Marco Werman: "Our House is on Fire" could be a metaphor for Egyptian politics, but it's actually the title of an exhibit by Iranioan visual artist, Shirin Neshat. If you know her work, you'll recognize her style in many of the exhibits; black and white portraits of Egyptians. They're overlayed with Neshat's trademark black ink caligraphy. The photos explore the consequences of Egypt's revolution, through the yes and faces of those who've lost loved ones in the violence.
Shirin Neshat: They're portraits of people who are above 65. This portrait is of a man, or a woman, whose eyes are swelled with tears, the majority of them. All of the images are inscribed with millions of words that go underneath their skin, the wrinkles, etcetera. That adds another dimension in terms of content, voice, where the images of the people looking directly into the camera and have an obviously very painful emotional expression.
Werman: Yeah, why use the calligraphic black ink on some of these photographs? At times, it's almost like a smudge. At other times, it's like a tattoo.
Neshat: With these particular images, I chose to write extremely small text because the images were so powerful in their human expression, that I didn't want to use a kind of calligraphy that dominates the face. The gaze was so important to be.
But generally, the use of text with the image, it's a way to add this emotional dimension. The poetry that is used sort of transcends the political dimension of the work, and sort of brings the humanity, the poetry, of all of the subjects to me.
Werman: And in the middle of all this, the photographer you work with, Larry Barnes, his daughter dies and that adds another layer of emotion as you're taking these portraits in Cairo.
Neshat: As I was about to go and sort of capture the sense of loss, on a personal and national level for the people of Egypt, my closest collaborator... His young daughter, who grew up with my son, sadly died and by total accident.
So he was in a process of mourning. And I knew once we got there, for him, it was a way to find a way of healing, in a way, by being surrounded by people who are also suffering in different dimensions. I mean, the added dimension for this people in Egypt, the ones that I photographed, was that they were extremely poor. So poverty, political injustice, corruption, chaos, violence, were added to their loss children, to their aging. So we were surrounded by people who were cornered in all these different ways.
And I do believe by Larry's presence, by him sharing his personal narrative and tragedy, it created a sense of bonding and trust with this people who may have otherwise not have had that kind of trust to share with two foreigners, their most intimate and personal feelings.
Werman: Yeah, just extraordinary faces. How did you find these Egyptians?
Neshat: Well, once we set up studio in downtown Cairo, the janitor of the building himself was an elderly, you know, hard-working, poor man. And he was one of the subjects in my photographs as well.
And I asked him if he could help us by recruiting the people that--of his friends, his community. The street peddlers, to people who were mechanics. People who had, you know, small jobs to survive, or even housewives, grandmothers; people who needed a little of money, as we were able to compensate them, for us to talk to and photograph.
So it was really him who was able to tap into the community and bring us people who, again, were extremely poor and old. And one by one, they came up, and shared their stories with us and opened up.
Werman: And why did you focus on people who were 65 and older? Why are their no younger Egyptians in your portraits?
Neshat: Well, in principle, I think that as people get old, they no longer look so much into the future, but the past. And I think as opposed to the young people, who have a tendency just to look into the future because they have their whole life ahead of them, and they have this sense of optimism. And perhaps that is why they, people who become activists that are so fearless and courageous, is because they're not afraid of life.
But as you get older and you have experienced the passage of time, you realize that the sense of loss in all these different dimensions. For many of these people, the added tragedy of... Perhaps have lost their children in this process of revolution, or have seen catastrophic violence, events, before their eyes. You know, for them it carries a kind of a wisdom that the young people wouldn't have.
Werman: There are also photographs that you've taken of feet and tags on toes. Explain what they mean.
Neshat: In order for the audience to understand the context of this sorrow, you know, at least from the Egyptian perspective, it was important to have images of the morgues. That I had seen images after the military invaded the Muslim Brotherhood, sitting after Morsey was overthrown.
One after another, images of young people who were dead in the morgue, with their feet and a simple tag between their feet that sort of identified who they were. And I found these images so disturbing in the way that, you know, at the end, your life is reduced to this little tag that identifies you.
And I just felt that, you know, it was really important to this narrative to include images that really suggest a brutality, and the humanity, of politics and, you know, the violence that is always somehow intersecting the... This kind of sense of activism and political conviction, that it starts with such points of innocence and good will.
Werman: Well, what you've produced is really fascinating. Shirin Neshat, thank you very much for speaking with us about it.
Neshat: Thank you for covering it.