Photographer Diana Matar on Libya, her father-in-law's disappearance and portraying absence in her work
On the 17th February 2008 demonstrators gathered on this street to protest against the publication of Danish cartoons, which they believed defaced the prophet Mohammed. Later that day, the Mayor of Benghazi, Huda Ben Amer, gave the order to shoot the peaceful protestors.
"When you experience that kind of loss you become vividly aware of how absence can become present among people and places where they once lived"
Diana Matar is interested in capturing what can no longer be seen. "It can be ironic within the medium of photography because we rely so stubbornly on a subject," she says. "I have this strong intuition that the past remains and that history's traces are somehow imprinted on buildings, landscapes and even faces, by events that have taken place in the past."
More than 20 years ago, Matar's father-in-law, a Libyan opposition leader, was taken from his home in Cairo where he was living in exile. The Egyptian secret service handed him over to the Gaddafi regime the following day; details surrounding his disappearance are still unknown. "When you experience that kind of loss you become vividly aware of how absence can become present among people and places where they once lived," she says.
Matar's new book, Evidence, tells the story of absence in relation to the personal loss felt through her father-in-law's disappearance. It is the compilation of six years of work. The publication features photographs of locations where Gaddafi executed and tortured Libyans, archival images of horrors that took place in the country and her own diary excerpts from 2005–2012. The diary entries form a narrative which pulls together the personal sense of loss and absence and ties it into the larger political and historical reality of what happened in Libya.
It wasn't until Gaddafi died in 2012, a year after the revolution, that Matar and her husband were able to visit Libya. For Matar, who was born in California, her perception of the country, and how it actually was, proved to be quite different; she had known her husband Hisham for 14 years before she saw the country he had grown up in.
"Almost everything I knew about Libya was negative because the regime had taken Hisham's father, it had kicked him out. It was the place he had to leave; it's the place he wasn't able to go back to. My connection with Libya was not a benign connection in the sense of just another country that one doesn't go to. Everything about it was quite negative."
"Going back I saw it as a place of beauty, nature and links with my husband's family," she adds, describing how hundreds of Hisham's family members awaited them on their arrival.
It was during this trip that Matar took the photographs which make up the body of Evidence. Amongst the images are underground torture chambers, sites where protestors were fired upon and courts where individuals were charged with crimes against the regime. Libyans spoke about the atrocities which happened at these locations every day, Matar says, but almost all the evidence for such crimes had disappeared. So a lasting document that shows these places and what happened in them, particularly during this time, is important, she adds.
"It's a very difficult time in Libya right now and it's very easy to look back and say oh, maybe it was better before. I just think that to have a document which shows the atrocities under the regime - whether that makes any difference right at this moment - in the long term, I think it's very important for history to show that."
"I was aware that my father-in-law's disappearance was part of a larger story, a political struggle in Libya," she says on how she felt visiting and photographing such sites. "Going into these spaces... made me aware of so many other people who had gone through this." Thousands of disappearances took place under the Gaddafi regime, many remain unresolved.
One image features a prison cellblock on the Gaddafi compound. The window is covered with a metal grate and graffiti has been scrawled on the walls. A dilapidated, rusty car has collapsed before it. The image, like most of the others, was taken at night and is in black and white.
"The exposures are all more than 30 minutes long – some are more than an hour - so I'm standing in these places for a very long time. I think obviously there's a resonance to that and a feeling that you get when you're in a place where these things have happened. Standing in these places I felt a lot and I wanted to utilise a language that communicated what I felt and not what I saw," it's also about what they represent within the Libyan consciousness, she adds later.
Shortly after a diary entry dated October 20, 2011, which simply reads, "Gaddafi has been killed", are a handful of colour shots. In one, a woman wearing an orange top and a bright yellow scarf and a man wearing a navy, hooded jacket, sit side-by-side. With their backs to the camera they are looking out onto a turquoise sea.
The photographs in black and white relate to the past. The photographs in colour, which largely feature nature and landscapes, relate to the present, explains Matar. "The time we went was a very positive time; it was a time of possibility. The body of the book is looking towards the past as a kind of evidence to what had happened. This is the present and this is possibility," she says in reference to the image.
Interestingly, the turquoise sea which pulls you into this picture isn't necessarily the first image that comes to mind when you think of Libya. Three years after the revolution Gaddafi is gone, but news reports paint a picture of a country rocked by fighting between Islamists, Arab nationalists and regional militias. Amidst this, it is easy to forget the beauty of the country.
Much of Matar's youth was spent in northern California. She tells me that the coast of Libya reminds her of the place she grew up. "There's this kind of light, this very white, beautiful light there that is just stunning. I haven't seen it on the coast in Egypt or in Spain or Italy or other places on the Mediterranean. I was mesmerised daily by the landscape."
As for the diary entries interspersed through Evidence, they can make for a painful read as the search for her father-in-law Jaballa Matar continues. She describes the legacy of his disappearance as "ongoing" and "taxing."
"There were never any answers and those that are afflicted with it continue to try to do something about it and that never goes away because of the lack of answers. There's always that question of what else can we do."
Still there are glimmers of hope throughout. A passage from August 24, 2012, reads: "I am in California. Rebels have entered Tripoli. H. [Hisham] called early this morning. A group of men have broken down the doors at Abu Salim prison. They have found an elderly man in a cell. They say he is from Ajdabiya. We are waiting."
I ask Matar if she still has hope Jaballa is alive. "We're pretty sure that he's not. Having said that, we've had no answers from the people that know anything about it, we know nothing definitive. You always have hope – unless you have a body, a piece of paper, a grave – there is always that glimmer of hope, and ironically that hope is the thing that is very difficult because you never, ever know. You never know."
Published in Middle East Monitor