Samira Yamin

Artist/Writer, Los Angeles // June 2012
I also have no misconceptions about how obsessive and possibly neurotic my work is.

Sometimes you meet someone for the first time but somehow you already know them. These encounters immediately do away with “stranger etiquette” and very quickly, very unexpectedly you share thoughts and feelings usually kept for those that know you best. This is how it was when Klea and I met Samira. Within the first hour we were sitting on the floor of her studio together discussing aspects of life that are often difficult to even put words to. In that moment, it felt like I was caught in a hollow in time— the minutes stopped ticking, the tiniest creaks echoed against the weathered walls, and our voices lingered heavily in the air. We visited Samira while she was a resident artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, which is housed in a decommissioned military complex on the Marin County coastline. She was working in the massive Project Space; a long and wide room that seems to stretch out and on forever. In order to make her work she doesn’t actually need a lot of elbowroom, but in an attempt to fully occupy the vastness she had set up desks on either side of the room. I think she felt a bit guilty, a bit self-conscious about having all that space to herself. She was working on two bodies of work there: Geometries, a series in which she meticulously hand-cuts Islamic sacred geometries onto TIME Magazine articles about current wars in the Middle East; and a series of short stories called Charlie that repeatedly and obsessively narrate a single photograph of two soldiers dragging a dead Iraqi face-down in the dirt. Samira’s work is small-scale, compulsive, and full of urgency. She’s driven by a pressing necessity to confront the imagery of wartime photojournalism and its relationship to our systems of acquiring and distributing knowledge. Her engagement with this material is two-fold: analytical yet teeming with emotion. She does not keep herself at a safe distance, she get up close and allows herself to have real red-blooded feelings about the images she works with. She cries a lot. She gets angry. She’s horrified but drawn in. And this is exactly what she wants her work to elicit in the viewer: a multifaceted reaction that asks us to hold conflicting ideas and emotions at once, and to not squirm out from the weight of it all.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
War photography – that’s my medium, my subject matter and the recurring theme. I work mainly with documentary war photography representing the Middle East – namely Iraq and Afghanistan – but I’m interested in photojournalism in general, and more specifically in its relationship to history and as visual facts or information. I’m less interested in what’s actually represented in the image, and more concerned with the fact of its existence, and all the systems at play that bring the images to my living room every week. I’m equally interested in the languages, image and text, used to disseminate information – their segregation, their intersection, their codependence – and how each is broken down into a multiplicity of forms and functions (i.e. headline versus caption, photo essay versus mug shot) to produce a single cohesive narrative.

Geometries, for example, is a series produced by hand-cutting Islamic sacred geometries into the pages of TIME Magazine. I tear out articles related to the current wars in the Middle East, and cut the patterns into the photographs. In Islam, sacred geometries are visual representations of the 99 names of God – The Infinite, The Truth, The Just, The Creator of Order, etc. – but in this context also suggest an ornamental, read Orientalist, image of Islam and of the Islamic world. In other words, both the magazine and the patterns are at once systematic ways of organizing and knowing the world, as well as the gaze that mediates a view, and an understanding, of not only the war photography in question, but also the wars themselves.

What do you read, listen to, or look at to fuel your work and find inspiration?
TIME Magazine, but I swear I only look at it for the pictures.

The project I’m currently working on involves researching representations of soldiers, so I’ve been watching movies and documentaries, and reading books, about war. Just looking at things on my desk at the moment: The World of Charlie Company (CBS documentary), Dr. Strangelove, Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love, Judith Butler’s Frames of War and a Dover Thrift edition of Goya’s Disasters of War.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
I think of my work as an interrogation of photojournalism, so yes, absolutely. I want my work to create, or reveal, or emphasize tension at various points in the life of the image. This can be between the image and TIME Magazine, the image and the viewer, the image and the photographer, the image and the editor, etc., and even then I’m looking for more nuanced points of tension, say between the image and the imagination, both of the viewer and of the photographer, or the image and the magazine layout.

To that end, I aspire to a sort of souring of the experience of looking by confusing awe and shock, beauty and horror, attraction and repulsion, and more importantly demanding that the viewer hold these experiences in their mind simultaneously.

Awe is so important to my work; not only do I need to maintain my own sense of awe, but I also need to elicit it in the viewer. When a viewer approaches the work, they may not know the specific image I’m working with, but they know the genre, they have a general sense of war reporting, they’ve seen TIME Magazine, if even at the dentist’s office. Wherever they fall on the spectrum, politically or philosophically, most people think they have a sense of what these images mean, and I want to trip up their “knowing” – I want to amplify, surprise, or subdue their perception.

How do you navigate the art world?
Honestly, the art world completely mystifies me. I’m incredibly grateful to have mentors and peers that so generously advise and support me.

Do you think the intellectualizing of visual art by the artist or viewer lessens its power and emotional impact?
Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not.

I think there are people who would say reading art emotionally lessens its intellectual impact. I don’t see the point, or even the possibility, of separating the two. My own work certainly depends on both an emotional and intellectual read, and in fact confuses those experiences. As a viewer, I most appreciate work that can be approached emotionally and intellectually, and especially work that captures the imagination. If anything I think intellectualizing, be it through criticism or an artist talk, only adds complexity to the work. Without it would we even have art history? Theory? Criticism?

Is the creative impulse driven by a personal need to ease pain and/or satiate desire?
There’s a photographer in one of the Charlie narratives (the text-based project I’m currently working on) who asks God “why he’s always compelled to photograph the dead and the dying.” That’s written after an internal dialogue I’ve been having for the last couple years. On a very basic level, I’m drawn to images of the Middle East because I know they in some way represent me to myself, or at least they’re representations against which I’ve constructed my identity.

But, more importantly, I see a correlation between the images and the fact that I experienced some of the most formative events in my life through representation. My parents left Iran in 1982, not too long after the Iranian Revolution, and just as the Iran-Iraq war was beginning. These are events I have no first-hand experience of, but which have determined my being in this country, and have determined my relationship to this country, and in turn determined the work I’ve chosen to do.

After 9/11, I began clipping and collecting war photography without knowing why. In retrospect, I think I was trying to know something more – however complicated, convoluted and, ultimately, flawed that representation is – about the place and history that politicized me, but which I could only ever know through family stories or a book or a history class. The reality is, however, that all I find in these sources is dissatisfaction, which in turn leads to distrust. This is largely why my work refuses to reward looking. Instead, I’ve turned to questioning the possibility of knowing in the first place, the desire to know, and the motivations behind, and ways in which, we try to structure and order an otherwise seemingly chaotic world.

I also have no misconceptions about how obsessive and possibly neurotic my work is. Producing the work brings me the same sort of satisfaction as scrubbing dirty pots, and finishing it brings me the same sort of satisfaction as a dish rack full of shiny pots.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m currently working on a series of short stories that narrate, over and over, the taking of a single photograph in Iraq in 2003. The photograph is one I’ve used many times in my work – two soldiers dragging a dead body face-down in the dirt – but the narratives allow me to play with the language in the caption, while also introducing the photographer and time back into the image.

Do you have a motto?
You cannot discover
new oceans
unless you have courage
to lose sight of the shore
– Ruth Forman

What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Coffee. Friends. Magic.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Current show: Meticulosity, Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College, Los Angeles, CA.
Upcoming: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Project Space, January 2013 (no details/ site yet).

To see more of Samira’s work: