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COLUMN - Pay No Attention to That Country Behind the Curtain

COLUMN – Pay No Attention to That Country Behind the Curtain

Through the example of two recently published books, our columnist shows how photography can thwart the staging of authoritarian states.

Excavation and construction, Riyadh © Peter Bogaczewicz

In the eyes of the world, Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia already wears a lot of hats: de facto supreme leader, cell phone hacker, murder orchestrator. But read Peter Bogaczewicz’s book, Kingdom of Sand and Cement (Daylight, TK) which documents the rapid reimagining of the wealthy Gulf nation, and you might want to add one more: film director. 

Don’t take that literally. The Crown Prince is not actually making movies—at least not yet. But in an essay for the book, journalist Karen Elliot House argues that his plan for the country might best be described as filmic. After decades in which the Kingdom seemed like “a silent film featuring the flickering faces of one octogenarian ruler after another,” she writes, it’s now more like “an IMAX movie on fast forward,” operating according to “a futuristic script produced by the young prince.” 

Much has been made in the international press of that script’s implications for the daily lives of Saudi people (think: women finally permitted to drive, cinemas reopening after a 35-year ban, the economy shifting from oil to tourism and technology.) Those cultural shifts, however, are not the subject of Bogaczewicz’s book. His main focus, instead, is changes to the country’s built environment—the ruins Prince Mohammad is trying to cast off, and the elaborate sets upon which he is staging his country’s grand new narrative.

It’s a natural topic for Bogaczewicz, a Toronto-based architect who is currently working in the Kingdom. In the book, he displays an architect’s eye for line and form, but perhaps more importantly, he shows a documentarian’s nose for story. In this case, he’s found a story about the clash between past and future, nature and progress, fiction and reality. “The whole project speaks to the kind of contrast you experience at this moment in time here,” Bogaczewicz tells me. 

New district Al Amaaria © Peter Bogaczewicz

Those contrasts are often jarring, and often contained within a single photo: a pile of plastic bottles in the courtyard of an abandoned mud building in Dirah, a crumbling old settlement in Al-Ula across form a new town, a green farm appearing like a postage stamp stuck at random in Wadi Laban’s sandy landscape. The message, it seems here, is clear: out with the old, in with the new.

Elsewhere in the book, however, much looks like it’s halfway between one state and another. A great crater appears in the ground where a new building will be erected in Riyadh. Whole chunks of mountains are blasted out to make way for roads. Broad swaths of earth appear newly smooth, a blank canvas waiting for something new.

It’s all quite surreal, and no less so when it comes to Bogaczewicz’s photos of completed projects—that is, the disarmingly picture-perfect shopping malls, skyscrapers, and infrastructure projects the artist Sophia Al Maria has called “Gulf Futurism.” In one frame largely composed of undeveloped land and drab, beige-colored apartment buildings, the silvery Kingdom Center Tower slinks in the background, looking as though it could have been Photoshopped into place. Or is it the tower, one starts to wonder, that rightly belongs there? Could it be the scraggly landscape around it that is, in fact, manufactured? Which is the real Saudi Arabia? Wide shots like these are not just studies in contracts; they’re studies in contradictions.

Meridian Gate, Palace of Ming and Qing Dynasties, Hengdian World Studios © Mark Parascandola

Similar incongruities are on display in another book published by Daylight, Mark Parascandola’s Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. It, too, looks at a country’s gargantuan—and often uncanny— effort to re-write national narratives through its built environment. But in this case, a directorial analogy isn’t merely figurative. In China, the changemaker is the film industry itself.

Like Saudi Arabia’s construction industry, China’s film industry has grown substantially in just a few decades. Until the 1980s, UCLA professor Michael Berry points out in an essay in the book, the industry was completely state-run, and films were produced at just a handful of state-owned studios. As the country integrated into the global market economy, private film companies and production studios emerged. Today, China’s own locally-made blockbusters are selling more tickets than Hollywood movies.

Making all those films has altered the landscape of the country, as Parascandola shows in his photos of the nation’s huge film sets. Hengdian World Studios, for instance, was first built on farmland in the 1990s; it’s now the largest movie studio in the world, complete with a full-size replica of the Forbidden City. Across the country, equally ambitious studios have erected sets the size of towns, populated with fully-constructed, intricately-detailed buildings that throngs of tourists pay to visit. 

Lunch Break, Shanghai Film Park © Mark Parascandola

The Chinese film industry isn’t merely an economic project. It’s also a political machine, one designed to shape hearts and minds about the country and its government. Like Hengdian, many studios in China feature large-scale outdoor sets depicting episodes in the country’s history. There’s a shady logic to that. “Part of that is because there’s active censorship of film and other media in China,” Parascandola tells me. “You’re less likely to run afoul of the censors if you set your story in the past, because you’re less likely to reflect on the current leadership or current issues.” 

Parascandola’s photos don’t serve to admire the scale of these sets, or to relish in their attention to detail. Instead, they cleverly and subtly shatter their illusion. One photo of the faux Forbidden City, for instance, features apartment buildings and a soccer field in the background. Photos of actors in historical garb, meanwhile, often find them during a break—sleeping, eating lunch, or staring at their phones. When actors are shown in character, Parascandola often includes cameramen and other crew members in the frame.

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai  and Kingdom of Sand and Cement are situated in markedly different political and historical contexts. But in a sense, Parascandola and Bogaczewicz share a similar message: While powerful entities can put on a good show, the lens can always find a way to peer behind the curtain.

Stunt Show, Huzhou Film and Television City © Mark Parascandola

Farm. Wadi Laban © Peter Bogaczewicz

Kingdom Center Tower, Riyadh © Peter Bogaczewicz

Between Takes, Xiangshan  Film and TV City, Ningbo © Mark Parascandola

By Jordan G. Teicher

Kingdom of Sand and Cement 

Published by Daylight Books

Photographs by Peter Bogaczewicz, Foreword by Edward Burtynsky, Essays by Karen Elliott House and Rodrigo Orrantia

$50, 144 pages

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

Published by Daylight Books

Photographs by  Mark Parascandola, Essay by Michael Berry 

$45, 148 pages

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