How do you photograph what you cannot see? It’s a paradox that has fascinated photographers ever since the Surrealists. Yet today this question has taken on a more sinister tone. Diana Matar, whose work is currently on display at the Purdy Hicks Gallery in London, is one of a number of contemporary photographers – others include Edmund Clark and Trevor Paglen – who are documenting hidden sites of political repression and the traces such violence leaves behind.
For Matar, an American photographer interested in history and memory, the political is undeniably personal. In 1990, her Libyan father-in-law Jaballa Matar, a vocal member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a pro-democracy movement opposed to the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was kidnapped from his home in Cairo. Over the next five years his family received a handful of letters from him that had been smuggled out of a Libyan prison; after that, nothing was heard from him again.
Jaballa, who had lived in Egypt for 11 years, was one of dozens of dissidents living in exile who were kidnapped or assassinated on the orders of Gaddafi. For years the Matar family searched for Jaballa from outside Libya, even making contact with Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, who tempted them with information in exchange for an endorsement of the Gaddafi regime (they refused). Finally, after the regime fell in 2011, they went to Libya to look for him.
Matar has spent almost a decade documenting this story. Her simple studies of trees, eerily calm buildings and empty landscapes approach this painful subject in a seemingly understated manner. It is only when the story behind each image is revealed that the full force of her work becomes apparent. She believes that “history’s traces are somehow imprinted on buildings, landscapes and even faces, by events that have taken place in the past.” As her photographs document the long search for Jaballa and the effect of his disappearance on those close to him, they become not just “an homage to one man”, but an exploration of recent Libyan history, and a searing condemnation of political violence.
Witness 1 (2012)
On April 26th 1980, Gaddafi decreed that all Libyan dissidents living abroad, whom he called “stray dogs”, should be executed. A wave of assassinations followed, from London to Athens to Utah, but especially in Italy where many Libyan exiles had settled: 13 were killed in Rome alone. For the series, “Witness”, Matar found the locations of nine of these killings and photographed the nearest living thing. This tree is witness to a murder.
The Bird (2008)
This enigmatic image of a white bird caught in Matar’s flash was taken in Egypt, where Jaballa was snatched by the Egyptian security services and handed over to the Libyans, before disappearing into the secret prison system. Birds are a favourite motif of Matar’s, hinting as they do at the fugitive nature of the search for her father-in-law. At this point in 2008 Gaddafi seemed as strong as ever.
Evidence III (2012)
In October 2011 Gaddafi was deposed. The Matar family travelled to Libya hoping to find Jaballa or at least some news of him. Whilst they searched, Matar photographed sites associated with Gaddafi’s programme of political repression in order to record them for posterity at this crucial moment in Libyan history. What began as a personal search was becoming something larger.
These three haunting night photos from Matar’s series, “Evidence”, had exposure times of up to an hour, opening up a space for Matar to contemplate the buildings and what they had witnessed. “Something remains in these places,” she wrote. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Evidence XI (2012)
Gaddafi’s “revolutionary committees” were formed in the late Seventies. They organised show trials and public executions to crush dissent; sometimes, traffic was diverted so that commuters would have to drive past hanging bodies. Many of these trials were organised from this building in Tripoli, where the committees plotted assassinations and organised the imprisonment of thousands of Libyans. Matar took this photograph in 2011, after the building had been sacked. Burn marks are visible around the windows.
Evidence X (2012)
The main courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, which according to Matar became “the epicentre of civilian resistance” during the uprising. Though many were charged here for crimes against the regime, the courthouse was one of the only institutions which fought to maintain a measure of autonomy during Gaddafi’s rule.
The Tomb (2012)
Of three letters that Jaballa was able to smuggle out, the last, from 1995, placed him in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. “The cruelty of this place far exceeds all of what we have read of the fortress prison of Bastille,” he wrote. “The cruelty is in everything but I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression...My forehead does not know how to bow.”
An investigation by the post-Gaddafi regime and Human Rights Watch found that in 1996 a massacre had taken place at Abu Salim: 1,270 men were killed. First, their bodies were buried; later, in an effort to hide the killings, they were dug up, and their remains were pulverised in cement mixers before being dumped into the sea.
It’s possible that Jaballa was moved to another prison before the massacre, but in the absence of any other evidence it is also possible that he was killed in 1996. “I envy the finality of funerals,” wrote his son and Matar’s husband, the novelist Hisham Matar, in 2013.
The Past (2012)
These last two photographs, implicitly twinned by their titles, take the long view of Libyan history and “the social ruin that comes through a long dictatorship.” An example of the dense historical layering that fascinates Matar, this image is of Roman ruins in the former Greek city of Cyrene, next to the contemporary Libyan town of Shahhat. During the Italian occupation of 1911-1947, Libyan rebels were particularly active in this area.
The Present (2012)
A different kind of ruin. This building, in Bab Al Aziziya, Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, was the first to be taken by rebels when they entered Tripoli during the 2011 revolution. By setting both kinds of ruins – contemporary and ancient – starkly against the grey sky, Matar asks the viewer to bring a far-reaching historical awareness to bear on the present.
“Still Far Away”, the series to which these images belong, refers to the ever-deferred hope of finding Jaballa, and also perhaps the unfulfilled promise of the 2011 revolution. Gaddafi may be gone, but peace is yet to come to Libya.
Diana Matar Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, until June 6th