A photograph will always be a point of view of the photographer hence making it subjective and not objective. American-Jordanian artist Dalia Amara is well-attuned to this logic and it serves as a guide for which she directs the on looking viewer's attention. As subjective as photographic images inherently are, they deceptively present undeniable parallels to reality often convincing us of its objectivity. Amara recognizes this divide between her own impulses for crafting an image and how the camera and audiences receive them. “I’m invested in our attempts to represent so-called truth in photographs when the medium is subjective”, she states in our conversation. Her work accentuates the illusory and manipulative role of the camera in mediating our views of self as it relates to the dominant commercial environs. Looking back as someone raised in a multi-ethnic household, Amara often found her notions of self being gradually washed out by Western influence. In her current work, she employs tropes of horror films, mannequins, mirrors, reflections of the camera, and performance to heighten the impossible aspirations of Western feminine ideals and the anxieties therein. “The videos I’ve made have been an important process for me in confronting my own image against the ideals of society that I have internalized, Amara shares during our chat. Our exchange with Amara gets further into the oscillation of being visibly represented and obscuring the figure, associated costs therein and how her love of the horror genre goes deeper than you'd think. Read our full conversation with the Brooklyn-based artist below.
"a common theme of horror [movies] is the fear of the other, and the other's challenge to the status quo. Horror often challenges society's norms and comfort. Combating racism, xenophobia, or misogyny is a horror to the other, and a challenge to the comfort of those in power. The other also combats an internalized hate. I think horror is a genre that can be used universally to present anxiety. I’m invested in using horror as a tool to discuss the ways that femininity and Western ideals can cause anxiety in a woman. Even if existing horror isn’t directly related to the themes I am interested in with my work, it does present itself as an important means to share my thoughts."
What have you been curious about lately?
Outside of my work, I spend a lot of my free time watching movies, with horror being the genre I'm most inspired by. I have also been researching the bias people unintentionally impart on technology. As we move to give technology more control over our lives, it has become pertinent that we evaluate our biases not only within ourselves but the technology we falsely look to as being neutral.
How did you arrive at working through photography as a medium for articulating your ideas?
I’ve always been drawn to photography as a way to direct people through my gaze, as a means to point to things. Recently, I have also incorporated video to show my ideas as performative motion when a still doesn’t convey enough information. I’m more invested in using the mediums to convey an emotional or psychological state. Often my images or videos contain elements of sculpture, drawing or performance. What interests me about them existing as a still or video piece, is my ability to have more control over the vantage point, lighting, and environment. I can direct the context that these objects or gestures exist in.
Your earlier work seems to diverge from your current collection of work. The figure is readily present and central to the work than before. Can you trace how your work took this direction?
My struggle with the figure is due to the fact that I don't see people like myself out there. As someone who is half White and half Middle Eastern, I have not seen people similar to myself in the art or media space. In undergrad and grad school, my work was held up against a white male Eurocentric art history, and it was absurd. I was often told I was making art that didn’t speak to anyone, when really my audience just wasn’t considered. With the inclusion of my figure in recent works, I wanted to further explore that struggle to relate my body to the images we regularly consume in a Western-centric society.
"photography and video by its nature is exploitative. It’s something that I always have in mind when creating works. I’m always conscious of not only the works I’m creating but also overseeing the contexts that they are presented in."
The earlier also work seemed to be rooted in still lives, assembling scenes, cropping, and fragmenting a larger scene. Can you talk about this way of working and image production relates (or doesn't ) to your current work?
When it comes to still images, I am interested in using all that is at my disposal to represent my ideas, including physically staging the scene, using the distortion of the camera, lenses and lights, editing the images on the computer, and finally how they are presented with text. The images we consume in media are similarly manipulated at all stages. I’m invested in our attempts to represent so-called truths in photographs, when the medium is subjective.
