Witnesses to Revolutions



Revolucion(es): From the Frontlines to the Walls

Exhibition at Instituto Cervantes, New York City, April 28th – May 7th, 2011



A man’s face is blown off. It lies there on the ground; it could be an old Halloween mask. I immediately want to turn away, but I am perplexed by what is in front of me. I know it is real. These are the remains of a pilot found near the wreckage of a Libyan fighter jet, but it is too far from my reality to truly comprehend.


“I did it out of love for photography,” said Matthew Craig, co-curator of Revolucion(es),when I asked him how the exhibit came about. Craig and Julien Jourdes cobbled together a brilliant exhibition that combines the pictorial stories we see in the news every day with those that don’t always find a place on the front page.  We see in these indelible images of revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa Libyan rebels under crossfire and protesters claiming their rights in Cairo.  We also see the masses of refugees and foreign workers fleeing Libya, the faces of injured survivors, and the exhaustion of a doctor attending an array of gruesome wounds.


One image does not convey the entire story, but it does provide a unique perspective; the many images captured by different photographers begin to paint a landscape of revolutionary moments for those so far from the turmoil. “Once a picture is taken or a word is written it is already old news. There seems to be no way to catch up, as the database of history is filed before it is processed. And as a result I have become more confused,” states photographer Michael Christopher Brown in an essay describing what it’s like to be on the frontlines of the Libyan conflict.  “But I can attest to one reality, shown in these photographs. They form a loose record of my experience during the war in Libya.”


While Revolucion(es) features images from the Arab Spring, it is also about honoring those who stubbornly traverse the world inserting themselves in to the most dangerous of conflicts to gather evidence. It is for those who scramble to capture the images that haunt us, inspire us, anger us—the images that give us glimpses into chaos unfolding on the other side of the globe.  What makes this exhibit unique is that it was presented while these conflicts continue to rage with no end in sight. In fact, most of the photographers in the exhibition are still in the field.  Revolucion(es) is a unique tribute to bodies of work that are still being constructed.


The curators asked thirteen independent photographers[1] working in Africa and the Middle East to submit what they each considered their best work from the recent conflicts; many of these images had never been seen before and had not been picked up by any of the major news outlets.


"From all the material that was sent to us we chose the photos that would create a representation of each country to give you a sense of what is going on in the region now and how the situations have evolved in the past months. These images were created independently of editors or clients—they are the essence of documentary photography, created out of one vision and one lens," says Jourdes.


The photographers vary in style, approach, and technique. Some of these images are personal and intimate, displaying extreme raw emotions, fear, ecstasy, and despair. There is a constant duel between extreme joy and deep sadness. Samuel Aranda, for example, gets a close up shot of an anti-Mubarak demonstrator receiving first aid after a day of clashes in Tahrir square, his face is framed by caring hands attending to him; we can see his anguish. Conversely, Andy Rocchelli captures the ecstatic celebration of Libyan rebels after a day’s fight. For her part, Katie Orlinsky captures alleged mercenaries held by rebel forces in Al Jadabiyah, Libya. Her photograph is not about the frame or the composition, it is about the sheer expression of fear in the eyes of these young men.


Through artful composition that turns the chaos and consequences of these conflicts into art, some of the photographs are able to keep the viewer at a safe remove. We are drawn in and become curious, but we don’t have to face the danger implied in the images. A lonely van sits in the Egyptian border town of Sallum. Without context, it is just a lonely van in the center of David Degner’s frame. The caption reveals that the vehicle is full of migrant-workers fleeing from Libya. In the forefront of one of Gabriele Stabile’s photographs, newly arrived refugees carry a mattress and a tent to settle in the refugee camp in the background. We learn that there are thousands of foreign workers in need of shelter in Libya’s boarder countries.


It seems that every week we hear of another news publication shutting down and its journalists losing their jobs.  Photographers seem to be the first to go.  Still, despite their own economic pressures, photojournalists continue to travel to the world’s most remote, dangerous corners, hunting for the stories that must be told.  Yes, some war photographers are adrenaline junkies and need to feel and see war upfront and personal to get their fixes, but such desires should not detract from the importance of their work.


In April, days before the exhibit was set to open, a group of photojournalist was hit by a mortar attack during fighting between Muammar Gaddafi's forces and Libyan rebels in the city of Misrata. Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown, both of whom have work in Revolucion(es) were injured. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were not so lucky. The exhibit opened while family and friends mourned.  The show took on new meaning as a celebration of the work that Hetherington and Hondros left behind, and the work so many journalists keep doing, despite the fact that they have everything to lose.



1. The photographers represented were: Ricardo García Vilanova and Samuel Aranda (Spain); Bryan Denton, Michael Christopher Brown, David Degner, Katie Orlinsky and Nicole Tung (USA); Mathias Depardon (France); Gabriele Micalizzi, Andy Rocchelli, Gabriele Stabile and Luca Santese (Italy/ Cesuralab Collective); Guy Martin (UK).



Libya, Tunisia, Journalism, Egypt