Imagining “Our Limbo” – A Conversation between Natalie Naccache and Eric Gottesman

L: 23 year old Tala from Damascus keeps dried jasmines from her home. “This war has lost a lot of who I am, I’m not used to being so dead inside. I close my eyes and wish this wasn’t reality. That this was a movie.” R: Tala looks over a view of Beirut just after she had gotten the initials of her family tattooed on her back. 11/2014.

Lebanese-British photographer Natalie Naccache talks to her mentor in the Arab Documentary Photography Program about visualizing the psychological scars of displacement. Our Limbo, a participatory project created with a group of young Syrian women navigating friendship, belonging and loss, is currently traveling as an exhibition.

Natalie Naccache: Before this story was developed, before the idea came into my mind, I was living in Beirut as a documentary photographer. And whilst I was there, the Syrian refugee crisis started and I was receiving assignments from international publications: going to the camps and taking photographs of refugees, where they’re living, their circumstances… Over the last five years, there’s been such a fatigue with the same narrative, and people weren’t caring as much as I thought they should have. Because everyone was shooting the same thing, it was so repetitive.

I wanted people to care again. I wanted to see what people hadn’t photographed yet. You have Syrians from loads of socioeconomic classes, from rich to poor, everything in between — but only people who were living in tents, who were living in horrible places, their stories were being told.

So I wanted to see, “Even if you had all the money in the world, can money actually buy a feeling of home?” I went around searching for Syrians who could afford rent and who were doing alright, who could stand on their feet. What I really wanted to do with this story was examine the psychological effects of not being able to go home. Not just living conditions, and how much people were eating a day and what they miss about home. I wanted it to be truly psychological.

“Our Limbo” focuses on the lives of five young Syrian women: “I was searching for a group of girls — or men, but it just happened to be girls. When I was looking everywhere, they were right under my nose! By chance I bumped into a girl called Sima, she was born and raised in Damascus, she went to AUB (the American University of Beirut) and she was moving to New York. She then introduced me to the rest of her friends, a very tightknit group. With the war carrying on they couldn’t go back to Damascus, they had to find different alternatives, so all of them were separated.”

Natalie: I applied to the Arab Documentary Photography Program, and thankfully I got accepted. There were four mentors in the ADPP, you had Randa Shaath, Tanya Habjouqa, Eric Gottesman and Peter van Agtmael. And I got assigned Eric as my mentor.

And I said “Look I’m getting really frustrated because I don’t know how to photograph what it’s like not to go back, psychologically. How do you put that in pictures? I mean, I can’t just have a bunch of women staring out of the window looking really depressed, and pictures of Syria in their living room. How am I supposed to portray this?”

I remember very, very clearly, I was sitting down skyping with Eric and we were trying to brainstorm. And thank God it was video Skype, because I had my notebook with me, I was flicking through it and he said, “Can I have a look at your notebook for a second?” I showed it to him and he was like, “Why don’t you make the story in the journal, in the notebook, and add different bits and pieces, different elements?”

As soon as he said that, my brain exploded, I couldn’t sleep that night because I was so excited to go and buy a fresh notebook to start the story. I started piecing together what I had shot before, the interviews that I had done. How do they remember home? I started gathering different elements to tell their stories in a deeper way, like home video stills, their photographs from old photo albums...

Even what they brought back from Syria, like the jasmines that Tala got from her garden, she put them in pieces of paper, I used that. They post pictures of their home on Instagram. People comment on their pictures. Screenshots: Diana got a [mobile phone provider] text message when she was near the border between Lebanon and Syria and it said “Welcome to Syria”. And she was explaining how heartbreaking it is that even though she’s so close, she can’t actually reach it.

“Because these girls are fortunate — they can afford food, they can pay rent — they didn’t feel like they had the right to ever complain about their situation, so they had suppressed emotions. I would give them a page and I would let them do whatever they wanted with it. Sometimes they would paint, sometimes draw, sometimes one of them just went crazy with her pen and started writing everything she thought. It was like an explosion of feelings straight onto the page.”

Eric Gottesman: Well, I wish I had more to do with it! It really was just taking a look at what Natalie was already producing and saying, “That’s a new voice, that’s a new way of looking at this story about refugees, and a different population of refugees.” Natalie was already making the work, it was just part of her process. I think there was a moment when Natalie was feeling like, “Oh, I’m doing this thing, but it’s not the photographic work.” Coming from the world of photojournalism and taking assignments, what you were supposed to do for a photo project…

Natalie: Is photos!

