Colonel Gaddafi in air force uniform at an Arab Summit in Tripoli, Libya December 02, 1977. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/Human Rights Watch.
For the past year, Human Rights Watch has been compiling documents and images found after the fall of Libya’s authoritarian regime in a bid to secure an important passage of the country’s history. Now a selection of these artefacts – named The Gaddafi Archives – is set to go on show at the London Festival of Photography. Olivier Laurent reports
In the first months of last year, as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold on Libya slowly crumbled, staff from Human Rights Watch came upon hundreds of discarded documents, including images from the regime’s secret police’s archives, as well as the dictator’s own family albums. “When we arrived in Benghazi in February 2011, we found that many of these documents were being burned,” the NGO’s emergencies director Peter Bouckaert told BJP last year. “Almost all of them had been burned already,” he says, so it was a race against time.
“One day we were approached by a Libyan man who had rescued some images from the State Security Services buildings,” photographs that literally smelled of smoke, Bouckaert recalls. “They had been taken out of the building as it was being burned down by the rebels.” Mindful that his organisation could not remove the images from the country, Bouckaert set about documenting them with the help of photographers such as Thomas Dworzak, Michael Christopher Brown and the late Tim Hetherington. Now, eight months after the fall of Tripoli and Gaddafi’s death, a selection of these photographs, documents, artefacts and videos will go on show in the UK at the London Festival of Photography. Curated by Susan Glen, the exhibition aims “to look behind the ‘grip-and-grin’ smiles of the political photo-op propaganda to reveal what was really going on” in Libya, she says.
Glen got involved last year when she approached Human Rights Watch with the idea of an exhibition at the London Festival of Photography. “This collection of photos excited me as a curator,” she says, “as I have had a lifelong passion for the value of photographs recording historical events. It is of enormous value to the Libyan people as a record of a tumultuous period in their collective history.” It’s normal in the aftermath of a revolution to find a strong desire to destroy all evidence of a regime that brought so much grief and loss. “But it is important a record of those years is saved and preserved to bear witness to the events that occurred, so future generations cannot deny that the events took place.”
Colonel Gaddafi and Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Union, holding hands in Moscow, April 27th, 1981. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/Human Rights Watch.
She adds: “For better or worse, the events of the past 60 years – from both the Kingdom of Libya period and the Gaddafi regime – occurred, and they form the basis of a collective cultural memory for the Libyan people. Future generations will be able to look back, reflect, and assess what happened to their country. These events and memories bind everyone together.”
Bouckaert agrees. “As I walked through the ruins of one of Gaddafi’s homes, together with local officials, I would see them pick up and destroy every image they found of Gaddafi. We thought it was important that these images be preserved. They tell an important story, which in the future will form an important part of Libya’s legacy. They are part of the history of Libya, and that story is relevant to the broader public, as long as they are properly explained and contextualised.”
But when some of these images were first published in The Guardian last year, Bouckaert and Magnum Photos quickly found themselves at the centre of a controversy regarding the images’ copyright information. The charity’s emergencies director had asked Dworzak, a member of Magnum, whether the agency could help distribute the material on behalf of the NGO. “Our organisation doesn’t have a photo agency and we knew that there would be interest in some of these images,” Bouckaert explains. “So we needed somebody to help us distribute the images – not to everybody, but just to the outlets we were working with in an effort to contextualise some of these pictures.
Formal portrait of King Idris with his handwritten inscription to King Hassan II of Morocco. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/Human Rights Watch.
“I’ve been working with Thomas for many years – all the way back to Kosovo,” he says. “So when we were shown these images for the first time, he offered to photograph them so we wouldn’t have to remove the images from the country.” Working from a hotel room, “Dworzak did the initial copy work, using a small digital camera with pictures laid out on a bed – so the quality was not ideal,” reads a Magnum Photos statement released in October last year in answer to the criticism. “Bouckaert later asked Hetherington to photograph a second batch of materials, which may have included rephotographing some of the materials originally copied by Dworzak. No-one was focused on this point, as both photographers were simply trying to create a digital archive for Human Rights Watch under tight conditions.”
When the images were distributed and published with the photographers’ copyright information, questions were raised about Magnum Photos’ intentions. “But it was very clear from day one that Magnum was offering us a service in the interest of preserving this important archive,” says Bouckaert. As for the photographers getting credit, “they clicked the shutter, and when you click the shutter, the image belongs to the photographer. It’s important to acknowledge their copyright, even if it’s not an original image; even if it’s a picture of a picture.” But, Bouckaert is quick to add, “These photographers never intended to claim personal credit. They believed like we did that these images needed to be preserved.”
This past controversy shouldn’t detract from these photographs’ importance, says Bouckaert. “Some of these pictures can help resolve important issues such as the whereabouts of the bodies of people killed in some of the state prisons,” he adds. “We’ve also found the CIA and MI6 renditions files. Those are very important documents and they should see the light of day. These images were almost an incidental find. They are important untold stories that we have to contextualise.”
