Goja Jemea, Sinjar, Iraq, March 31, 2019

Kasim and Nadim Mohama faced a harrowing reality when they escaped an attack by Daesh on August 3, 2014, leaving their home and farm behind. Forced to flee to the mountains, they endured eight days of scarcity before a corridor to Syria provided their escape route. The attack devastated their once-thriving agricultural life, resulting in the loss of crops and most of their livestock. Despite returning to find their homes looted and their possessions gone, they resiliently reclaimed their land. Amidst this turmoil, music emerged as a powerful symbol of cultural resistance, uniting the returning families and signalling a hopeful revival of their disrupted lives and agricultural community.

Cultural Resistance As Transformation

Text by Lauren Walsh

Photo selection by Maryam Ashrafi

February 7, 2024

What is cultural resistance? I have been thinking about that since I was asked to write this essay on that topic. My words accompany the many profound photographs compiled here by image-makers from around the world, including documentation in Malaysia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Mauritania, France, United States, Japan and beyond.

In looking at the breadth of these photographs, I grasp that cultural resistance is standing up for, protecting, or taking back that which governing forces have attempted to steal or destroy. Such resistance is enacted by cultural means, whether that entails action via lifestyle, customs or the arts. In many senses, these photographs also speak of cultural resilience and the ability to withstand or recover.

What I noticed as I absorbed this array of global work is that a theme of transformation stands out. Accordingly, this essay on cultural resistance is an essay on the ability of humanity to transform, especially when conditions are dire or unjust. In the end, such determination to transform speaks eloquently to the possibility of resistance and the strength of resilience.

In this first issue of Turning Point, the reader will encounter a variety of transformations, a few of which I highlight here.

A transformation in mindset. This is beautifully encapsulated in Gaelle Girbes’s 2018 photograph of a man whose face is painted white with a single tear drawn down his cheek. He is an actor performing in a version of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s screenplay Numbers, a drama about a confined society attempting to gain its freedom. Sentsov himself was imprisoned at IK-8, a penal colony in Russia, when this image was made, and as he worked from afar to direct the theatrical production. (He also directed the screenplay’s adaptation to film from prison. The cinematic version was released in 2020.) From that place of detention, Sentsov used creative practice to transcend the confines of his actual, physical space. As Girbes’s caption explains, this was an act of resistance and an “escape” through artistry.

Ukraine, Kyiv, December 7, 2018

Backstage at the National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Film Centre, actors Dmytro Olyinkyk and Khrysina Synelnik are preparing for the premiere of ‘Numbers.’ The play directed remotely by imprisoned filmmaker Oleg Sentsov with the help of producer Anna Palenchuk, who assisted him in conveying his directorial guidance from prison. Despite his 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony, Oleg’s work echoed loudly, denouncing oppression. Through the creation of ‘Numbers,’ Oleg Sentsov’s friends aimed to fortify his spirit during his imprisonment, providing an escape through artistic expression. The play symbolized resistance, depicting a society trapped under dictatorship, mirroring the dehumanization of prisoners.

A transformation of the body. This recurs across images, for instance, in Andrea DiCenzo’s photo of “Oct 25” tattooed on a woman’s rear end and representing, as the photographer explains, the Iraqi October Revolution, known as the Tishreen Movement, which “resonated with young people throughout federal Iraq who were fed up with widespread corruption, unemployment, and political sectarianism.” The human body itself becomes the site of resistance, bearing words of activism. Likewise, Noriko Hayashi documents a tattoo, this time in Japan, where a woman’s arm bears the message “#TransRightsAreHumanRights,” a powerful transformation of self in a country that, Hayashi notes, “remains a hostile place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.” Meanwhile, there is Hamid Azmoun’s 2022 portrait, made in Paris, of a woman whose entire face is painted like Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. As Azmoun observes, this transformation of a French woman’s face displays a “solidarity with Iranian women battling against obscurantism.”

Baghdad, Iraq, February 28, 2020

A woman shows off her “Oct25” tattoo on her bum cheek. Starting on 25 October 2019, the Iraqi October Revolution, known as the Tishreen Movement, resonated with young people throughout federal Iraq who were fed up with widespread corruption, unemployment, and political sectarianism.

Paris, France, October 2, 2022

Demonstrators in the streets of Paris to support the Iranian people and to condemn the repression in Iran. France, Paris, October 2, 2022.

Hiroshima,  Japan, April 7, 2023

Like many socially conservative Asian nations, Japan remains a hostile place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Social taboos have kept many in Japan’s LGBTQ community largely invisible, fearful to come out to their loved ones or employers. The majority of Japanese do not believe the rights of LGBTQ people are protected in their country. Kei Okuda’s tattoo advocates for her community. She transitioned to life as a woman four years ago, after spending 31 years as a married father of 4 children. Okuda opened a local safe space, Chosen Family Shobara, in a small mountainous area in Hiroshima for anyone seeking support or who wants to learn about the LGBTQ community. It was a courageous challenge for her to start an advocate for the LGBTQ rights movement alone, not in the city, but in a more conservative rural area. “Rather than feeling like I was becoming a woman, I felt like I returned to who I really was.”