Eric: …is photographs, and that didn’t necessarily match up with your creative process. And so when she showed it to me I said, “Well, that’s the project!” And I think Natalie said, “Wait, I can do that?”

Natalie: “Am I allowed to do that — can I?”

L: Nadia, 23, from Damascus in her Dubai, UAE apartment: “I’m not really here, I go to work, come back, eat, go to sleep so I don’t feel it as much.” R: A page from the collaborative journal at the center of Our Limbo, together with personal archives, interviews, videos, diary entries and photography. October 2014.

Eric: You became quite close with these women.

Natalie: I did, yeah. I’m still friends with them today, actually. Every time [the exhibit] goes somewhere — when they found out it was going to Singapore and New York and different places — they were really, really happy to have their stories out there, to show a different side, or get people to connect emotionally.

Eric: One of the things we talked a lot about is the idea of empathy and what it means when empathy can — sometimes — operate to create some sort of action on the part of the viewer. And then in other cases, empathy sort of short-circuits the political calculation that the viewer has to face. In this case, I think what Natalie’s work does is, it reshapes the viewer’s mind about what they think a refugee is, right?

It’s not about looking at one group versus another group of refugees. It’s looking at individual people and understanding that all of these potential subjects have this psychological depth, and we don’t see it because we’re blinded by our own visions of what refugees are supposed to look like.

One of the conceits of this project is that there is no one kind of refugee. Here are women that — through their settings, it’s very clear that they are well off, at least financially and materially. But still, there is this psychological exploration that Natalie has gone on with them, which forces you as a viewer to realize, “Oh, when I look at pictures of refugees with a sack just walking by the side of the road, there’s also that psychological depth involved with them as well.”

It’s just that the stereotypical image prevents us from getting into that person’s head. So sometimes, even though the kind of photograph of a refugee who is in dire straits can demand a certain kind of empathy from a viewer, that sort of empathy can block us from the sort of deep, deep, deep psychological exploration that Natalie offers in her project. I mean that’s how I look at it.

Natalie Naccache initially produced a series of traditional reportage photography in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on assignment. At left, a portrait of Fatimeh Abdallah, who had arrived in 12/2012: “We used to live normally until they bombed very close to our home. We left as quick as we could, we brought nothing with us. My parents used to tell us how hard it was to leave Palestine, now I really understand what they felt when I left Syria.” Asking viewers to relate to other people’s experiences is up against this most basic of human shortcomings, all too often separating even the generations within the same family.
With this specific story I don’t think straight up reportage would have been effective. And I didn’t want to abide by any rules.

Natalie: There are quite a few stories that have gone really, really deep without using different elements, they’ve only used reportage photography. But I don’t think it’s always effective for each and every story and each and every photographer. I think it depends on the story that you’re telling.

Viewers at an exhibition of Our Limbo in Singapore. “I wanted my audience to feel like they were going through someone’s journal. For me it was really important to have the pages printed exactly the same size the journal is. So people would get really close to the pages and start reading what these girls have written and look at the pictures. As well as having iPads which play videos of their home videos and interviews with them.” 11/2016.

The format was a plus and a negative. For exhibitions, people were telling me that they felt really immersed in it. Online would be great as well, definitely. I looked into that. Do you know it’s $90,000 to make? During the Virtual Reality Photography Expanded symposium someone connected me with a woman who did really cool interactive websites, but as I dug deeper and they let me know what their quotes were, it was absolutely insane.

To traditional media, I think it was slightly limiting. One online publication was really interested in it but they said, “The problem is, most of our audience view content on their phone and we don’t have zoom which zooms into the pages. Which is why we can’t publish it.”

Eric: One thing that reportage does very well is, it reaches a wide distribution of people. I think the danger is just that reportage becomes the dominant sword. Because it is so easily distributed, it sometimes blocks out any sort of more nuanced stories which ultimately are going to be, I think, deeper and probably more psychologically true in some way, if truth exists. But the idea of reportage as such a dominant way of …

Natalie: Storytelling!

