Writing on photography

Review – Evidence by Diana Matar

Photographers are sometimes wary of producing work which deals with family histories and personal experience. The sense often seems to be that focusing on such subjects will just be seen as artistic navel gazing, with little interest or relevance to a wider audience. In reality though personal experience can have powerful resonance for others seeking to understand their own experiences, or looking for more insight into vast, complicated events through the singular experiences of the people caught up in it.

In Evidence, Diana Matar picks up the trail of her father in law, Jaballa Matar, a Libyan opposition leader who was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Service while in exile in Cairo and handed back to the Gadaffi regime. Apart from a letter smuggled out of the notorious Abu Salim prison in 1995, he was never heard from again. A decade on from the arrival of this letter Matar and her husband ‘H’ set out to find out what happened to Jaballa, picking up a trail which leads from Egypt to Libya, via Rome and into threatening meetings with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the urbane but ruthless son of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Along the way the couple are haunted by the spectre of the campaign that has been waged by the regime against other Libyan dissidents and their families, and their search for Jaballa is overshadowed by a strong sense of threat. The book in part then is about the ways that totalitarian states and dictatorships target, pressurise and destroy the lives and relationships of those that appear to challenge them, even from afar. The abduction of Jaballa curtailed one life, but also had enormous and lingering consequences for a wider circle of people. At the same time it also highlights the way such regimes privilege and control information, and how doubt and evidence themselves become powerful forms of totalitarian control.

As the book progresses the search coincides with the Libyan uprising and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, deflating the menace that has hung over the family for decades, and perhaps unearthing crucial information about Jaballa. Diana and H are able to return to Libya to continue the search on the ground. Sadly as we come to the end of the book we also find there has been no resolution, the family still have no answers, and it can only be assumed that Jaballa was murdered like countless others. Yet even the details of when this might have occured, and where and his final resting place might be are painfully unclear.

The narrative of the book is constructed from two components running in tandem. The first is a series of short diary-like entries written by Diana Matar which recount reminiscences of Jaballa, and different moments along the path to find out what happened to him. One early in the book reads ‘I remember you, light and agile, always greeting the maid with respect’. Later they focus more on the search and significant events occurring on the periphery of it, one that follows the couple’s return to Libiya reads ‘H has asked me not to photograph Abu Salim prison. “I can’t bear the thought of you being there,” he said.’

Along the way these small textual extracts are accompanied by photographs, most by Matar, but a few of objects, archive images and screen grabs. Matar’s photographs are for the most part dark black and white squares, of places, architecture, details. They echo the text in a way which will be familiar to readers of many photo illustrated novels, never offering a direct or literal connection to the words, but appearing to indirectly illustrate them. One perhaps shows scrawled graffiti on a prison wall, another a rephotographed face of one of the regime’s victims. Of course appearances can be deceptive, and we can’t be sure until we reach the end the captions at the end of the book which reveal the significance of each image.

Evidence is a poignant book, simply but cleverly constructed in a way which draws you into the search by encouraging you to question the ‘evidence’ (the photographs) which are put before you. At the same time Matar sensibly avoids turning the tediously fashionable question of photography’s veracity into the book’s main tenet. Instead Jaballa remains the central figure throughout the book, and this despite him being a man we only see once, briefly and fleetingly, and who remains at the end essentially an unknown. For all the evidence assembled in the book about him there is at the end an uncomfortable lack of closure for us as viewers, which can only hint at the feelings of the family. These themes are echoed sadly but perfectly in the final line of text: ‘Jaballa is still missing. We know nothing.’

Evidence by Diana Matar is published by Schilt.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography