akaKurdistan: Photography and Citizenship as Praxis

By Özge Ersoy

In the early 1990s, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas traveled to Northern Iraq to document the remains of destroyed villages and mass graves in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s al-Anfal Campaign. This work led her to embark on a visual investigation of the Kurdish history over the last century. Meiselas and a team of researchers began collecting archival and contemporary images from family collections, private archives, and news organizations. The project evolved into the book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (1997) and a series of exhibitions, which inspired the website akaKurdistan: A Place for Collective Memory and Cultural Exchange that is tailored to grow through visual and textual contributions by visitors. In akaKurdistan, Meiselas’ photographic work is only a layer of a larger project that evolves continuously. In it, the fascinating question isn’t merely why a documentary photographer starts collecting other peoples’ photographs; it also asks what is the potential of these images beyond their documentary value?

Documentary images shot in areas of distress and suffering weave together numerous narrative tropes; they record and testify a truth while reflecting the photographer’s process of witnessing and investigation. They don’t simply document a particular scene—a characteristic traditionally associated with news photography. Their rhetorical power goes beyond serving as mere evidence to unveil the unknown or the overlooked; these visual narratives seek to offer methods to discuss what is captured within them, and eventually to stimulate action. In this process, images are read through the legal framework of human rights in order to seek tangible action, and often through vernacular terms—such as atrocity, cruelness, and evil—to instigate empathy, compassion, or outrage. When intellectual recognition is compounded by moral sentiments, it is anticipated that the viewer will challenge or take action to change the distress being witnessed. One can therefore argue that the documentary tradition is imbued with the prospects of awareness, change, and progress. Projects such as akaKurdistan, however, prove that images pertaining to individuals or groups in distress have greater potential than serving merely as testimonies, channels for mourning, or demands for immediate reparation. Photographs can also demonstrate a performative character, creating a political space that enables new relationships between the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer.

In a similar vein, the format of akaKurdistan doesn’t conform to the conventional documentary tropes through which professional photographers often construct narratives. The project starts with a selected archive of images from a wide range of authors, and is designed to grow through contributions. Meiselas doesn’t pursue traditional documentary work with a predefined authorship; she rather becomes the facilitator and connector, though not the editor, as the website doesn’t specify any restrictions for the inclusion of images. Featured photographs don’t refer to a totality, to a consistent voice, or linear storytelling, but rather suggest loose and open-ended fragments of a visual history. Both individually and as a whole, these photographs don’t follow a systematic argument; there is no intention to analyze or defend Kurdish citizenship, despite the project’s title. The overall premise seems to present scattered parts of a collective history that unfolds in a non-systematic way.

This open-ended format resonates with what is captured in the photographs. akaKurdistan focuses on a people who have been facing systematic discrimination and long-standing repression from various sovereign powers in the Middle East; yet the project doesn’t always show Kurds as victims of immediate and readable forms of violence. akaKurdistan presents photographs of cultural rituals, daily life, family, and individual portraits alongside images of wars and massacres. Although they are connected to the documentary mode of representation, they don’t readily reproduce the categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander. The combination of daily, if not banal, photographs with images that act as evidence of human rights violations complicates the reading of the project. The overall archive doesn’t easily guarantee particular meanings or moral judgments about the violence the Kurdish communities have experienced, nor does it immediately address the possible guarantor of rights for the subjects it designates. The premise of akaKurdistan is rather to complicate the demands and the potential of documentary images.

Unknown Image Archive is worth mentioning here. This section of akaKurdistan invites contributors to identify images. Related questions may seem simple at first glance: Who is in the photograph? Who took it? Who found it? How did it survive? The intended answers could refer to basic archival information, yet Unknown Image Archive seeks to generate conversation and exchange, not to fix meanings and categories. One of the photographs in this section, reportedly shot by a Russian photographer in the early 1900s, portrays eight people in a bowing pose against the background of conical structures in a rural setting. The person who uploaded the image to the website states that she received it in 1992 during her research for Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, without having any opportunity to confirm the identity of neither the photographer nor the photographed. Below the image are the contributors’ entries. Some of them argue that the photograph was taken in present-day Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, or Armenia, while others, highlighting the clothing of the subjects, claim the photograph has nothing to do with the Kurdish people. The details remain unclear, but the discussion may lead to fruitful results.

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Anonymous, from Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, by Susan Meiselas, Univ. of Chicago, 2007

Similarly, another photograph depicts three men posing in a public ceremony, holding swords and a flag. Meiselas, who added the photograph, writes that it is not possible to confirm the handwriting that accompanies the image, yet she indicates that an early history book had reproduced the same image, referring to a celebration of the independence of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad—a short-lived attempt to establish autonomy in Northwestern Iran in the mid-1940s. “We have no idea who might have taken this picture,” Meiselas adds, “nor how it survived the destruction of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad.” The other entries suggest different readings of the handwritten note as well as the architecture in the background. What these comments prove is that interpretation cannot be conclusively inscribed onto an image. Images are bound to remain as an uncertain, amorphous mass of visual material since it’s not possible to guarantee certified meanings for them. It is the indexical nature of these photographs that allows akaKurdistan to highlight the notion of subjectivity in regards to readings of historical moments. By doing so, the project turns a visual history into an abstraction constituted by a variety of narratives and interpretations, rather than a settled chronology of events, peoples, dates, celebrations, and massacres. It accentuates the role of the individual to read and reformulate history—perhaps an outdated argument—by initiating a mapping and sharing exercise. More importantly, the website accelerates modes of exchange and connectivity rather than serving merely as a site of identification or remembrance. It thereby connects photographs to the notion of praxis.

