19 March 2017
Perpetual Revolution: A Hasty Overview of Social Movements Around the World
Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change at the International Center of Photography provided an underwhelming experience of five distinct, contemporary world issues. Though each of these issues is important, the choice to display political propaganda not only seemed out of place, but as if the curators were attempting to legitimize these social faux pas alongside three long-standing, valid problems. In addition, each of these issues were too big to be presented in exhibits that were spatially so small- the information was not thorough enough for the scope of these topics. Overall, the show attempted to remain contemporary, but, in the process, haphazardly tried to acknowledge the historic significance of refugee plight, climate change, and the LGBTQ+ movement.
The mini-exhibit on refugees was the only aspect of the show that came close to being conceptualized by the curators. The screen with a constant stream of electronic images was central to the exhibit, it seemed to lack a true purpose or insight. Yes, it was most likely a commentary on the fast-paced, digital lives we lead today, in which so much information is thrown at us that we do not have the time or capacity to process it all. However, the usage of a grainy, uneven surface on which to display the stream was unclear. Was it a commentary on the “bumpy” journey refugees face, or an attempt to create a unique viewing experience? Additionally, the black and white static stream/geometric images that flashed intermittently also seemed like they were trying to transform a very real issue into a piece of abstract art, as if the issue of refugees is somehow out of reach or impossible to conceptualize.
One still photograph from the refugee exhibit effectively stood out amongst the others. News photographer Sergey Ponomarev’s photo for the New York Times depicts about fifteen Turkish refugees on a small passenger boat arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos. Almost every person on the boat is facing front and outward, making the boat the focus point. The boat’s shiny silver rail stands out amongst the dark grey sky, the navy blue sea, and the dully-colored clothing of the refugees. As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay On Photography, the viewer’s relation to this photo appropriates the meaning of it. In this case, the viewpoint comes from the island of Lesbos. Combining their forward-charging stances with the (mostly) western audience of the New York Times, the viewer is led to believe that the refugees cannot wait to reach this island. The ominous, dark sea and sky that swallow the background make the refugees’ past seem like something they do not want to return to. With this certain of a vantage point, it is difficult for any viewer to conclude that the refugees may in fact not be as eager to reach Greece as their forward-angled bodies suggest.
A third piece in this exhibit was Thair Orfahli’s photo-video collage documenting his journey from Syria to Italy. As the description at the ICP reads, Orfahil, “was rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian coast guard in the summer of 2015. Upon landing in Italy, Orfahli had only one possession remaining: his smartphone.” What was most intriguing about this piece was the simplicity with which it was created- a device that most of us have on-hand and use to record daily events in our lives. Unlike the average vanity-seeking selfie, however, Orfahli’s objective was to show the world a side of refugees that is rarely shown in mainstream media. He and other refugees from other parts of the world are seen packed onto tiny boats, clearly exhausted from their respective journeys, yet smiling, laughing, and looking hopeful for the future. Just from these simple displays of happiness rather than fear, Orfahli and his newfound friends go against the far-right narrative of what refugees are supposed to be. Rather than poor, uneducated, and desperate for help from the west, Orfahli notes that many of the Syrians he spoke to on his journey came from affluent, educated backgrounds. Orfahli himself was a former law student. Further into the video, he states that most Syrians love their country and do not want to leave, do not want to be a “drain” on the west-but have no choice due to the political situation back home. He indicated a desire to contribute to his new country and continue his education, rather than resisting the western way of life, as many politically exiled individuals are stereotyped to do. The small flat screen on which the ICP presented Orfahli’s story did not do it justice. The importance and clarity of his message- the only fully developed piece in the entire museum- should have been given a more prominent space, perhaps replaced with the big screen of streaming news images.
Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change was a well-intentioned exhibition, but was not given enough physical space or informational depth to be shown to the public. Each point of interest: climate change, global refugee plight, LGBTQ+ issues, alt-right and ISIS, are saturated topics with even more concentrated histories behind them. Though the ICP website states that the institute has a “long-standing tradition of exploring the social and historic impact of visual culture,” the show failed to explore, but rather presented a very small selection of unrelated images. The focus on making these issues as contemporary as possible glossed over the significance each of these movements holds in our society, thus leading less-informed viewers to leave without background knowledge or answers. Even though it is not the job of a museum to provide answers, it should at least provide a focused point-of-view, which Perpetual Revolution did not.
Orfahli, Thair. “Damascus, Syria- Berlin, Germany, 2015, 2017.” Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change, International Center of Photography, New York, New York, January 27-May 7, 2017.
“Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change.” International Center of Photography. International Center of Photography, 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
Ponomarev, Sergey. “[Refugees arrive in a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos], November 16, 2015.” Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change, International Center of Photography, New York, New York, January 27-May 7, 2017.
Sontag, Susan. “On Photography.” New York Review of Books (1977): 174-178. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
Szarkowski, John. “Introduction to The Photographer’s Eye.” History of Photography 15.4 (1991): 1-8. Cornell University. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.