6 / 10 / 2023
This interview is the first of what will be a series of interviews with members of the AFAC community; grantees, mentors, trainers, partners, and consultants. It was conducted with Algerian visual artist and photographer Abdo Shanan in spring 2023 via zoom, by Rana Kobeissi and Nouran Hatem from the AFAC communications team. The encounter focuses on Shanan's photo project and self-published book "Dry", which questions notions of national identity and belonging.
About the project
“Who am I?” A question that Shanan asked himself after returning to Algeria in 2009, when he had to face, for the first time, the reality that he was not only Algerian. This project is about asking this question along with many others that are the result of Shanan’s reflections on belonging, nationality and identity.
Nouran Hatem: If we were to draw a line from Diary: Exile, the first project that I encountered, to Dry, we would see that they are both intimate projects in a way, that they have this intimate edge. In Diary: Exile, one of the protagonists is your grandmother. We were wondering how you build this intimate relationship with your protagonists – whether they are family members or strangers — to be able to capture such moments and to share these emotions?
Abdo Shanan: First of all, Diary: Exile is very personal. It is literally a diary and was even more so especially in the beginning. There was nothing really done to prepare the protagonist or anybody to be photographed. It was more of a spontaneous gesture to just take pictures of moments — how I felt these moments, more than the moments themselves. I also have to clarify that when Diary: Exile started, it didn’t start as the project we have right now. It started with me trying to document the life of my grandmother who was suffering from memory loss. I didn’t know that I was actually documenting myself. It made sense because my grandmother was a big part of my life. And at the time, I was spending a lot of time with her. I was the one keeping an eye on her. So she automatically became the main character in Diary: Exile as she was the main character in my personal life.
For strangers, it is like a domino effect. The whole process of photographing always starts with people I know: friends, family. Then it extends to their own circle of friends and family and then onto complete strangers little by little. When people accept to be photographed, I feel like they are open. I don’t know how or why, but it is amazing. For a moment, the person in front of you is a complete stranger, and then, twenty minutes later, they become another person who will give you a very intimate part of their life. It’s like you’re on a bus and start talking to a stranger. And twenty seconds later you are talking about your personal life with somebody you don’t know and you will never meet again.
Photography has this power, but I think it is a human power. It’s not just photography. Let’s be honest. It’s a very human process. There are no artistic tricks in what I did. It is purely human.
Rana Kobeissi: Alienation is a dominant theme in your work. In the text accompanying the images that make up Diary: Exile, you write "I refuse to vanish in a crowd of broken dreams. I will not merge with the grays." What is the relationship between Diary: Exile and Dry in their treatment of alienation? Should we understand them as a thematic progression?
AS: Actually, the two projects are connected. Diary: Exile is the first step toward Dry. Diary: Exile is very personal. It is centered around me and my surroundings. It was a step toward getting out of my comfort zone to take those questions that I was asking myself in Diary to other people. At the end of Diary: Exile, I understood something that was very important for me, that the intense feelings of alienation I was exploring in that project had a wider resonance in the people and world around me. This is what led me to actually get out of my comfort zone and to go meet all those people who are like me to different degrees. Some of them are, you know, completely inside this idea of alienation, and some of them are less, very much less, but I can say that all these people had done their own work toward thinking about their belonging, their roots and where they stand in terms of society or territory.
Similarly, when Dry started, it wasn’t the project that I have right now. It started with very basic questions. I was the naïve person, you know, entering a jungle. It was like: yes, let’s hike even if I wasn’t prepared for this. But that project actually made me the person I am today. It helped me find the ground I am standing on now. It is multi-layered. I think every artist’s project is multi-layered in a sense. At least, that is how I perceive things.
NH: It is very interesting to hear that you didn’t think about it at the intellectual level, that you didn’t anticipate it developing like that. When did you come to the realization: oh, I am making something that is a bigger project? Because, the impression I have from what you said, is that you didn’t have an editorial or intellectual starting point at the beginning. When did it all fall into place? Can you say something about the process of the book itself coming together?
AS: Actually, it started with questions I always asked myself: what does being Algerian mean to you? What/ who is an Algerian? Do you feel like belonging where we are right now? I had a general criteria for the type of people I wanted to meet and what to do: black and white pictures; an island, portraits and colors. I wanted them to be posed in a certain way. The realization that I was working on a coherent project actually came bit by bit. It didn’t come all at once. I was meeting these people over the course of several years. We were having conversations, and, within these conversations, I was learning something, either about them or about me or about where I live. And I think that’s the power of actually listening, the power of conversations. I was taking notes and recording my interviews with them. And then I had the chance to listen to them again, to read the notes again. It was like a layer of research. If we take out the photography aspect, this is part of being a researcher. You have a lot of questions over time. You try to find differences, try to read, try to listen to podcasts or videos. And then there was a moment. One of the highlights for the work was the moment when I read Karima Lazali’s book Colonial Trauma. At the time, it was only in French. I’m a slow reader in French. So I read the first two pages. And then the moment hits me. I understood that everything I learned, everything I was feeling has a scientific definition. That was actually that made me be like: ah, okay. Because I had felt that there was something at play every time I finished a conversation. And then I read those two pages, and was, like, ah okay, somebody has done dome work on this and actually they have a definition for this. So that’s where everything took its final shape. It started with very simple questions of belonging and ended with colonial trauma. That’s a wide spectrum, but it makes sense because during those five years of work, I grew up. I learned. I’m less naïve now. And I think one of the things that helped me build the project to where it is right now is that I wasn’t rigid with what I wanted at the time. I wasn’t determined to have things in a certain way or direction. I felt the need to be in an open space, because I didn’t feel that, in my actual life, I had an open space to be free. And I thought that I could create that within my work. I always think, what’s the point of artistic practice if it is bound by rules of everyday life. We need to find some kind of freedom within our practice. Otherwise, we are just repeating the same mistakes of our reality.
