Friday, November 21, 2008

Curtains of Change

Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World

by Alexandra Avakian
National Geographic Focal Point (September 30, 2008)
208 pages/hardcover/150 photographs/$40.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World is the first title released in National Geographic Books’ new imprint, Focal Point. In accord with Focal Point’s mission to, “draw on the most outstanding photography of today’s journalistic elite,” Alexandra Avakian’s memoir is exceptionally influential. Avakian’s enviable assignments from leading journals spanning twenty years resulted in a massive body of work. Her 150 selections for this book reflect an exclusively personal and brave assemblage of Muslim life.

Windows of the Soul is divided into sections on The Palestinians, Iran, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Somalia and the Sudan, America and Hezbollah. The chapters are a mix of news stories, discoveries, atrocities and realities of a way of life. The images were often taken at much risk to Avakian’s safety and health. In Gaza, she spent two years in Islamic clothing—blending in to gain trust and access—but the cost included being beaten by Hamas and shot at by Israeli troops. Her infiltration into Hezbollah was unprecedented and her depiction of their daily life is oddly still. As she photographs Muslims in America, the images become more saturated, lively and divergent as she documents Arab festivals in Michigan, a baptism in Texas and a Persian New Year celebration on the beach in California.

Like her photographs, Avakian’s narrative in Windows of the Soul is clear-cut and poetically composed. The text is a private accounting yet she provides readers with more than just an insider’s view of life in regions that mystify many outside of their world. In Iran, an image of masked women sipping sodas at a market is shot intrusively but their masks and head coverings create a separateness of subject and shooter. Avakian explains that she couldn’t resist trying on a mask herself: “The most disconcerting thing…was having my vision strictly divided between left and right….” Following gunfire in Gaza, Avakian stumbles upon, “a Palestinian teenager dying in the dregs of the alley’s sewage.” Her photo is largely flanked on the left foreground by a soldier with his weapon ready, creating a type of crude barrier over the stricken teen.

The degree to which Windows of the Soul works to turn around the ignorance of the many political and social issues facing Muslims is significantly high. All too often the media diverts attention away from matters of real importance; Avakian’s efforts to the contrary with this subject matter deserve recognition and reward. Even if the Muslim world remains chiefly impenetrable to outsiders despite attempts to change that through dialogue and photojournalism, Avakian is to be admired for sharing without hesitation the amazing insider details of the mindset and methodology rooted in her work.

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