Moises Saman, Discordia

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2016 (here). Hardcover, with 127 color and black and white photographs, 4 collages (by Daria Birang), and 1 composite. Includes several texts by the artist. In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Moises Saman is a documentary photographer known for his coverage of conflict zones. He was one of the first to reach northern Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and one of the few journalists who documented Baghdad during the bombing campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Saman has spent the past four years (2011-2015) working on assignments for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time across Middle East, documenting the events surrounding the Arab Spring in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

After piling up nearly constant travel between various Middle Eastern countries documenting the ongoing political tensions and transformations, Saman felt the need to reflect on his experiences in a less literal and direct way. Looking back, he realized that “over these years, the many revolutions overlapped and in my mind became one blur, one story in itself”. So Saman went back through his thousands of pictures, editing and sequencing them into a new, more ambiguous visual storyline. He deliberately stepped away from the obvious newsworthy images, selecting quieter shots, often just before or after main action or event. The result is powerful self-published photobook entitled Discordia, which embodies Saman’s intention to “create a new narrative that combined the multitude of voices, emotions, and the lasting uncertainty I felt”.

The title of the book refers to the Greek goddess of chaos, alluding to the similarities between classical Greek tragedy and the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring. Discordia doesn’t offer a factual account of the protests and their aftermath, or follow a comprehensive chronological storyline. Instead, its complex and nuanced narrative unfolds through meticulously arranged photographs intentionally stripped of their location, time period, and context. There are no page numbers or guiding captions accompanying the images, leading the photographs to merge into one long stream of consciousness. (Thumbnails with dates, locations, and short descriptions do appear at the very end of the book as if challenging our vision and helping to put all the pieces together.)

The complex visual flow of the photobook is constructed using multiple foldouts, juxtapositions, daring comparisons, and diverse layouts. Saman collaborated with the Dutch-Iranian artist Daria Birang, who created several collages using Saman’s photographs. These works reinforce a nuanced interplay between documentary photography and art. The subjects are literally cut out of their context, and their already expressive body language becomes even more explicit when isolated. Protestors are shown throwing objects, kicking, running away, and gesticulating, the repetition of these gestures and their energy found in numerous events Saman photographed. Placed inside fold outs, the collages add a surprise element to the book experience, and reinforce its thought-provoking non-linear narrative.

The first image in the book appears on its end paper, depicting a man inside a stone structure with his hand to his mouth, shooting. Saman constructs his narrative by mixing images of rebels and intense moments after clashes with shots of everyday life and quiet landscapes. The back-and-forth flow creates a certain dynamic rhythm, the quietly overwhelming tension building in waves.

Saman generates this intensity by carefully pairing images and incorporating sequences of photographs taken moments apart. One photograph shows a young man on the ground in an uncomfortable position, pressing a scarf to his head with another two men running his way. The following spread has two images (seconds apart) of a man as he holds a rock on a street damaged by recent fighting. The next spread is a full bleed black and white photograph taken moments after a clash: people are on the streets pausing to clear their eyes, pick up another stone, or look around. The subsequent gatefold opens to a dense collage of protesters. Discordia does this again and again – outlining the fragments of real moments, and then connecting them together into a larger, more subtle picture.

In another series of four small images, Saman photographs a mother when she sees the body of her son. As we move from one image to another, witnessing her tragedy and sorrow, Saman forces us to stay in this moment and share its hopelessness. The weight of death is a recurring theme, from funerals of fallen rebels and the tortured body of a young man, to a slaughtered camel sacrificed in celebration of Eid.

As a photobook, Discordia is an elegantly crafted object – well conceived and thoughtfully designed. A series of short essays by the artist at the end of the book adds another personal element to the narrative. They reveal more about Saman’s encounters with people and situations, and provide a window into some of his reactions.

In the end, Saman’s Discordia is an excellent example of how the photobook form can be used to reconsider and reframe a body of work. In mindfully blurring the line between photojournalism and art, he has stepped back from objectivity and brought a personal vision to the storytelling. The book is an honest reflection of Saman’s convoluted experience, a very intimate (and likely cathartic) record of his long engagement with the region. Discordia grasps the intensity of the period and offers up the whole range of vividly personal emotions being on the ground elicited. It’s a book of conflicted experiences, delivered with a rawness that is hauntingly memorable. Moises Saman’s Discordia, with its powerful narrative and thoughtful execution, stands out as one of the strongest photobooks published so far this year.

Collector’s POV: Moises Saman is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a full member in 2014. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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