NH: How did you reach the idea that you want to self-publish rather than going to a certain publishing house or a certain institution? What were the challenges you faced? If you were to tell someone who is going through the process of self-publishing, what were some of the things you wish you’d been told in the beginning?
AS: Actually, I felt like there was a need for me to learn about the process itself, you know, for book making. I thought it was, like, a duty for me to understand how it works, because I think there is a knowledge that we can share. If I rely on a publisher, the publisher will keep the knowledge to themself. I know this publisher was my friend, and I could ask him questions later and all of that, but it’s not like I have the knowledge myself. It’s not like I know how it works. So, what I wish somebody told me before I started is that it’s really difficult. It’s really hard. There are a lot of things to take into consideration, but, at the same time, I learned a lot. I gained a lot. I was lucky to have people around me who helped, starting with Roï Saade, who was an incredible designer for the book and who brought a lot of ideas to the table and made the book the way it is now. I’m thankful to him for this, as much as to the many other people who were there, with their opinions, with their contexts, with just support; and that helped a lot. But also, there is the making of the book itself, which is the artistic process, which is great. I love it. And then there’s the part where you become the commercial. Then there’s the part where you become the commercial. You travel a lot. You travel with the books. You grow new muscles in your shoulders because you’re carrying the books in your backpack. I realized it was very simple actually. Once you have the book, it is straightforward: you go to the bookstores and you just present your book. And then either they take it or not, but most of the time they take the book. I also learned the importance of going to book fairs. I tried to go to book fairs as much as I could. I tried to develop relationships with bookstores and publishers, not to publish with them, but to know them, to know what they do, the process they have. I think we have a responsibility, as a generation, to share this knowledge, to pass it on.
There isn’t much going on in our region in terms of book publishing. We have books coming out, but we always rely on the North. So the knowledge is always North. We need to give importance to the South a little bit. What I also found interesting was how humane it was as a process. I thought it would be very commercial. We would talk about money, how to sell the book, but it was very humane. And you felt those relationships being built. After two photography book fairs, you start recognizing the faces and the faces start recognizing me, and I am suddenly no longer the stranger with his black book trying to show it to everybody. I loved it. It was a discovery for me, but it was hard.
RK: To what extent has the Arab Documentary Photography Program, and its community, contributed to boosting Dry, to forging connections?
AS: The Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP) goes beyond the mentoring itself and the knowledge you acquire. There’s the family and networking that is embedded within ADPP, which was something important for me.
I built many friendships within ADPP: with M'hammed Kilito, Shaima Al Tamimi, Tasneem Alsultan. And they are all over the region, not just in my home country or the country next door. You know that you have as a set family and friends that you can rely on, and that’s what happened, for example, with Roï, who is an ADPP alumnus, as well. This year, we launched Crossroads, the photography training program, which is supported by AFAC as well. With Crossroads, Roï took part as a mentor. We also had ADPP grantee Sara Salam as a presenter for her book “At Last, I Hold Your Gaze”. I am benefiting from this network, and it is also allowing others who are not part of this ADPP universe to benefit from it. I found it important and amazing to come to Beirut in 2018 not knowing anybody, and, now, in 2023, these friendships allowed me to build links between young photographers in my country and photographers all over the region, all because of ADPP. For Crossroads, for my book, that’s where it contributed, because we learned what AFAC support entails. You have an institution or a program that helps you not only evolve as a photographer with one project but also evolve your own practice and your own process of thinking and most importantly help you build relationships within the region. Before I started working with other photographers, we were Algerian photographers in Algeria. Egyptian photographers in Egypt. And we were more concerned about the North, and what was going on in the North, not knowing much about what was going around us. I had a discussion with an Indian photographer Soumya Sankar Bose in Geneva last year. We talked about how much we have to rely on Europe to meet as South-South practitioners. We never meet in the South. But if we look at the ADPP experience in that regard, it provides us the chance to actually meet in the region, and that’s very important. It’s just a starting point, I don’t know what’s going to happen in ten years, twenty years. That’s something I look forward to seeing.