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Anonymous, from Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, by Susan Meiselas, Univ. of Chicago, 2007

These modes of exchange and connectivity invoke akaKurdistan’s potential to enable civic exchange and negotiation among the subjects it designates. “Over time, it became progressively clearer to me that not only is it impossible to reduce photography to its role as a producer of picture[s], but that, in addition, its broad dissemination over the second half of the nineteenth century has created a space of political relations that are not mediated exclusively by the ruling power of the state and are not completely subject to the national logic that still overshadows the political arena,” Ariella Azoulay writes in her book The Civil Contract of Photography [1]. akaKurdistan aims for this specific space of political relations. It does so not because the project appropriates the term “Kurdistan”—the land of the Kurds—but rather because it constructs a platform in which subjects allow themselves to be recorded, encourages their distribution in a public space, and exchanges thoughts and interpretations about others’ photographs. The main question then becomes how the citizenship of Kurdish subjects is exercised, rather than who governs them. The website does not constitute a simple form of resistance against sovereign powers. Rather, it enables plurality of speech and action and thereby the political participation of a community defined separately from the state.

The political community formed by akaKurdistan can be read as a new configuration of the concept of citizenship often determined as legal entitlement or contractual relationship. Since the French Revolution, the notion of citizenship has been defined either as a resident of a state specified by a legitimized sovereignty over a population within determined geographical borders; as a member of a body politic that grants political participation, such as nation-states; or alternatively in terms of an allegiance to a sovereign that promises protection. [2] Citizenship is thus recognized as status prescribed by a state; it can be granted, put on hold, or, if needed, canceled by the sovereign power. People whose citizenship is impaired, nonexistent, or suspended are vulnerable and without protection, which leads to a central human rights issue famously problematized by Hannah Arendt. “Equality, in contrast to all that is involved in mere existence, is not given us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice,” Arendt writes in her seminal text The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man. [3] In it, Arendt introduces the political zeitgeist in the aftermath of the First World War, emphasizing the rising number of refugees and stateless people. The effectiveness of the rights discourse is questioned, especially for individuals who are not recognized by sovereign republics. Arendt challenges the idea of inalienable and universal rights—legally constituted by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen—as they are granted by sovereign republics and therefore create an overlooked remainder. Contrary to the doctrine of natural rights, she argues, the rights of man are neither abstract nor universal; they remain fragile as long as the guarantor of rights is a sovereign authority. Moreover, although the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights addresses the exclusivity of the 1789 Declaration by omitting the term “citizen”—aiming to grant rights to individuals regardless of their status as citizens—it is ultimately confined to an abstract idealization; its constituencies remain sovereign nation-states, i.e. members of the United Nations. What the 1948 Declaration acknowledges is that the existence of individuals with impaired or non-existing citizenship cripples and undermines the ideals of human rights discourse, which ultimately urges, if not requires, the monitoring of sovereign states. [4] However, the monitoring of their punishable acts doesn’t readily address systematic and protracted violations, like the ones Kurdish communities have been facing in the last century. Subjects who have long since lacked governmental protection and political representation are therefore encouraged, if not bound, to reformulate their citizenship. This opens up the possibilities of turning the static understanding of citizenship into a dynamic process of negotiation not restricted by sovereigns. It is precisely this subtle difference between national membership and political citizenship that is central to akaKurdistan.

In akaKurdistan, individuals establish a distance between themselves and the sovereign powers, using the medium of photography. They not only analyze sovereigns’ actions and express the reasons of their distress, but also present themselves performing daily activities and cultural rituals in a Kurdish reality. These photographs cease to be merely photographic events. They enable their subjects to create a space for self-representation that demands engagement and recognition from the viewer; they communicate and distribute claims of visibility and thereby participate in a political community that seeks to redefine the concept of citizenship and its actualization. Consequently, the title akaKurdistan doesn’t refer to a region that exists on the map or a yet-to-be-realized sovereign nation-state. Instead, it serves as a virtual platform for people with shared political, cultural, and social concerns. It constitutes a new space for civic relations, an area of ever-becoming claims by de-territorializing the notion of citizenship.

Susan Meiselas, who joined Magnum Photos in 1976, sees her photographic work as a “point for engagement.”[5] Meiselas is widely known for her documentation of the insurrection in Nicaragua and human rights violations in Latin America. She returned to Nicaragua in the early 1990s to shoot the film Pictures from a Revolution in order to inquire into the aftermath of the insurrection, and in 2004, launched ReFraming History, a public art project in which she collaborated with local communities in Nicaragua to build sites of collective memory. Similarly, through akaKurdistan, Meiselas reconsiders her photographs with the community in which they were taken. In a time when photography and related media are becoming more and more accessible and democratized, Meiselas encourages viewers to question the changing role of image-makers in relation to memory, history, and reconciliation. It seems fairly easy to argue that images, however strong they may be, are not enough to convince third parties to change political realities; but it is also difficult to ignore their strength in mediating self-representations as well as civic negotiations. It is this productive tension that frees the very definition of citizenship from structures of exclusivity.

[1] Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 12.
[2]
Ibid., 31-32.
[3]
Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1958), 301.
[4]
Azoulay, 47-51.
[5]
Audio clip by Susan Meiselas, available on www.susanmeiselas.com. Accessed on January 22, 2011.