What does a visual history of ISIS look like?

By Aimee McLaughlin

On an otherwise unexceptional day in August 2014, a video titled A Message to America was uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit is seen kneeling on the ground in the desert next to a masked man dressed all in black. The masked man, who speaks with a British accent, starts to cut his captive’s neck with a knife before the video fades to black and the body is seen slumped on the ground. The man who was murdered was later identified as US journalist James Foley, and his executor is believed to be the now-deceased Jihadi John – one of the key figures of the Islamic State terrorist militant group that has gone on to commit many more brutal acts of violence and seize control of large areas of the Middle East.

Foley’s murder was one of the first widely publicised acts of ISIS violence that captured the attention of the West. But the origins of the terrorist group date back much further. Its very existence is inextricably tied up with the complex and thorny issue of conflict in the Middle East, along with Western countries including the US and UK’s role in shaping events. The first issue of a new publication called Magnum Chronicles is attempting to unravel how ISIS came to be, drawing from the organisation’s photo archive to present a visual interpretation of the terrorist group to date. Curated by Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael, the issue features over 40 photos and an accompanying essay by Middle East expert Peter Harling. Here, Agtmael tells us about bringing the newspaper series to life.

Creative Review: Tell us about your background and how you came to join Magnum.
Peter van Agtmael: In many ways I discovered the possibilities and potential of photography through Magnum. When I was in my late teens, two big group books called In Our Time and Magnum Degrees were hugely inspirational and influential in showing the breadth of what photography was capable of. I also liked Magnum’s commitment to documenting history, and the idea of a community. When I was 27 I applied on a bit of a whim, and amazingly was accepted.

CR: What is the concept of the Magnum Chronicles newspaper series?
PA: History and how we interpret it is constantly in flux, but there are moments that demand thoughtful reflection without expectation of definitiveness. Magnum Chronicles allows us to react to critical issues with a timeliness that is difficult in a full length book. Photography books are tremendously expensive, distribution is limited and athough they are one of the most beautiful forms of packaging photography, they aren’t particularly accessible across class and geography.

Baghdad, Iraq. People burning and throwing stones at a poster of Saddam Hussein. April 10 2003 © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

CR: Why did you decide to look at the visual history of ISIS for the first issue?
PA: The starting point was personal. ISIS was the latest manifestation of work I’ve been doing since 2006, which looks at America, the world and what has been wrought since 9/11. I was seeing a lot of powerful work coming in from my colleagues at Magnum, and was also feeling frustrated about how ISIS was being contextualised with hysteria and little depth in a lot of the Western media. It seemed like an important subject to try and reframe as something more than the boogeyman of Western fears.

CR: Tell us about the design of the issue.
PA: It is in Arabic and English, so can be read from left to right (in English) or right to left (in Arabic). Like any good photo book, I wanted the sequence to flow seamlessly if you start from either end. As a result, it is non-linear and non-narrative in structure, but is strongly framed in history and politics by the timeline and the essay.

USA. NYC. 9/11/2001. A dazed man picks up a paper that was blown out of the towers after the attack of the World Trade Center, and begins to read it. © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

CR: What issues does Peter Harling’s essay cover?
PA: I think Harling does an excellent job in contextualising ISIS in the Western imagination. To me, this line from the essay sums it up: “It is displacing our moral boundaries in ways that subvert the very foundation of our culture: for fear of the Islamic State we will tolerate any forms and levels of abuse on the part of those claiming (often preposterously) to fight it, even when their violence approaches if not surpasses that of the enemy. The more we let it fire up and control our imagination, the more we invite it inside us, putting our agency in its service.”

CR: What kind of images are included in it?
PA: It’s a range. There are images from Iraq, Syria, Libya and throughout the Western world, showcasing everything from war to flight to exile. Many images are quiet, but there are some very brutal ones as well, including an execution. The idea is to have a large historical, geographic and emotional range so that each image complements and enhances the others. I’m interested in works that are layered and ultimately unresolved.

Istanbul, Turkey, June, 2016. © Newsha Tavakolian/ Magnum Photos

CR: Why have you chosen to include photos by Western photographers such as Martin Parr?
PA: The Western world is inextricably tied to ISIS. Its key leaders were nearly all incarcerated by the Americans in Iraq. Many of the rank and file are disaffected Sunnis – some marginalised by their loss of power in Iraq following de-Baathification, others by their failure to integrate into Western society. To only look at ISIS in the context of war or terrorism is a limited framework for understanding, and ultimately dehumanises the majority of innocents caught in the middle of the chaos.

CR: Are there any photos that you find particularly shocking?
PA: Emin Ozmen’s execution photograph is the most disturbing image in the piece. Beyond the beheading itself, it is in the curious and expectant expressions of the crowd that we see a quieter form of depravity.

Bank Holiday, Llandudno, Wales, 2013. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

CR: Tell us about the testimonials seen in the issue.
PA: I think one of the strengths of this work is the photographer testimonials that give broader context to the images. We have contributions from Carolyn Drake, Moises Saman, Newsha Tavakolian, Emin Ozmen, Mark Power, and Lorenzo Meloni.

CR: And what do you hope people will take away from reading it?
A deeper and more layered understanding of what ISIS actually is, rather than what we fear it is.

Magnum Chronicles: A Brief Visual History in the Time of ISIS is printed in partnership with Newspaper Club. The newspaper series will be distributed at cultural venues and bookshops across Europe and the US. For more info, head here

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