Me and the Moulid

In an essay titled “The Suit and The Photograph,” British art critic John Berger (1926-2017) contemplates German documentary photographer August Sander’s (1876-1964) exhibition, People of the 20th Century. The exhibition was a series of thousands of portraits — of which only 300 survived — along with the photographer’s notes after around 30,000 of his negatives were burned by the Nazis. The series attempted to locate authentic models of German society at the time by showing a cross-section of society that represents all possible categories of class, function and privilege.

Using Gramsci’s idea of cultural hegemony, the essay identifies the contrast between three different photographs of men dressed up in suits according to their class affiliation. While the suit reinforces the material identity and natural authority of four Protestant missionaries, it deforms the farmers’ bodies, which have been shaped differently according to their lifestyles, and the hard physical work they have been accustomed to since childhood.

As a wedding photographer who belongs to a village community myself, I used this essay as a cognitive tool to understand the weddings I photograph. Not only do I notice the shapes of the bodies wearing the suits, but also the character of their celebrations, which has been formed over the years in tents set up on the streets before finally succumbing to the “hall style” in a rather comic fashion.

Unlike weddings, the moulid does not have an alternative form based on class affiliation that would impose its own hegemony, and so it moves in the opposite direction — toward creating a marginal space for individuals that is free from compliance. Such movement reveals an authenticity that can be traced in the faces, bodies and clothes of most of the moulid celebrants, as well as the impoverishment organizing their bodies in a unified rhythm that can be differentiated from the hesitant, bewildered dancing of tourists or outsiders at the moulid.

My presence as a photographer in the moulid is one that has grown resistant to capitulating to any pattern or criteria — a spellbound presence trying to drift with the reverse motion of the moulid, to the extent that the camera transforms into a trap: With every click, a feeling. Meanwhile, looking at the photographs is closer to a dreamlike question: What do they say about me?

In contrast to August Sander’s project, my photographs of the moulid are not documentary as much as they are an attempt to translate my emotions toward the festivities in a manner that reflects my existential questions, personal impressions and thoughts. This was reflected in the way people’s surroundings were blurred in most pictures — in a way that, to a certain extent, removes them from the context of the moulid altogether.

Salah Mohsen 
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