A transformation through education. Adolescent women sit facing a blackboard in Gaia Squarci’s sensitively documented image, which simultaneously brings the viewer inside the classroom while protecting the individuals’ identities, as we—just like the women, with their backs to us—gaze toward the writing on the chalkboard. All of the adolescents, Squarci’s caption explains, are survivors of gender-based violence in Mauritania. Meanwhile, in Maryam Ashrafi’s black-and-white photograph, we again gaze at a chalkboard, this time in Northern Syria. As Ashrafi poignantly observes, the “reconstructed classroom and blackboard symbolize the prioritization of education after conflict.”

Nouakchott, Mauritania, January 10, 2023

Adolescent girls learn to read and write in Arabic at El Wava, a center in Nouakchott, Mauritania, some holding their children conceived in rape. The center offers legal assistance, psychological support and alphabetization to girls survivors of gender-based violence. Most of them are referred to the center after they press charges at the local police department. Some are as young as 11 or 12. El Wava is supported by UNFPA.

Kobane, North-Eastern Syria, May, 2016

One year after Kobani’s liberation, reconstruction continues. This school, once a battleground with a strategic hole for fighters, now embodies resilience. Its reconstructed classroom and blackboard symbolize the prioritization of education after conflict. Despite the remnants, efforts to mend the hole signify the community’s commitment to restoring not just buildings but hope and learning in a new educational system in Northern Syria.

A transformation of history. A simple portrait — a man by a plaque, surrounded by lush greenery, made in Bosnia in 2022 — becomes much more with its explanation. As photographer Fabrice Dekoninck states, “Šerif Velić is a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp.” This camp, run by the Army of Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War, held Bosniak and Bosnian Croat prisoners during the ethnic cleansing of nearby Prijedor in northern Bosnia. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague determined that crimes against humanity were perpetrated at Omarska. Upon Velić’s eventual return to his home, he discovered that everything had been destroyed by Serbs. Before rebuilding his house, “he collected and buried the [old] debris before covering it all with a mound of earth, thus erecting a mausoleum in memory of his own past.”

Kevljani, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September, 2022

Šerif Velić is a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp. Back from exile in Kevljani in 2001, he found that his house had been completely destroyed, as for all non-Serb inhabitants in the municipality of Prijedor. Before rebuilding it, he collected and buried the debris before covering it all with a mound of earth, thus erecting a mausoleum in memory of his own past. The commemorative plaque bears the inscription: “Built by love, destroyed by hate.” This image and the two other Dekoninck’s portraits below are from his recent photo book Between Fears and Hope (Hemeria, 2024).

A transformation of space. Andrea DiCenzo provides a visual example of this, portraying an antigovernment supporter painting a mural in the underpass underneath Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. What was once a blank wall of city infrastructure is repurposed into a canvas of art and activism.

Baghdad, Iraq, November 14, 2023

An antigovernment supporter and artist paints a new mural in the underpass underneath Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. The underpass has been filled with art, murals, and slogans in support of the antigovernment protest movement. The protests, ignited in Tahrir Square and spread spontaneously throughout the city and southern Iraq, began as demonstrations against poverty, corruption, and lack of public services but quickly swelled to demands of a complete overhaul of the Iraqi government. Iraqi citizens, particularly young people, feel like their government hasn’t done enough for them to lead fruitful, dignified lives.

A transformation in sports. Even with a requirement to wear a hejab, Iranian women play competitive sports. Maryam Majd’s photograph underscores the differing standards for men and women, as a female athlete, wearing a head covering, looks at a sports advertisement of male competitors in, as Majd puts it, “comfortable, standard competition clothes.” Nevertheless, these women transcend imposed restrictions and become champions in their fields.

Tehran, Iran, September 1, 2022

‘Women Under the Shadow of Men’ Aftabe Enghelab Sport Complex. Women’s Track and Field Championship League. This time it is about ability. Over time, Iranian girls have acquired the ability to adapt to this cover (Hejab ) and today they have acquired the ability to compete and become champions in these conditions. In all women’s sports events, images of male champions are always used for sports advertisements. A problem that Iranian female athletes are deprived of. This picture shows a female athlete preparing to compete in the starting line with the mandatory hijab cover. She looks at pictures of male athletes in comfortable, standard competition clothes.

The photos in this magazine go well beyond what I have described here. Some highlight legal action, or attempts to raise visibility and awareness or emphasis on psychological counselling. In short, resistance and resilience—by transforming situations, in hopes of experiencing something better—run throughout this compilation.

These photographs remind us of the myriad conflicts that exist: social, political, economic, cultural, gender-based, and, of course, traditional combatant conflict. But they also stand as a testament to the human will to persevere.

Mykolaiv, Ukraine, July 7, 2022

Oleh, call sign Psycho, Military Medic of ukrainian army, play piano in a school destroyed by Russian bombing on the front line in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Target of Russian bombings since the beginning of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, 2022, the key city of southern Ukraine, Mykolaiv, resists. Despite the lack of drinking water, and frequent rocket fire, the population is trying to cope, while a few dozen kilometers away, Ukrainian soldiers are protecting the city and trying to advance to retake the occupied city of Kherson from Russian forces.

