The photographs in Abdo Shanan’s series “Diary: Exile” (2014–2016) take viewers by the hand and race them through a vertiginous world of gritty, everyday intimacies. Imagine Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus meeting Roger Ballen in the inner cities of twenty-first-century Algeria to produce work that none of them had the background or experience to perceive. More often than not, Shanan frames his images from above or below. He points his camera up to catch a shredded campaign poster or the face of a woman laughing, down to catch a splash of white paint on the sidewalk, a hand on a leopard-print coat, or a pair of lovers rolling on the ground. In Shanan’s series, there are friends, strangers, twins, soiled bedsheets, signs of poverty, hardship, and distress, as well as moments of unguarded pleasure.
Shanan was born in the Algerian city of Oran in 1982. His family left just before the start of the civil war, which erupted in 1991 and tore through the country chaotically until 2002, when the conflict didn’t so much end as exhaust itself. Shanan’s father was a professor of international law. He moved the family to Sirte, in Libya, where Shanan grew up among an international crowd. Shanan’s friends were the children of people from across Africa, Asia, and Europe who were there to work in universities, hospitals, oil and gas industries, and construction. Unfortunately, he graduated from university just as Mu‘ammar Gaddhafi imposed a law prohibiting the employment of non-Libyans. That left Shanan with time on his hands. He filled it by taking pictures—first with the camera on his mobile phone, and then, when that was stolen, with an analog camera.
Shanan belongs to a pivotal generation in the history of photography, the first to be born in a totally digital age, the first to move anachronistically from the flood of images online back to film, chemicals, equipment, and developing pictures in a darkroom. “Photography is my fourth language,” says Shanan, who returned to Algeria in 2009 and now lives in Oran. (His first, second, and third are Arabic, French, and English.) But black-and-white film has to be imported from Europe and is now extremely hard to find in Algeria. And, on various levels, Shanan continues to find his homecoming frustrating. “I thought coming back here would bring me home, but it didn’t,” he says. The country had changed, and so had Shanan during his time away. “It was difficult to find common ground. This led me to do the diary. It created a kind of exile for me.”
“Diary: Exile” is part of a trilogy that Shanan aspires to complete as a means of capturing the fullness and complexity of his own identity. It begins with Algeria and will be followed by accounts of Libya and then of Sudan, where his father is from. Working on the project, he has come into contact with other young artists, photographers, and filmmakers—whether on social media or in person—who suffer from a similar sense of isolation and a dearth of resources.
In 2015, during a contemporary photography festival in Algiers, a five-hour train ride from Oran, Shanan was talking to a handful of artists. Sensing the benefits of working together, they drew up a plan for creating a collective, named 220 after the room in the Hôtel Albert Premier where they met. Collective 220 now has seven members, including Yassine Belahsene, Houari Bouchenak, Youcef Krache, and Sonia Merabet. Together, they are bound by their passion for photography and a desire for greater visibility of art from Algeria, particularly on platforms throughout Africa, such as the Bamako Biennale in Mali (where Krache participated in 2015) and Ethiopia’s Addis Foto Fest (which featured Shanan’s work in 2016). Shanan describes the collective as a common laboratory, a place for learning, experimentation, and risk. But it’s also a communal office for members who bring in varied professional experiences in the fields of advertising, fashion, and film.
“We can share our work and get honest feedback,” Shanan explains. “We don’t have editors. We don’t have really good art critics. We have to be critics for each other.” Much of the work of the collective is emphatically practical. When Krache, for example, was working on a project about some of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Algiers, other 220 photographers joined him when he was shooting. But the facts of the collective are also philosophical. “We’re a group of people trying to be creative,” Shanan says. That means quite a lot in this world these days.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer, critic, and contributing editor of Bidoun. Her text and Shanan’s photographs are excerpted from Aperture’s Summer issue, “Platform Africa.”