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.” Read More