The Photographs of Mia Gröndahl

The news media likes its narratives simple, concise, and easy to digest. Conflicts, no matter how complex, are frequently distilled into good side versus bad side, freedom lovers versus tyrants, liberals versus radicals, and friends versus enemies of the West. This template applies indiscriminately to conflicts across the globe, and those deemed too impenetrable or resistant to this narrative are set aside. To drive home the supposed clarity of its sound-bite discourses, popular media gives pat summaries catchy names, one of the most recent being “Arab Spring,” to describe a decidedly diverse revolutionary wave of violent and nonviolent demonstrations, riots, protests, and, perhaps most protracted of all, civil wars that have taken place in the so-called Arab world. Taking its cue from the Prague Spring of 1968, the mainstream media invented the term Arab Spring, though the seasons of the year, or the particular season of spring, has precious little to do with the wave of demonstrations and protests that began in late 2010, in the perhaps unlikely North African country of Tunisia.

The news media has had a particular fascination or affection for its Arab Spring, seeing it as a compelling manifestation of people power. Northern Africa, much like other parts of the continent, and indeed, other parts of the world, is home to a wide range of peoples of different ethnicities, religions, and political persuasions. Little of that diversity, however, is reflected in the beloved simplistic narratives of the mainstream media. To try to make sense or garner a nuanced understanding of the constituent parts of the Arab Spring is further complicated by such inadequate descriptions as demonstration, riot, protest, and civil war. When a gathering or group action becomes a demonstration, a riot, a protest, or a civil war is subject to all manner of vagaries. And perhaps most troubling is the question of what happens when the news media tires of covering an event such as the Arab Spring and turns its attentions elsewhere. The implications might be that the conflict has run its course or been resolved. We know, however, that the world seldom, if ever, bequeaths such tidy conclusions.

Enter the remarkable photographs of Mia Gröndahl, a Cairo-based, Swedish-born photojournalist who has established herself as a particularly empathetic documenter of struggle, resistance, and change. In contrast to the sorts of images that dominate mainstream media reportage, hers are crafted and highly nuanced constructions that, perhaps more than anything else, reveal both the humanity and tenacity of those people she takes as her subject. Gröndahl has produced fascinating visual documents that emphatically avoid the simple dichotomies referenced above. A profound sense of empathy for her subjects’ struggles can be discerned at the core of her uncommon and extraordinary images. Gröndahl’s photographs frequently enable, or compel, us to look again at the powerful medium of graffiti and the ways in which, in cities such as Cairo, the graffiti artist articulates and documents social upheaval. Her images reveal the extent to which both aspirations and experiences tend to find particularly direct, poignant, and powerful expression through graffiti art. To engage with the graffiti art in Gröndahl’s photographs is to begin to engage with the complexities of the Arab Spring, as well as the ways in which Cairo’s graffiti artists have learned so much from the graffiti of the Palestinian struggle.

The above text by Eddie Chambers “The Photographs of Mia Gröndahl”, was published, with a selection of Gröndahl’s photographs, in Nka Contemporary African Art journal, spring 2015 issue, no. 36, June 2015: 62-75