September 10 to October 10, 2015
In contemporary conflicts, there is no epic without iPhones and Samsungs. Talking, taking pictures, and communication via smartphones have given rise to new social forms of grassroots participation and political activism, such as the Arab Spring mobilizations and the Ushahidi (“testimony” or “witness” in Swahili) platform, by making it possible to map out vital information in areas experiencing disasters or conflicts. Liam Maloney has set out to highlight a more personal, heartbreaking side of the story by pointing his lens at people who are trying to keep in touch with loved ones from whom they have been separated by war.
“In Lebanon, thirty minutes south of the Syrian border, sixteen refugee families live in tents erected within a disused slaughterhouse,” recounts the artist. “At night, they get on their mobile phones and text home, hoping for news from friends and relatives still trapped along the front lines of the civil war. I photographed them in the dark, their faces lit only by the glow of the screens. With the squalor of their surroundings mercifully cloaked in darkness, they could be us, outside a club, checking our messages – but their communiqués are matters of life and death. Texting Syria (2014) is an installation exploring not only the struggles and strengths of Syrian refugees, but also the multi-faceted nature of connectivity in the digital age.”
Liam Maloney was born in Montreal in 1975; he lives and works in Toronto. He was shortlisted for the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize in 2014 and for the Lindalee Tracey Award in 2010, and he won a gold medal at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards in 2011. His installation Texting Syria (2014) was exhibited at the Images – Festival des Arts Visuels de Vevey (2014), the Photoville in Brooklyn (2014), and at the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Festival in Toronto (2014). This work was nominated for Picture Story of the Year 2014 by the News Photographers Association of Canada. As a documentary photographer and videographer, he has spent recent years documenting refugee life in the Middle East and East Africa. His works have appeared in The Guardian, the National Post, Vice, and Mother Jones, on Discovery Channel, Global, and CBC, and in the White Ribbon Campaign. He is represented by Polaris Images.
Interview with Liam Maloney
GENERAL QUESTIONS ON THE ARTIST’S CREATIVE PROCESS
What is your artistic process ? What is your starting point for creating a new work of art ? What inspires you ?
The starting point for creating new work is always meticulous, detailed research on the issue I am interested in exploring. What is the historical context? What is unseen? What themes exist beneath the surface?
Which artist had the most influence on your pratice and why?
My practice as a documentary photographer is strongly influenced by the work of Tim Hetherington, whose ideas about visual storytelling helped me search for natural intersections between journalistic work and more conceptual approaches.
Luc Delahaye is another photographer who grappled with the distinctions between fine art and photojournalism and created work that considers the nature of photographs as historical record.
Do you work on many projects at the same time ?
I work on multiple projects at the same time.
If you were not an artist, what would you be ?
I was a musician for ten years before I picked up a camera.
If I wasn’t an artist… wait, who said I was an artist?
ART WORLD RELATED QUESTIONS
What work of art do you wish you owned ?
I’m currently in love with Canadian artist John Player’s paintings of secret sites and drone strikes.
What is the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery ?
The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in a gallery? Nothing really comes to mind. Nothing weirder than real life, anyways.
The Internet can be thought of as a universal mirror in which the paths of our experience keep on forking: we can decide to exist and act in the tangible world, or in the virtual world, in which case the screen becomes the permeable membrane that affords us passage between one side and the other.
But in re-examining our notion of reality, we must also reconsider the meaning of the documentary genre as such. We can speculate, in deliberately tautological fashion, on the basis of two hypotheses, one holding that reality is what appears on our screens, which act as an interface between subject and object, and the other that in documenting the world in the form of images, we are actually generating more reality.
What do you think about new means of communication used on smartphones, tablets and other devices in relation to the representation of conflict ?
War and technology have always been intertwined. Smartphones have proven invaluable to refugees seeking to share intel and coordinate meetings. They are used to distribute aid to populations that would otherwise be difficult to access. They are used to alert migrants to checkpoints, hot zones and new developments in the battlespace. They are used to share information about wounded or dead relatives and the threat levels in neighborhoods under siege. They are also used to post information about war crimes and human rights violations. They are vulnerable to security breaches that can threaten the lives of citizen journalists, activists and civilians. Finally, they can be a tool for spreading false or misleading information and state propaganda.
There is no question that smartphones have had an immense impact of our understanding of contemporary conflict. There is a risk that as we are inundated with this new data, we can develop a sort of technological myopia - the historical context becomes obscured by the repetitive minutiae of human suffering. Out of this comes an inability to act decisively to address grave humanitarian crises.
QUESTIONS RELATED TO HIS WORK
What has brought you to photographing and picturing the lives of refugees for Texting Syria?
I have been documenting the Syrian refugee crisis since 2013. The world has not seen forced migrations on this scale since the end of World War II. The sheer number of people displaced by this conflict and by the resulting regional instability is almost incomprehensible. Photographs can help, but conventional representations of the suffering do not seem to awaken the kind of compassion that can lead to policy change and concrete action. I was interested in telling a quiet story - a hidden story - that would connect the crisis to people back home.
How was your project received by the refugees? How did they react to being photographed?
I spent a lot of time listening to the people I photographed, trying to understand what they had been through and where they saw themselves going. Unsurprisingly, they want the same things we all want for our families - security, stability, opportunity and community. They were incredibly open and very graciously gave me access to tell their stories.
Is your project staged photography?
None of my photographs are staged. Staging photographs in a documentary context is completely unethical. When you are documenting real people with real problems, you have a moral obligation to photograph the situations in front of you as truthfully as you can. People are not props. These photographs were taken late at night, outside of the building where the refugees had taken shelter. They were talking, smoking and drinking tea, and of course, checking their messages, watching news clips and communicating with family and friends.
What does interactivity bring to your exhibition as visitors can send a text message to a number and receive some messages exchanged by refugees in Lebanon?
Interactivity is an important component of the installation. Receiving these sometimes banal, occasionally urgent texts on your own phone brings the conflict home to viewers, and leaves them with all these two or three line stories that they then carry around in their pocket.
Is the soundtrack that can be heard in your exhibition recorded live in Lebanon? Is the bombing sound real?
The audio was recorded on the last night I photographed the Syrian families for this project. It was the first night of Ramadan. You can hear dogs barking, someone banging a drum, babies crying and being comforted, doors opening and closing, fragments of conversation… there are some dull thuds in the background that could be distant mortar rounds falling inside Syria, but could just as easily be thunder strikes in the mountains. From our location, there was no way to know with any certainty.
Why did you decide to include it as part of your work?
The installation is intended to be immersive, and audio is one way to do this.
What is the future of the still and moving image in contemporary art according to you?
Something like 2 billion photos are uploaded to the web every day. Over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Show me something I haven’t seen before. I want to learn something. I want to feel something. I want to feel connected to something. This is still possible, even with all the noise, maybe even because of it.