On George Awde’s ‘Fragile States’

In his work, George Awde always seems drawn to people who haven’t yet figured out where they fit in – as Americans, as men, as sons, as displaced people.

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George Awde, Untitled, Beirut, 2012

Across broad interests like these, his work in photography evolves through long-term projects and series that themselves blur into each other. His recent exhibition at East Wing Gallery in Dubai in May-June 2015, Fragile States, displayed photographs taken over a number of years, mostly of young, displaced Syrian men living in Lebanon.

Awde has returned to his subjects repeatedly over a period of years. This means that aside from depicting the men, his work also records a particular relationship. The younger his subjects are, the more truculent the expression, as though the presence of Awde has triggered a pose of confidence. The young man showing the photographer what he’s got for the world through the one thing he can be sure he has got: his body. As they grow into adulthood, the expressions become resigned, beatific, or – in one particularly touching image of a sleeping man – that of someone dreaming trauma. Other factors register this strange border between defiance and vulnerability: how often the subjects are shirtless, their tattooed or scarred bodies, or the non-places they are photographed in.

This is not a political project, but the circumstances that the young men and boys are in are deeply political and unavoidable to the work. Lebanon is one of the first countries that receives people fleeing Syria; and this situation is exacerbated by numbers and history. Lebanon, which had a Syrian military presence for 30 years until 2006, now finds itself the host of over 1 million displaced Syrians in addition to its own tiny population of 4.5 million. The young men and boys in Awde’s photographs, some of whom are displaced and others who relocated before, are taken in this context. After that, definitive statements become more difficult. Images, rather than words, propose the awkward solution.

I say ‘awkward,’ because after they fulfil photography’s first basic promise – mimesis – these pictures might presumably bring us some stable truth about the people in them, particularly if we happen to gaze in the framework of global reportage. But given the time frame of Awde’s work – the same people photographed over several years – and the forcibly undefined statuses they continually live with – they don’t enter easily into the logics or politics of representation per se. Especially with the assumptions of photojournalism, in which one image is taken to be representative of an entire event; here, there is no event. On the level of the medium of photography, this may be the most pertinent politics of Awde’s work, which is to refuse the outright demand for human troubles to be representable before they can be given weight. Instead it lingers on the inner evolution of a group of humans whose exceptionally precarious lives also seem exceptionally mundane. No universally definable events, identities, statuses, or fixed abodes, just many moments, stretching out forever.

This happens through Awde’s friendship with his subjects, but also in his approach to the camera. As casual or unposed as the images are, they are not snapshots. He uses a large format 4×5 camera, which has two advantages: firstly, it soaks up gallons of light and give us that slightly enchanted luminosity that appear in so many of the images – which encourage the viewer to dwell on them, implying they have a soft glowing timescale of their own. Secondly, with the large format camera, the photographer stands aside or above the machine. Awde maintains his own eye contact and conversation, and never becomes that guy shielded behind a winking, snapping box.

The men in Awde’s work are shown inhabiting an undefined world: under bridges, straggling pathways, beaches, sparsely furnished shared apartments, amongst rubble, and the wildflowers that grow in it. Notably, nobody is ever depicted in the act of consumption. The classic understanding of sites of anomie – sites that are under-policed, or have a lack of purpose – is that these allow the roots of “lawlessness” and “amorality” take hold. This particular view takes the collective norms and values of the nation state as implicit, ignoring the brutal possibilities of those same logics, exactly as experienced by Awde’s subjects. Awde’s photographs instead cast these experiences as a rich human space of its own, not without pain, but where unwatched personal and commercial exchanges may take place, where the time of day can be passed, and where the experience of statelessness may take on a dreamlike quality.

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George Awde, Untitled, Qamishli, Syria, 2010

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