Eric: …of storytelling about refugees, about migration, becomes a challenge to the kind of nuanced approaches that tell a more complex story of human beings. Which is something that Natalie was just talking about in terms of a challenge with her work: Because it doesn’t fit the formulas it’s something that is a little bit harder to get out there than it would be if she just sort of documented refugees in the way that viewers expect or demand. It forces the viewer to do some work.

L: Europa, An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees. 2016. Magnum Group/Magnum Photos. R: Omar Imam’s Live, Love, Refugee was developed at the ADPP alongside Natalie Nacchache’s Our Limbo.

Eric: There are definitely places where reportage plays a really important role. I can think of a number of different reportage projects, even just within the Arab Documentary Photography Project. There’s this interesting project, this book called Europa,that Thomas Dworzak and Jessica Murray are working on with Alia Malek. I think you can call most of the pictures in that book reportage, and it can be put in the service of some useful goal.

We’ve seen other folks come through the ADPP who come from a very different kind of visual background, and so it was interesting to see the different perspectives that people were bringing to a similar topic.

Natalie: Absolutely, it was like a creative explosion of ideas everywhere. It felt like there were fireworks of ideas and people were trying to catch each spark. That’s what it felt like and because you had people from so many different visual backgrounds, you really got to cross different borders and absorb new techniques of how to tell your story.

Eric: Certainly Omar Imam’s work does it in a different way, by adding text and story in a much more measured way. I suppose it’s intimate as well, but it’s kind of surprising and striking. I don’t know that you end up feeling closer to the people, but you feel the weight of the experiences that they’ve gone through.

Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. Omar and I were exhibiting together in Florence, and people were in tears just reading the quotes with the photographs. They’re very heavy.

Eric: Susan Meiselas’ vision is behind all this, because she believes really strongly in providing context as a way of triangulating the kind of exoticism that reportage photography necessarily employs. The way to mitigate that and to make that okay is by adding context and in this case, with Natalie’s work, the context is extremely collaborative and comes sometimes from the girls themselves or sometimes from Natalie. It’s hard to know sometimes who’s drawing, which is great because the authorship gets blurred and so we’re getting this very rich sense of who these women are.

A page in the collaborative “Our Limbo” journal shows photographs of Diana, age 24, and Diana’s necklace, which is a map of Syria that she never removes. January 2015.

Eric: Do you feel like the project is finished? Do you feel like you could keep going with their stories, or that you would want it to take a different form or something?

Natalie: For now, I feel it’s finished. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop focusing on Syrian stories, but for Our Limbo, yeah, it is finished. The next chapter would be for it to be published into a proper book. And continue being exhibited, but as the story goes, it is finished.

Eric: But Natalie, I wanted to ask you, in light of what you just said about reportage and photography, I think the next project you went to, which wasn’t really about migration, it was a much more personal project.

Natalie: Yeah, the one of my grandmother, that was probably the most personal story I’ve ever done, and that was black and white photography and some video, snippets of video. It’s not reportage. I wouldn’t put it in a box. It wasn’t completely documentary. It wasn’t completely art photography. I didn’t bind myself with rules again.

Eric: I think it’s interesting that you’re moving in that direction.

Natalie: It’s actually quite freeing. Before the Our Limbo project I was sort of in a box, or I was standing behind a yellow line and I feel like I’m crossing that. My creative priorities have shifted to, instead of following the rules, just tell the story the best way you know how.

For assignments it’s still reportage documentary work, I haven’t been assigned anything quirky or creative or anything like that. That’s usually more of my personal work, and then sometimes that will get taken somewhere else, but in terms of publication work or assignments, it hasn’t affected me because they know my work from before. So they haven’t boxed me out as, “Oh, she doesn’t know how to take portraits.”

Eric: I mean your first project about the debutantes was, well it was reportage, but it was so virtuosic in terms of your skills as a photographer. I think it’s great that you have that and you have those skills, but it feels like you’re constantly trying to challenge yourself.

Natalie: That’s what makes it exciting, otherwise we’re not learning anything new.

DOHA, QATAR. A pink coloured pigeon flies over buildings. February 2014.

The conversation has been slightly restructured/edited for clarity and length.

Our Limbo was made possible with the support of Magnum Foundation, The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and the Prince Claus Fund. So far, the project has been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Florence and Dubai.

The Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP) is an initiative that provides support and mentorship to photographers from across the Arab region who are working across a range of experimental styles of storytelling.