Thana Faroq, I don’t recognize me in the shadows

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Lecturis (here). Softcover (23.4 x 31 cm), 168 pages, with 77 color and black and photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by SYB. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2016, Thana Faroq had to leave her home country of Yemen, as the devastating war there led to the contemporary world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Faroq started her career in photography as a photojournalist, and her work was never personal. She used to take photographs on the streets of Sana’a, a place where a woman with a camera is still rather rare. But her experience of leaving Yemen and navigating through the various traumatic changes that came with her departure made her focus on sharing her own story. Faroq found asylum in the Netherlands, where she now lives, and her first photobook titled I don’t recognize me in the shadows reflects on her journey, as she looks back at escaping war torn Yemen, going through the asylum process, becoming a refugee, and facing the unknown. As she recounts her multi-layered tale, she takes on various roles, as a photographer, a storyteller, and also as the person who lived through the experience. 

I don’t recognize me in the shadows is a relatively large softcover book. A stamped envelope with the artist’s name appears on one side of the cover, and the title, slightly raised and in all capital letters, on the other, both placed against a blurry photograph of what looks like a road with lights. The cover has multiple folds, enveloping the book, making it slightly awkward to open – this design decision references Faroq’s journey, which was never easy or comfortable. Inside, most of the photographs are full bleed or placed against black backgrounds, immersing the viewer into their visual narrative.

All of the black and white photographs were taken in refugee camps in the Netherlands. The narrative starts with the two shots of a woman on a swing on a snowy day. She is one of the refugees, and that’s likely the first time in her life she has seen snow. These black and white images were shot in the first refugee camp where Faroq lived for several months. The following shot is a small photo of a man looking out of a window, and we can notice snowflakes lit by the light of this room. The image is placed in the center of the spread and is surrounded with a black background, creating a sense of loneliness and emptiness. The spreads that follow capture people through their windows from afar as they are waiting – a boy laying down on a bed, a mother talking to her child, a baby looking out of the window, women chatting in the kitchen. These images reflect the restrictive lives of these people, a sense of uncertainty and isolation, and also, waiting.

Throughout the book, there are pieces of paper with handwritten notes written by Faroq, also placed against black backgrounds, sharing her feelings, observations, and stories. And there are blurry shots of the road taken from the window of a bus, as Faroq was moved from one camp to another one. One note after reads “I just moved to another camp. God how much I hated living in the last camp.” As Faroq documents her physical and emotional surroundings, she often pays attention to light, capturing it in her photographs – sunlight on an otherwise dark corner of a room, or light coming through the windows. 

Faroq also included various stories of people she met in the camps, and other asylum seekers she encountered during her journey. Their black and white portraits are slightly blurry, shot through glass with drops of water, symbolizing their uncertain and transitory status. The portraits are paired with handwritten notes that they shared with Faroq. The notes are written in different languages (Arabic, English and Dutch) and glued to the pages, adding a tangible and personal element to the story. Their names appear under the notes. “As a refugee I feel that I have to explain myself to everyone around me and show them that I’m just like them, the only difference is they have a safe and secure country when I don’t have,” writes Lula. These notes share fears, struggles, and hopes, giving voice to people whose stories would otherwise remain invisible.

In 2019, Faroq travelled to the Markazi camp in Djibouti, to document Yemeni refugees there who are still waiting for their cases to be processed. These images are in color, and capture tents where the people live and silhouettes of the people. Shots of family photographs people brought with them share precious moments from their lives: a child’s birthday party with a cake, a bride with a woman whose face is scratched, three men on a sofa posing for a photo. These images present stark documentation of the collective trauma being endured and the long lasting power of memories.

I don’t recognize me in the shadows is a striking photobook, as Faroq has transformed her own pain into a powerful visual narrative. A number of excellent photobooks published in the last year explore the complexity of the immigrant experiences – June Canedo captures the story of her family split between Brazil and the United States in Mara Kuya (reviewed here), while Diana Markosian reenacts her family migration story using a soap opera in her photobook Santa Barbara (reviewed here). Faroq’s book brings another perspective to this important conversation, sharing the stories of people who have been forced to leave their homes in countries torn by war and who have gone through a complex and exhausting process of asylum seeking. For Faroq, making this photobook was part of processing her own experience and taking small steps toward healing, and her results intimately bring us into this world of constant uncertainty.

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

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