Kharkiv, Ukraine, March, 2022

People have taken refuge and are living in a former nuclear bunker in a factory north of Kharkiv. This morning a rocket fell in the courtyard of the building, in front of the entrance of the bunker.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April, 2022

Ajna Jusić, 29, is an activist and feminist based in Sarajevo. She is the founder and President of the organisation Forgotten Children of War, dedicated to championing the rights of children born of wartime rape. Ajna herself was born as a result of war rape, which has fueled her determination to bring about legal and societal changes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The primary objective of the NGO is to bring visibility to children born out of rape within Bosnia’s legal system, and in Bosnian society as a whole. To achieve this, her team and her use various creative mediums, such as art exhibitions, music, and theater performances to raise awareness about the existence of children born from such tragic circumstances. The NGO also engages in peacebuilding initiatives and works towards promoting respect and understanding among people with diverse traditions and religions in Bosnia.

Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April, 2022

Darko Cvijetić is a Bosnian-Serb writer, filmmaker, and poet, renowned for his novel Schindler Lift. In this book, he depicts the gradual disappearance of a once peaceful and tolerant way of life through the daily lives of residents in a multi-ethnic residential building in Prijedor. The story unfolds in the context of ethnical cleansing and is inspired by a real event: the accidental decapitation of a young Serb girl by the elevator door in the building. The novel portrays the violence and hatred that engulfed the residents of Prijedor at the onset of the war.

Sarawak forest, Malaysia, February 18, 2020

Peng Megut, a Penan leader of the Long Tevenga village, is posing in front of a house build as a blockade at a junction toward his village. This blockade is a result of years of battle against logging and palm oil companies willing to cut trees of what’s left of the primary forest in Sarawak (Borneo). This forest is also the habitat and the source of food of the Penan people. By building this house and with the help of the Bruno Manser Fonds and its lawyers, Peng and the other Penan from his village have successfully blocked a lumberjack road. Still, we don’t know how long it’s going to last.

Long Daun, Malaysia, February 12, 2020

Ma is trying to catch a bird in a tree. The Penans traditional way to hunt is while using blowpipes and poisoned darts, but they do now use firearms too for the big animal like wild boars. Originally, the Penan were nomads who subsisted by hunting, fishing and gathering in the rainforest. Ma and his brothers-in-law next to him, are the members of one of the last Penan family that still living their traditional way of life despite the pressure of palm oil and timber companies that keep taking more lands in the Sarawak forest where they live.

Bateu Bungan, Malaysia, February 13, 2020

A school has been established in the village for the children of the communities living in the Mulu area. For the children living too far away, there are dormitories until the weekend when they can go home. As the Penan that have been settled down in the Mulu region, the next generation follow the usual education path and go less and less in the rainforest.

Bukan, Iran, December 20, 2012

Sousan, a 26-year-old woman, has dedicated the past 9 years to teaching her native language, Kurdish, to the inhabitants of remote and deprived villages in the Kurdish regions of Bukan. Despite the hardships she faced as a Kurdish woman on this path, she continues to persist in providing this education. Her classes take place in mosques or the elders’ houses within the villages, where women, men, and children all learn to read and write Kurdish together in one classroom. To date, Sousan has taught Kurdish in over 43 villages and remains determined to continue her journey.

Kabul, Afghanistan, July 27, 2014

Afghan artists perform a show as members of civil society organizations participate in an anti-Taliban demonstration to rally against “civilians killing” during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bamiyan , Afghanistan, July 27, 2014

Two Hazara ethnic girls practice Afghanistan’s traditional musical instruments at their home in central Bamiyan city, Afghanistan.

Kabul, Afghanistan, September 6, 2021

Taliban fighters pose to the camera beside a “There can be no peace without women” graffiti written on the wall of Norwegian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

New York City, US, November 12, 2023

The band Cross plays as people attend a hard core punk concert in support of Palestine at the Herbert Von King Park in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough in New York City.

Lviv, Ukraine, August 4, 2013

Kateryna Tarnovska is a kickboxing world champion and a founder of Asgarda, a Ukrainian female martial arts group, whose philosophy is based on Vedic culture, and celebrates the image of a woman strong both psychologically and physically. When the war broke up in Ukraine, Kateryna did not stay aside and joined the infantry to defend her country from Russia’s invasion.

Tehran, Iran, November 5, 2016

The documentary photographer Mo Zaboli, who fled from Iran, shows the oppressive atmosphere of confinement against the backdrop of an illusory, apparently functioning world in Tehran. These are the last images of the photographer before he had to leave Iran after a prison sentence. Together with a taxi driver, who at the same time is seen in the pictures as the person sealed in a plastic bag, Mo Zaboli relays his own experience with the view about in-between, where people who are in the state of being trapped and captured need to arrange their lives. One solution is to break out of the situation, the escape from the unbearable. But here too, there is also the decision about how the escape should be risked or whether it would just be better to go back. It is the beginning of the journey to in-between.