We’re kicking off 2017 by interviewing Amman-based documentary photographer Nadia Bseiso. An internationally-exhibited artist, Nadia focuses on long-term projects and currently works with several regionally and internationally-based NGOs. We’re sitting with Nadia to learn more about her trajectory as a photographer, from her focus on storytelling and human rights to her recent and upcoming photo projects.
Gulf Photo Plus: How did you get started in photography?
Nadia Bseiso: I was introduced to documentary photography when I was in Florence, Italy where I completed a degree in photography in 2011, a medium that seemed very natural to me. I developed a relationship with light and became fascinated with it. Going with my instincts, I focused on projects that were socially concerned.
GPP: Your work has a distinct emphasis on visual storytelling and human rights. What drove you to become so passionate about this genre and using your lens to tell these stories?
NB: Growing up, I used to love cutting pictures from magazines and newspapers. I spent hours making collages. Fascinated by the colors and concerned by the content, the images I found usually depicted war and injustice. I kept on thinking: “Something is not right”. I was puzzled by all the contradictions. My first real art project was matching each article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with photographs that portrayed the opposite. Unfortunately, they were plenty. It was my mind’s way of understanding the world around me. At the time, I did not know that I would be documenting this contrast myself, years later.
GPP: What got you started documenting energy consumption in the Middle East in your series OilMill?
NB: In 2015, I went back to Italy, this time for an artist residency. I was sent by Darat Al Funun in Jordan to Fondazione Fotografia in Modena. It was a turning point for me personally. I decided to shoot in Medium format film again, something that I used to enjoy and felt was missing in my daily life. I went back to Jordan with my mind set on developing a personal project revolving around the concept of borders and identity. The OilMill project was a result of a collaboration with Italian artist Daniele Casciari, whom I had met earlier that year in Italy. We thought it would be interesting to try to develop a new form of visual narrative.
GPP: What has the collaborative process looked like for you and Daniele Casciari, and how has the project developed?
NB: As two photographers with different approaches, working simultaneously in the same scene, we wanted to create another point of view by dismantling our own ways of seeing and questioning the authenticity of what is the truth. Using analogue photography, colored and black and white film, we released the work from a sense of urgency, giving it time to develop at its own pace. With the OilMill project we wanted to provoke the viewer to think by challenging preconceptions in general and putting into question what constitutes the “real” Middle East. The multilayered nature of the project allows us to be subtler, comparing the exhausted Middle Eastern land to a drained oil mill, trenched by constant wars and turmoil. The play with words in our title is in reference to two types of oils: crude oil and olive oil. When we think of the Middle East, we think of crude oil: an important commodity sought by governments that control its production and distribution. Ironically, it is considered as one of the reasons why the Middle East has gone into a downward spiral. Olive oil, on the other hand, is forgotten as an integral part of every Mediterranean man's life. With its production line and harvesting, it falls back in second place. The OilMill project puts these two natural resources on the front line and takes a closer look at the olive oil industry as an example of how man can become chained to energy. Looking at the olive oil cycle and the people working in it, we follow the path of the ancient olive tree. The first stage of this project was completed in Jordan. Next, we will be going to Lebanon and Palestine.
GPP: How are you hoping to share the project once it is completed?
NB: The project will be presented in a traveling exhibition and will be available in book format in 2018.
GPP: We can’t wait to get our hands on that book! Are there any other projects coming up in your creative pipeline?
NB: Infertile Crescent.
GPP: That’s an attention-grabbing title. What is the impetus behind this project?
NB: For me personally, the Arab world was always connected by an invisible umbilical chord, a bond beyond language and culture. Despite man-made borders, whatever happened around us over the years was close to home. While working on the OilMill project, I started to develop another long-term personal project called Infertile Crescent which is what I am currently working on as a grantee of the Arab Documentary Photography Program, funded by The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in partnership with Magnum Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund. As another interpretation of the New Middle East, Infertile Crescent describes the reality of what was once called the cradle of civilization - now burning in turmoil - by documenting the 180 km route of the controversial Red-Dead Sea “salvation pipeline” that is meant to supply Jordan with much needed water, and by tracing the places it will cross. The project argues that man’s maternal relation to land makes him directly affected by the region's political unrest and water deficiencies.
Learn more about Nadia’s work here.
Learn more about the OilMill project here.