In the spring of 2011, photographer Guy Martin came across a wall covered with photographs of missing men outside the central courthouse in Benghazi, Libya. They were images of men who had disappeared during the forty years that Muammar Qaddafi had ruled the country, whether during the conflict then taking place or during decades of arrests and kidnappings. At the time Martin was there, fierce fighting was still underway between rebels and government forces, with months to go before Qaddafi would be overthrown. The pictures have since been removed.
The August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine features a portfolio of Martin’s images of the wall. He corresponded with Yumna Mohamed about the experience of photographing the photographs:
“These photographs of Libya’s missing men were displayed prominently on the walls of the Benghazi courthouse-turned-rebel-media-center, on the cornice of the Benghazi seafront. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people would walk past and look at them every day. The photographs were placed there because of the courthouse’s central and highly visible location. It was the place where many of the demonstrations, anti-Qaddafi tents, makeshift Internet cafés, and live broadcasts were set up. So I was never taking these pictures in isolation. I had to make my way through crowds of people to “re-photograph” the pictures, and while I was taking them, people would want me to photograph a certain person or point me in the direction of a particular group of pictures.”
“To me, the pictures speak to everyone. I had to think of what my family or friends would do if they had a son or a brother that went missing: They would print the biggest picture they had of that person and put it in the place where the world’s media were. That’s what anyone would do. These are family pictures, cell-phone pictures, graduation pictures, first-day-at-work pictures. They are the sorts of pictures that all families take, be it in New York or Benghazi. I just hoped that an audience could make that banal yet important link.”
“I felt particularly moved by a picture I saw of a man that was taken for a wedding. It was a really bad cell-phone picture printed on Xerox paper, torn and scrunched up. I think about what his family must have done to get that picture and pin it up on the wall. Who made the picture? Who made the printout? Who pinned it up on the wall? At what time? In my own mind the answer was the women of the missing man. When you start thinking like that—that the death of this man has meant that a wife is without a husband, a daughter is without a father, or a sister is without a brother—it takes on another level of sadness, and for me it really speaks to what the war in Libya was all about. Loss, and families losing loved ones.”
“So often, the scenes that documentary and news photographers take are so violent, so otherworldly, so abstract from the lives that we in the West live, it makes it damn hard to make someone care. I’m trying to combat that antipathy. I was conscious that these pictures seemed to have more historical resonance than the news photographs from the front lines. As photojournalists witnessing these events, we so often lose a sense of perspective, of history and knowledge, in our effort to chase the sexy ‘bang-bang’ pictures. With these images, I could begin to connect the dots of Libya’s turbulent and violent history under Qaddafi. I always felt like an outsider in Libya, whose people, culture, and history I didn’t understand. But with these pictures, I was in some way piecing together parts of Libyan history that would otherwise go unnoticed. Pictures of the men and boys who died in the opening bloody days of the revolution, before any journalists arrived. Faces of men and boys who had died on mysterious plane crashes—Lockerbie being the most recognizable, but there were others.”
“The response so far from people who have seen the pictures has been tremendous. In recent exhibitions in the United Kingdom, we blew them up to six feet tall and placed them on bus shelters and public spaces with the word ‘missing’ placed above them. They stopped traffic and drew complaints to local councils and police. But that was exactly the type of response I was looking for. It made people stop, it made people care and take action. We also printed the entire body of work, some fifty pictures, in a free newspaper and handed it out on the London underground at rush hour.”
“In Libya, many families have not returned to their homes, and the sense of vendetta is still very much in place. For example, the Tawrga people who lived close to Misrata have all been but expelled from the area, as angry Misratans blame them for siding with loyalist forces and supporting the siege of the city. But in the centre of Misrata, the local council has installed a martyrs’ museum filled with family pictures of war dead, war debris, ammunition, and other ephemera. It’s a strong reminder of the power of the still photographs taken by the local population to commemorate the dead and the missing.”