Photos depicting Kurdish female soldiers removed from Iranian photographer's exhibition at MDA's request

Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian.
Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian. PHOTO: PRINCE CLAUS FUND
Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015), a photograph by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian.
Portrait Of Somayyeh (2015), a photograph by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian. PHOTO: NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN

SINGAPORE - When Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian's exhibition I Know Why The Rebel Sings opened on June 22, black cards took the place of 15 photographs depicting Kurdish female soldiers who had joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Media Development Authority (MDA) had asked that these photographs be removed before a licence could be given for the exhibition, which is part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts' pre-festival programme, The O.P.E.N.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, MDA said the festival team had submitted about 150 of Newsha's photos for the exhibition.

"These included photographs of members from a terrorist-linked organisation, who had committed acts of violence to further their cause, for example suicide bombing."

MDA asked that these photographs be removed from the show. "Singapore takes a firm stand against extremism, and will not allow photographs that undermine public order, national security and/or stability to be displayed," it said.

It did not name the organisation, but the women in the photographs removed from the exhibition are part of the YPJ, an all-woman offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which seeks to establish an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey.

The party has carried out attacks on Turkey and the Turkish government, along with a number of Western countries, consider it a terrorist organisation.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen, however, called the decision a "puzzling" one, as the missing photographs were first published in an April 2015 issue of Time magazine, in a photo essay titled Meet The Women Taking The Battle To ISIS.

He told The Straits Times on June 22 that MDA did not explain why these photos had to be pulled.

Asked about  MDA's response, he said: "In the context of the photos, the Kurds are fighting ISIS. So the question of who is a terrorist has to be examined, rather than just taking a blanket perspective."

To questions about the photos being published last year in Time magazine, MDA said it does not pre-vet publications that are sold in Singapore.

"The importation and distribution of publications is largely self-regulated. MDA will review the contents of the said issue of Time magazine," it said.

Newsha's exhibition, which runs at TheatreWorks' space at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road till July 9, offers a wide-ranging look at her work, from war reportage to intimate, artistic portraits of the people of Iran.

The award-winning photographer who last year became a nominee member of Magnum Photos, could not be reached for comment as she is travelling. She will be here for a talk on her work on June 29.

Ong said the festival team had submitted Newsha's photos to the MDA for approval at the end of April. MDA guidelines state that materials for an event must be submitted in full at least two months before the start of the event.

The festival team was informed on June 19 that 31 photos from the On The War Trail series, one eight in the exhibition, would be disallowed.

Fifteen of the photographs that made the final cut for the exhibition were removed and replaced with black cards.

Ong said: "I felt very strongly that we had to show that some photographs were removed, that some concessions were made."

Admission to the exhibition is free for those who with an O.P.E.N. pass, which offers admission to all pre-festival programmes for $45. Those without a pass can purchase a single entry ticket at the door for $10.

asyiqins@sph.com.sg