Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

'Sound of Silence', Mori Gallery

As if spending most of my waking hours on Palestine-related work at the moment isn’t depressing enough, this evening’s cheerful little jaunt took me to the opening of an exhibition of photos taken within the last year in Sri Lanka. The images were taken by a young woman called Shelley Morris, who with obvious courage and initiative managed to blag her way into the northern part of the country, a feat which the majority Sinhalese government does its best to prevent and which most international reporters have signally failed to achieve (or in most cases, probably even attempt).

Shelley Morris is obviously a skilled photographer, as well as a brave and compassionate observer. The exhibition itself did not, however, completely work for me. Much of it consisted of upper-body images of individual Tamil people, many of them women, with little in the way of visual context. I’m not keen on these kind of images, which seemed to fall into a category of ‘generic war/poverty victim’, with the subjects either smiling to show their fortitude or looking understandably fearful/depressed/hopeless at their plight. The kind of images which litter the covers of left-liberal magazines and the pages of weekend colour supplements when they’re in a mood to be ‘meaningful’ instead of just packed with overpriced fashion and over-elaborate recipes.

I guess the argument is that pictures of this type ‘humanise’ those who suffer from wars, exploitation, famine or the many other ways that the global system imposes on or throws aside those who aren’t useful to it. Maybe for some people this is a useful approach; to remind them of the humanity of those people behind the news headlines (or lack of them). For me, the humanity of the millions of people living (and dying) like this is like a cheese-grater on the inside of my skin pretty much every waking moment, unless I make a conscious effort to stop it and try and concentrate on doing something constructive.

More interesting and worthwhile, to me at least, are the images which seem to be less part of a generalised humanising mission, but which give some more detail about the specific example that we’re talking about. So, an image of a smiling fisherman, and accompanying notes about the threat the Sri Lankan navy poses to Tamils trying to follow this livelihood. Or of a plough being drawn by bullocks, with information on the systematic destruction of Tamil farmers’ equipment by the Sri Lankan army. Or, indeed, of empty houses, their windows staring past a mud track heavily scored with tyre-marks.

In some ways (and maybe I’m just the wrong person to be looking at a photographic exhibition; perhaps I don’t have the right responses to visual images) Morris’s written notes accompanying some of the pictures were the most powerful and shocking part of the show. One which sticks in the mind is the story of a young woman who had to keep her 16-year-old brother in a hole in the ground, covered with planks and sacks of food and clothes, so that he wouldn’t be taken by the army. So her brother had to spend parts of his childhood living in a dark pit, whilst she had to poke her arm through a gap in the planks every so often to check if he was alive or dead. It’s a chilling thought.

In some ways, the “public art project, welcoming all patrons to leave their own impression on a mixed media wall mural” was more interesting than the main photo exhibition. Two long walls were filled with drawings, paintings and collages by the end of the evening. The large eye and the slogan ‘the world is watching’ seemed a little over-optimistic, though. Especially since one of the main points made by Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Colombo and author of ‘The Cage: the fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers’, was that the final annihilation of the Tamil Tigers by the Sinhalese military was possible exactly because the government was so effective at preventing the press and UN from reaching the conflict zone and the displaced persons’ camps, and because the Western media was so complicit in backing Colombo’s right to deal with ‘terrorism’ any way it saw fit. The parallels with reporting on Palestine are depressingly obvious, and reinforced by other similarities – such as the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to make sure that the Tamils can never again try to lay claim to a contiguous area of territory, by seeding any such territory with militarised communities. Settlements, anyone? Oh, and of course, the role of the British empire in screwing everything up in the first place…

Exhibition Dates: June 3rd to 5th (12pm to 6pm only) at Mori Gallery, 168 Day Street.

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