Moises Saman, Glad Tidings of Benevolence

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by GOST Books (here). Softcover (195 x 26 cm), with 384 pages, and 200 duotone and 4 color reproductions. Includes essays by Sinan Antoon. In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Moises Saman has spent the past two decades documenting conflict zones around the world, shuttling between hot spots like Afghanistan, Haiti, Nepal, the former Soviet Union, Lebanon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But over that time, Iraq has been his primary subject; invited by the government of Saddam Hussein to cover the presidential referendum in 2002, he started working there (as a newspaper photographer) just before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Saman was one of the few journalists who documented the initial bombing campaign in Baghdad, and he returned nearly every subsequent year to continue capturing the ever evolving situation on the ground. Over the years, his work has covered both the U.S. occupation and withdrawal, periods of ethnic cleansing and displacement, various humanitarian crises, persistent governance issues, the rise and fall of ISIS, and more. His images capture a state of near continuous conflict, with multiple players and interests, reflecting a highly complex narrative of both war and peace.

The release of Saman’s new photobook Glad Tidings of Benevolence coincides with the twentieth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And just like with his earlier self-published book Discordia (reviewed here), which focused on the political tensions and transformations of the Arab Spring, Saman wanted use his extensive archive to reflect on his experiences in a less literal and direct way. “I was in Iraq to report “objectively” on the war. Collecting my photographs from two decades there, I wanted to expose the constraints of my perspective.” The resulting book is deeply personal, and an endeavor to grasp his own role in the war’s narrative.

Glad Tidings of Benevolence is a relatively heavy book of nearly four hundred pages. The title and the artist’s name are placed on the black cover with parts lightly laminated, making it intentionally a bit hard to immediately discern the words. Its design recalls redactions in confidential information, and as used throughout the book, these blackouts encourage us to think critically. Inside, the narrative is constructed using photographs, archival materials, military documents, and texts (often placed across images), reflecting the layered and competing narratives of the war. The title of the book and its chapters refer to the thousands of code names used by the U.S. military, and many read like action movie titles, like “Demon Digger”, “‘Iron Reaper”, and “Rogue Thunder”. The captions, with dates, locations, and short descriptions, appear at the very end of the book, so as not to interrupt our initial engagement with the visual narrative, as we piece it together for ourselves.

The book has a complex narrative. It opens with an image depicting the Garden of Eden, part of mural Saman found in a destroyed home in Mosul in 2018. The photographs that follow document a fall from that grace, a parade of horror, destruction, loss, and pain gathered over twenty years, including images of dead bodies, injured children, demolished cities, burning places, crying people, and graveyards. Unlike many other photojournalists, Saman didn’t spend much time with the military during his years in Iraq, instead putting his attention on civilians and their daily lives. Above all, this book is about the people of Iraq, and Saman hopes that his photographs reflect the “human dignity of the Iraqis most affected by the conflict.”

Fragments of text are threaded throughout the book, and their inclusion represents various attempts to shape the narrative. A full spread photo documenting decomposed human remains at an exhumation of a mass grave in 2004 is followed by a page with text reading ”You know that I believe in you” on the left, and “Lead me into war..” continued on the right, the quotes coming from the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, during a meeting with US president George W. Bush in 2003. The redaction style design is used here again.

In another photograph, a man in a suit, tie, and dress shoes walks to work, while the chaos of the war, including destroyed buildings and crashed military vehicles, is behind him. The image speaks to the realities of life in a war zone, and the text placed across the photograph in three cut out lines is a quote from Saddam Hussein, “Don’t be attached to easy paths / because the paths that make your feet bleed / are the only way to get ahead in life”. In another image, a distressed woman searches for her children, with the flames of devastating fire in the background. 

Saman’s work is filled with rich humanity. A series of black and white portraits of burn victims shows them facing the camera. One of them shows a woman named Sarah holding a small mirror, her hand deformed by burns; she was severely burned when her family home in Ramadi was hit by an airstrike. A couple of pages later there is a portrait of Omar, a teenager, who also suffered severe burns during an explosion. A full spread showing various prosthetic limbs in the Reconstructive Surgery Hospital follows soon after. As seen in these and other images, Saman’s photographs underline that life in Iraq is as valuable as in other parts of the world. 

The book ends with an essay “Is the fire still burning?” by Saman’s wife. The title refers to a fire in their home in Boston, but also to the ongoing conflict in Iraq and a family trauma. With this question, she considers the chain of her own life, her mother’s life, and now also her daughter’s. The closing full spread image shows a man walking across the desert, followed by the second part of the initial Garden of Eden mural, making a full circle, with hope that one day the country will return to the glories of its past. 

The work of American photojournalist Peter van Agtmael, who spent two decades following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, similarly expands the definitional edges of documentary photojournalism. In his series of photobooks (reviewed here, here, and here), the usually rigid outsider/insider divide intermingles, as he brings his own reflections into the storytelling.

The audience for Glad Tidings of Benevolence is definitely those who indulge in active reading, and who are intrigued by unconventional narrative structures. Saman has carefully constructed his multi-layered narrative, thoughtfully using various tools and encouraging us to expand our perception and understanding of the events. It is a complex book that requires not only reading and seeing, but critically approaching the presented material. As an integrated artistic statement, this photobook is a sophisticated exercise in reinterpreting an artist’s own body of work. It stands as a call to “reframe and redefine the stories we tell about violence, conflict and human dignity.”

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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