Iraqi photographer Maythem Ridha intimately captures Morocco’s shades and hues
Maythem Ridha opened his exhibition Beyond Moments: Morocco in Isleworth’s Redlees Studios. A cluster of buildings with airy, light interiors, give the impression of an artist’s village, providing a serene backdrop to this exhibition. Opening over three days, with sun-dappled photographs lining the walls, it is a journey through Morocco’s backstreets and lesser-seen landscapes. Vivid and vibrant, the photographs travel from mountains to suburban villages to ghettos and encampments. The familiar Moroccan backdrops of crowded bazaars, a blended mass of turquoise and bronze, are there alongside less commonly seen images of landfill sites and extreme poverty and isolation in rural villages. The colours are, as expected, dazzling and the editing fantastic, imbuing an almost painted quality to many of the photographs.
As a first generation Iraqi professional photographer and filmmaker, Maythem is something of a rarity. His recent exhibition focused on his travels in Morocco, a country he reports having been to several times since his teenage years. His exhibition follows on from previous photography projects centred in Morocco and around the Middle East, including his native Iraq, and deviates from other projects focused around more abstract themes relating to the interface between the environment and the man-made world. Instead, he moves away from landscape and hones in on people and individuals as his subject matter. The exhibition is very much testament to this. There is an almost three-dimensional effect in the intimate way with which he has captured these often un-tapped-into communities.
Alongside his prints, he also debuted his first published book Beyond Moments: Morocco, which is a beautifully set out collection of all his photographs as well as other prints not included in the exhibition. There is a real pride emanating from him about this project, now being translated into both French and Arabic to reach the very communities it so beautifully captures.
I had a short interview with Maythem where he took me through his journey, starting with his childhood inspiration for photography in the form of his uncle’s old camera with which everything was documented. At the age of nine he moved to the UK from Iraq and was limited by language in communicating with other children. Thus, photos and visual communication became his only channel. He started taking photography seriously aged 12 after he was gifted a camera. By 16 he was earning extra pocket money photographing school events and selling the photos to parents. His career continued to flourish following this precocious start, starting work at MBC just as Middle East television began to increase in influence, in turn nurturing his talent and enabling him to become a successful filmmaker. Throughout, photography remained his passion. He has now undertaken several photography projects including photographed communities and landscapes across the Middle East.
There is something of a loss of the arts amongst first and second generation Iraqis in particular. Often raised by parents with strong memories of a fractured homeland and intent on fostering life, hope and opportunity for their children, much of their persuasion centred around clear vocational routes. An unfortunate by-product of this is the notion of the arts as inherently financially unstable, appearing to grow at times into something of a cultural taboo when creative pursuits like photography are mentioned. Maythem therefore stands as quite the inspiration for second-generation immigrant Middle Eastern children. I spoke to him about the photography course which he now runs successfully, taking students both abroad on field trips and in this country. It was heartening to learn that the number of ethnic minority students has increased over the years. So the opportunities grow and the skill-set branches out, both for second and third generation children of immigrants and for the communities they photograph.
We spoke at length about the trust that he seeks to build with the communities he worked with. His photographs are stark. A naked eye into communities: Berber weddings; children from ghettoes against graffitied walls; women squinting in the sunlight, mistrustful and guarded. This intimacy and trust comes, he tells me, from his ability to communicate in linguistic and cultural terms. His fellow western photographers were unable to reach as far in, or win trust quite so easily. Herein lies the significance of diverse backgrounds in the arts – only then can we also engage diverse backgrounds. The patchwork of humanity grows once connection is formed, and so relationships expand. And we, as viewers, are granted precious entry to worlds we may never have otherwise known.
Having won the AlHambra Award for Excellence in Arts, Maythem continues to run masterclasses and workshops in photography and filmmaking. He is heavily involved in international projects, and spoke of returning to his native Iraq as the possible focus of future photography endeavours. Iraq, he tells me, is so poorly represented outside of newsreels and disaster footage. As his photobook is translated and published in two other languages, he seeks to open this latest exhibition in Morocco itself as well as further out in the Middle East. His unique position will continue, as he tells me, “…to open barriers. They believe I see things from their perspective rather than as an outsider. And in turn, I portray the communities how I would want my communities, so misunderstood, to be portrayed.” This can only bode well, then, for a new era of photography in the Arab world, by the Arab world.
You can purchase new photobook by Maythem Ridha here: http://maythemridha.com/
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