March 6, 2011

David Degner in Benghazi: Victory Signs, Mostly (and How Arabs Play for the Camera)


Looking at pictures of the democracy uprising in the Middle East, as in most other conflict situations, the tendency is to imagine them as naturalistic, as if the photographer was invisible or the people in the photos hardly noticed or bothered with the fact they were being recorded. But these situations, and human nature, are hardly so ideal. There are often indications of the difference, such as when we see protesters, mindful of foreign media, carrying signs in English instead of Arabic.  In this post, photographer David Degner, covering the conflict in Eastern Libya, focuses specifically on the effect of his presence.

–Michael Shaw

Raising my camera in Libya these past two weeks, the most common reaction is a smile and the flashing of a peace sign. This sign has a very specific meaning. It stands for “Victory, even in death”, and it is used by protesters and rebels to identify themselves as anti-Qaddafi.

Most Libyans are well familiar with the war coverage from watching satellite TV, so there is a sophisticated understanding of the role of journalists in getting the story out. At the same time, though, the citizen’s idea of how to react to journalists is also skewed by watching Arab news channels. For example, I’ve often observed how political discussions in private can be quite subtle until the camera comes out, at which point nuanced positions become absolutes and emotions are poured out in long soliloquies, and I’ve seen how the camera can quickly rile a milling crowd into a chanting protest.

Eastern Libya is not complete without “peace signs,” by the way. That symbol is contrasted with the raised fist which symbolizes “We are all one hand.” It was a sign of unity and strength under the Qaddafi government. Now, in the battle for the future of the country, it is used to show continued support for the regime.

— David Degner


Next post: Fresh To My Virgin Eyes (Warning: Graphic Content)

Previous post: Nicole Tung in Eastern Libya: The Front Line

You can see the archive of all the photo-reports from BagNews since the Middle East crisis began at Middle-East Uprising 2011. For David’s photo-documentation of life in Cairo, including more crisis images, visit his website, Incendiary Image.

(caption 1: Rebel civilians in the small town of Brega, Libya two days after clashes with Loyalist forces. While the fighting was relatively limited, 12 people were reported to have died. caption 2: The former detention center in the center of Benghazi was first torched and then renovated by the revolutionaries, now it holds their media center and artistic departments devoted to anti-Qaddafi art,)

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David Degner
See other posts by David here.

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