Antonio Faccilongo, Habibi

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by FotoEvidence (here). Laser-cut cardboard cover, 17×23 cm, unpaginated, with 58 color reproductions. Includes narrower pages with black and white photographs taken from CCTV footage, essays by Dr. Paridah Abd Samad, Sarah Leen, and the artist, a poem by Taha Muhammed Ali, and an array of thumbnails with captions. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Ramon Pez. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the overlooked human consequences of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what has happened to the families of the large numbers of Palestinian men who have been arrested and imprisoned for years at a time. Antonio Faccilongo’s photobook Habibi aims to tell at least part of that story, and what Faccilongo finds is not just the loneliness, absence, and fragmented families and communities we might have predicted, but also powerful threads of hope, love, and stubborn resistance that continue to hold people together.

Habibi takes the perspective of the Muslim women left behind, documenting their everyday lives, and to a lesser extent, those of their children. And even though his position as a European man might make some question his ability to tell this particular story well, Faccilongo has clearly engaged these women with patience, tenderness, and respect, earning their trust enough to be slowly let inside their private lives. (Faccilongo has repeatedly attempted to visit with the imprisoned men as well, but has yet to be given access to the prisoners by the Israeli government (after years of trying), leaving him with just one side of split narrative.)

Faccilongo consistently uses windows and women looking outward as motifs for the absence of their husbands and the expectation of their eventual return. Women stand in empty kitchens, peer at unslept-in beds, stare longingly out at the Dead Sea, look hopefully at open doors, and lie in bed awake, always alone with their thoughts. Other images use the windows more actively, either with a woman looking out or through the glass, or veiled by hanging curtains and dappled shadows, the fabric often billowing out as though possessed by some magical force. These pictures sensitively, and indirectly, document the ongoing separation and deprivation that is taking place.

The men in these families are seen only through pictures of pictures. Some homes feature framed portraits, heroic posters, and other formal shrines to the missing men, and painted murals and graffiti in the streets offer more public memorials and remembrances. Faccilongo then goes further to show us more symbolic presences: shadows, ghosts, an empty hanging suit and shoes, disembodied footprints in cement, and various handmade gifts (cardboard boats, small paintings, decorated letters) made by the men while imprisoned. He balances these with clustered pages of misty black and white screen captures and archival imagery (printed on transparent paper), finally giving us faces that we can identify, but clouding them to the point that they seem to dissolve and disappear.

Faccilongo tags along on some of the visits that the wives make to their husbands in prison, making images that not only document the long and often difficult journey through the desert to the prison (by bus or car), but capture the divided landscape that now confronts them. Several of his photographs peer though barred fences or netting, amplifying the sense of separation, while others show the divisions between rural and modern, developed and undeveloped, that are obvious when seen from afar.

About a third of the way through the photobook, an image is presented that upends the narrative in an unexpected way. It’s a photograph of an unwrapped chocolate bar sitting on a tile floor, crossed by the shadows of window blinds or bars, and hidden inside is a long thin vial filled with a milky liquid and stoppered with pieces of aluminum foil. The images that follow show us a baby in a hospital incubator, a mother with her newborn, and the bent legs of two young babies, and we then start to piece together what is going on – the husbands are hiding their semen and secretly passing to their wives during the prison visits, and the wives are taking that semen and using it for in-vitro fertilization (IVF), thereby becoming pregnant and having babies.

So Habibi becomes an against the odds love story, where couples are conceiving children through the only means available to them. Faccilongo documents this commitment to family with attentiveness, and when we see children in the images in the rest of the book, we now understand that they are the product of this unconventional process. For the women, the challenges of raising the children on their own (as many of the men are serving life sentences) are many, but what comes through in the photographs is a sense of quiet bravery, resistance, and even protest, the human power of love driving the wives to take such a risky path.

Many of the photographs in the latter half of Habibi show us these children who are growing up without fathers. Most of the pictures have an undercurrent of sorrowful poignancy – a child’s finger tracing a heart on a fogged window, a mother with her child at the playground, a young boy crying while hiding behind a gauzy curtain, another reading with a flashlight in bed, a young girl in a tutu, a boy on a bicycle, and a family reading a picture book underneath the portrait of the father on the wall above them. Each of these scenes feels empty in one way or another, the absence of the father lingering invisibly in the air – there is hope to be found in this younger generation, but it is undeniably tinged with sadness.

As a photobook object, Habibi has been thoughtfully designed and constructed. Notable design elements include a laser cut cover, turning the letters of the title into a see-through barred window to an image underneath; the interleaved black and white transparent pages, flanked by stanzas of poetry, and a thumbnail array at the back, with detailed image captions that deepen our understanding of the families in the photographs. Faccilongo’s color photographs wander across the spreads, moving from small square format images to larger pictures that cross the gutter and run to the edges, creating movement with each page turn. And the back cover includes the phrase “in itself was a kind of revenge,” an allusion that only really hits home once we know the IVF backstory.

What resonates for me in this photobook is its persistent commitment to seeing universal humanity in this unlikely situation. It largely strips away the complex politics of the conflict and reaches deeper to the stories of separated husbands and wives who still want families, regardless of the impracticality of the circumstances. In this way, Habibi is a sympathetic, and often heart wrenching, tale of overcoming adversity, albeit in the most modern of ways.

Collector’s POV: Antonio Faccilongo does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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