Gaddafi in the desert with friends in Libya. Image © Courtesy of the estate of Tim Hetherington/Human Rights Watch.
This is what Glen has been trying to do for the London Festival of Photography exhibition. “We’re still in the very early post-revolutionary days,” she says. “So, emotions and memories are still very raw.” But, she adds, “it may help that as a non-Libyan I can look at these images with a degree of detachment and emotional distance.”
For the past few months, Glen has been researching information on the “who, what, when and where” of these images. “Only a very small proportion of the collection has information attached to it,” she tells BJP. “After verifying photos against existing Western photo agency material – roughly about 10 percent of the collection – I was faced with the problem of identifying the rest. After 1973, Gaddafi made Libya virtually inaccessible to photographers. Celebrations surrounding events like the ‘The Taking Over Authority By the People’ simply have not been seen in the West,” she explains. “So it was time to turn away from the archive and to read and to speak to people who could assist. I made a point of referencing only Libyan and translated Arabic accounts for the first month utilising the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I then supplemented my knowledge with accounts and books by Westerners.” Glen has also spoken to a range of eyewitnesses and experts, who have passed on their expertise and knowledge in the verification process.
Yet there are still unsolved mysteries within the collection and there are images that just can’t be exhibited. “There is a set of what we suspect may be prisoners of war, for example, which cannot be shown as that would contravene the Geneva conventions,” she says. Other materials have been excluded for similar reasons, or when it was impossible for Glen to contextualise the events portrayed.
Gaafar Nimeiry of Sudan, Colonel Gaddafi and President Nasser of Egypt mobbed by crowds. Tripoli, 25th December 1969. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/Human Rights Watch.
What Glen has found, however, is that Gaddafi fully understood the power of public presentation. “I will leave observations as to Gaddafi’s state of mind to the medical experts, but what I can do is to pass comment on his visual presentation and demeanour,” she says. “In public he directed the message he wished to project at all times. He could be the Father of Africa in his robes, the powerful military leader in his white suits and gold braids, the Libyan Bedouin in traditional simple brown robes. Over the decades, you can see his skills in this domain grow. He knew he had charisma, and he ruthlessly used it in his bid for control.”
But, she adds, “In his private moments, I do think he personally preferred simplicity. There are a number of images of him relaxing bare-foot in the desert where he looks the most at ease. It’s also notable that in public over a 40-year period that Abu Bakr Younes – Gaddafi’s defence minister – was at his side on practically every occasion.”
Yet, Glen did not find a single frame of Gaddafi at any private, family event, “which suggests that he kept the two worlds apart.” She adds: “I also noticed in two sequences that Gaddafi had the ability to switch between moods in an instant, showing charm and humour in one moment, and an intense, blood-chilling penetrating stare in the next.” In contrast, King Idris [who ruled Libya until he was dethroned in a military coup led by Gaddafi] looked eternally uncomfortable in the public gaze. “He appears self-effacing, modest, reflective and uncertain of himself despite the fact that he was the head of the nation,” says Glen. “The two make a fascinating couple to compare.”
“What I have come to understand about Libya is that there is no one absolute truth,” she adds. “There are multiple interpretations of all aspects of Libyan society, and photos are no exception.” Through her exhibition, which runs from 20 to 29 June, Glen invites the audience to keep an open mind. “My objective is to give the public just the beginning of the process of understanding this complex but fascinating country.”
President Nasser of Egypt, Colonel Gaddafi and President Gaafar Nimiery wave to crowds in Benghazi sports stadium, December 1969. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown/Human Rights Watch.
The Gaddafi Archives now hold thousands of images, according to Bouckaert, some showing hangings in the Benghazi harbour, beaten prisoners, smuggled weapons, and the mugshots of detained Islamists. “Those too are an integral, if more brutal part of understanding the nature of Gaddafi’s regime,” he says. And Human Rights Watch will continue to distribute these images in its quest to contextualise them and help explain what really took place during Gaddafi’s reign. The organisation is working to build an online archive for scholars, historians and curious readers. As for the original images that Dworzak, Hetherington and Brown photographed, they are where they belong – with the Libyan people.
Queen Elizabeth II with King Idris,the Duke of Edinburgh in Tobruk May 1954 with British military official. Image © Courtesy of Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch.
Colonel Gaddafi PLO leader Yasser Arafat circa 1970 possibly for the first anniversary of the revolution of 1969. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown.
President Nasser, Colonel Gaddafi and fan at Beghazi Stadium during Nassers visit to Libya. Benghazi, Dec 1969. Image © Courtesy of Michael Christopher Brown.
Two people who were executed at Banghazi sea port. April 7, 1977. Image © Courtesy of Peter Bouckaert/Human Rights Watch.
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