Friday, September 14, 2007

Slate Takes a Holiday...and Makes it Exotic put up pictures yesterday for Ramadan, with pictures from as early as 1956 to as recent as 2006, from all over the Middle East and some parts of Europe. What do all these pictures have in common…other than an "othering" effect? A near total absence of women.

There is only one picture that has women in it out of eighteen. This picture is black and white, and it shows women entering and leaving Tripoli's main mosque. The foreground of this picture is a screen--the women are only visible through the arabesque flourishes. As if the media didn't already portray us as silent and cloistered away from the world, the photographer echoes this by showing us these women through a screen! This voyeuristic portrayal reinforces the idea that Muslim women are “forbidden,” and thus “exotic,” the same tired old Orientalist tripe.

And do you see any of the women's faces clearly? In the only picture featuring women, two are too far to see any visible facial features. They simply look like black ovals in the middle of white headscarves, erasing their personhood. The only other woman in the picture has her back to camera…just another lady in a headscarf.

The rest of the pictures are very similar: viewers are unable to see clear faces and of the men, which causes them all to melt into a generic Arab guy mould, especially if you’re someone unfamiliar with different regional or ethnic styles of dress. Maybe the photographer, Paolo Pellegrin, was going for artsy. I think he missed his mark.