Five Years Later, a Photographer Revisits the Arab Spring

Moises Saman's "Discordia" takes us on a poetic—and personal—journey through the embattled Middle East.

By Jehan Jillani
Photographs By Moises Saman
A Qaddafi supporter holds a portrait of the Libyan leader during a celebration staged for a group of visiting foreign journalists after regime forces re-took the city from rebels. Zawiyah, Libya. March, 2011
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum

Moises Saman's new book, Discordia, is a visual account of the events of the Arab Spring, compiled over four years living in the Middle East. We recently spoke to him about how this project–and his work–have evolved.

JEHAN JILLANI: When did you realize a self-published book was a project you wanted to pursue?

MOISES SAMAN: I think the realization [came to me during my second year in Cairo, around the end of 2013]. All of these revolutions were blurring into one and I really needed to understand for myself what it is I wanted to say about the region.

JEHAN: A lot of your earlier work reads as straight breaking news photography but your work now is much quieter. Tell me about that evolution.

Camel market. Birqash, Egypt. April, 2011
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum

MOISES: I don’t think there's a moment when you suddenly become a different photographer. I think it has to do with growing up as a person.

And at some point, you, as a photographer, have to come to terms with the fact that there's limitations to what you do, especially if you’re a Westerner shooting in another country. The moment you realize your limitations, your work also becomes honest.

My images may not read as straight news photography anymore but I am really enjoying working on stories that require me to be flexible and read between the lines.

JEHAN: You were in the Middle East–specifically Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt–during a very critical moment in its history. What was that experience like?

MOISES: [It] was transformative. I was initially shooting a lot for the New York Times, which was this amazing vehicle that allowed me to move around the region. However, I soon went from reacting to the story immediately to becoming more contemplative, even a little bit more cynical, about what was going on. I had to think about what my role was there. One usually doesn’t have the luxury, or even the inclination, to think like that while one is following the news that closely.

Aftermath of a barrel bomb in a residential area of Aleppo. Aleppo, Syria. March, 2013.
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum

JEHAN: Why the title Discordia?

MOISES: During my time in the Middle East, I started seeing a lot of parallels [between the Arab Spring] and with this idea I had of Greek tragedy as a story that develops from a moment of hope to complete civil war. Discordia is the Greek goddess of chaos and strife and I found that so fitting as well.

I also did not want to have a Middle Eastern title because it was important for me to draw parallels with Western history. What is happening in the Middle East happened in the Middle Ages in Europe too, and so I liked how the title spoke to the way a story could be repeated in history.

A family of displaced Yezidis from Sinjar fleeing the advance of the Islamic State arrive in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum

JEHAN: Many of the images seen in Discordia are outtakes from assignments shot for various magazines and newspapers. Together, bound in book form, they end up serving as a very personal tribute to the Middle East. Could you speak a little bit about that?

MOISES:  I was on assignment most of the time when I was living in the Middle East. However, when my designer Daria Birang and I started putting the book together, I found that the pictures that really spoke to me were shot moments before and after the photo that ended up in the magazine or in the newspaper. Many times, these were photos I had not even shown to my editors. These were pictures that actually asked questions and I found that they forced the viewer to engage a little bit more.

I had also became a little tired of the action picture–it wasn't good enough for me. I went through thousands of pictures of clashes, of the protestors throwing rocks, but at the end, I just didn't find it was telling enough.

JEHAN: Could you describe the book's logic? Why is it meaningful?

MOISES: The book form allows you to play with a narrative in a way that a slideshow or a magazine spread doesn’t. It is almost like writing a song–there are highs, lows and everything has to have a certain rhythm. In this case, I was interested in creating a visual narrative for a very factual story, one where you had the news and you knew the events. A lot of the editing and the sequencing was also the result of an extremely close collaboration with Daria.

Working this way was an incredibly therapeutic exercise and it forced me to be honest about the work I was doing. I think any photographer who spends an extended amount of time working on a single story owes it to him or herself to understand what their work means that way.

Photograph by of Moises Saman

JEHAN: Tell me about the cover.

MOISES: The cover is a figure of a protestor throwing a rock set against a static background of a TV in Libya. It was designed by Daria. She really was a key person in the making of this book and I really couldn't have done this without her. I would in fact encourage other photographers to find similar ways of collaborating--that's really when you're able to become a better editor, a better photographer and you are able to really understand your work better.

JEHAN:  Does the book’s publication signal the end of your time working in the Middle East?

MOISES: No, not at all. I am working in Kurdistan now and am looking at the phenomenon of the Islamic State and how Middle Eastern state institutions seem to be in decay. Specifically, I am looking at the Kurds as this non-state actor that is now coming to the forefront and having the kind of influence that a country would have. I sort of see it as a continuum. Probably, we can trace the Arab Spring to the Iraq War or even further and we are still seeing this long arm of history. In a way, I see everything as connected.

A nurse and her patient at a neighborhood clinic operated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo, Egypt. January, 2011.
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum
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