my head.”

“On the surface, the pictures I took of the invasion could be considered regular photojournalism. I could have published them just as they were, as documents of the invasion. Instead, I printed them in negative. Why? In negative, the pictures were able to express my own feelings merged with the feelings of my people, to explain what had happened to us and to Palestine. As negatives, they express the negation of our reality that the invasion represented.”—Rula Halawani, in an interview with Art Radar

What’s On View?

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Rula Halawani, Untitled VI, from the series “Negative Incursions,” 2002; Chromogenic print, 35 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.; © Courtesy of the artist and the Ayyam Gallery

Several works from the “Negative Incursions” series are on view in the “New Documentary” section of She Who Tells a Story. Halawani emphasizes the significance of combining documentary and artistic techniques to give a more profound impression of her subjects and their lives.

To viewers, her use of negatives seems disorienting and chaotic, magnifying the confusion and disorder of the scenes she depicts. Halawani also presents these images with black frames and mats, evoking a television, which is often the medium through which Westerners encounter journalistic images of the region. By manipulating her images, she is able not just to depict factual events, but to “tell the larger story.”

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.