In my work, I take three perspectives. One is the camera viewing the world from my vantage point. Two is my erasure or replacement by the camera in mirrors. Three is turning the camera onto myself. Growing up, there was an encouragement to hide and attempt to pass as White, and identify as White amongst the Middle Eastern community. I play on this in my work by often erasing or obscuring my own figure. I’ve been working on planning a new video that I hope to shoot [this] year where my figure will be more present and defying.
Practice Heads, 2016
There is also a decidedly performative aspect to the current work you are producing both in the ideas and formally with the figure themselves. Can you speak to you came to action making with your body both formally and conceptually?
My performance video art is a natural development in my consideration of how my identity is or isn’t represented in the media, and my awkward attempts to conform or assimilate with the images, both still and moving, that are presented to us in commercial spaces. The videos I’ve made have been an important process for me in confronting my own image against the ideals of society that I have internalized.
Speaking of deceptively neutral technology, the mechanics of the camera has always presented what looks like evidence of objective reality, do you ever think your own subjectivity gets lost in this ostensively objective medium ?
No, I don’t believe images can be objective. However, I know that my own intentions with an image can differ from audience interpretation. There’s also a translation that occurs between the image I envision in my mind and the image I produce with the camera.
Can you elaborate on the perspective you mentioned in your work where you are replaced by the camera in the mirrors? What is the role of the camera in this instance where it is a presentation of its reflection? (...in some sense the viewer is implicated into the image as well.)
When the camera replaces me in the mirror, there are a few motivations. First, is my desire to disappear or my feeling of being invisible to larger society. Second, I want to remind the viewer of the manipulative role of the camera. Third, I want the viewer to feel part of the image. Fourth and last, I want the camera to become a stand in for myself. When I first stage these scenes, I’m behind the camera to set them up but before taking them, I leave the scene. My figure becomes a past presence, like a phantom that cannot be caught or defined.
"i’ve always been drawn to photography as a way to direct people through my gaze, as a means to point to things."
What does making your figure visible or present do in contrast to the figure that previously disappeared or I suppose assimilated therefore, disappeared. How does this re-presentation function?
To me, obscuring or displaying my figure represents my contrasting desires, to disappear or assimilate perfectly (which is a different way of disappearing) or to represent myself defiantly as is and against ideals. I also strongly relate to inanimate objects and environments when creating metaphors. Our surroundings have as much as if not more of an ability to say something about us in a time and place as our figures.
Do you think there’s a potential exploitive costs of including the visibility the figure ?
Photography and video by its nature is exploitative. It’s something that I always have in mind when creating works. I’m always conscious of not only the works I’m creating but also overseeing the contexts that they are presented in. It’s important to me now that if given an opportunity to show my work, that I approve the way it is being presented, and that it aligns with my intentions. I work very thoughtfully; ideas can spend long periods of time in my head before they are produced. Then once made, I spend long stretches contemplating them before making them public. The works I create are also always about my thoughts and myself. As long as I’m comfortable with presenting them as such, I don’t feel that I risk exploiting others.
It’s interesting you mentioned your inspiration from horror movies. Your silicone masks definitely recall known characters from that genre and so do the mannequins. There’s an eerie quality to them. Your photo Assimilation, (2016) is especially an eerie one with the figure prints on the mirror. It’s appears like a film still of something horrific that happened outside of the frame. Can you talk about how horror (both it’s hyperbole played in films and horror as an idea) relates to performing femininity or to western centric normativity?
My work is definitely influenced by the imagery of horror. What draws me to horror is that it's a safe place to explore fear and violence. A common theme of horror is the fear of the other, and the other's challenge to the status quo. Horror often challenges society's norms and comfort. Combating racism, xenophobia, or misogyny is a horror to the other, and a challenge to the comfort of those in power. The other also combats an internalized hate. I think horror is a genre that can be used universally to present anxiety. I’m invested in using horror as a tool to discuss the ways that femininity and Western ideals can cause anxiety in a woman. Even if existing horror isn’t directly related to the themes I am interested in with my work, it does present itself as an important means to share my thoughts.
Frontis image: Silicone Simulacrum, (2016) 24"x16" Print. All images Courtesy of artist