Artist Talks: Nabil Harb

This week, the Yale Herald sat down with Nabil Harb, MFA ’21, a photography student. Harb is a Palestinian-American photographer born and raised in central Florida. His most recent work seeks out the source of power in abandoned institutional buildings from his home, Polk County. 

YH:  Can you describe your most recent body of work?

NH:  It’s a new body of work I’ve been making since being here [at Yale]. It’s just been me going into this old abandoned jail in Polk County, Fla., where I’m from. So I photographed in there, I photographed in the medical examiner’s office in Polk County and then in a historic courthouse. It was about going behind the scenes into basements, into back storage closets. The whole jail is basically a storage area now. I’m photographing to track history, to think about these spaces as obvious sources of power and understanding how these spaces and institutions have shaped the society around us. I’m trying to get to the center of that. I’ve made a lot of work in Polk County, and it’s all around the topic of power. It’s kind of haunting—it’s in black-and-white, some flash involved. 

YH:  What are the implications of their being abandoned places as opposed to active ones? 

NH:  Two-fold. One: for practicality purposes. I wasn’t really interested in photographing an active jail because I don’t want to photograph inmates. I’m not interested in representing specific individuals, but rather the marks they made in those spaces. It would be so much more difficult to photograph in an active jail. There would be a lot more hoops to jump through, but then again, it speaks a lot more to history. They still have markings on the wall for how many inmates were in this block, how many suicide attempts happened in a given week, and how many people were on medical watch. It’s weird—I get to just step in. For a photographer, it’s more fun to go in a space that’s empty because I can create a story, or maybe I can allow it to lead me unencumbered because it’s me, alone in this space, getting connected. It feels more meditative when I’m alone. I can imagine how, if it was active, it would be more hectic and stressful and I’d feel the pressure of the time limit. 

YH:  How does black-and-white photography help you better convey your stories?

NH:  I shoot in digital. I’m starting to shoot film now for another project, but I like using black and white because of its relationship to history. A lot of canon documentary photographers use black and white. There’s this relationship between black-and-white photography and fact and truth. Documentary work aims to show you something objectively, and I wanted to play with the objective/subjective push and pull that happens in photography. For practical reasons, I like the way black-and-white photography evens out all the lighting. A light from the bulb in a prison turns into the same quality of light that my flash is releasing. It unifies a lot of elements formally.

YH:  As a Palestinian-American photographer from central Florida, how has your upbringing shaped your conception of art? How do you relate to what you depict and how you depict it? 

NH:  I studied anthropology in undergrad. I transitioned to photography because I realized that photography would allow me to talk about what I want to talk about, the way I want to talk about it. There’s a guise of objectivity in anthropological work that is so falsified. It’s still very subjective work—the ethnographer or anthropologist is just as biased as anyone with a camera. There’s this veil of “we pretend that we know what’s actually happening,” and there’s no room for subjectivity, because then your work is invalidated. Photography embraces subjectivity in a way that I find really productive and honest. I use that to dig into the concerns of where I was from, starting with Polk County. Being from there has given me a healthy amount of skepticism towards the art world. As an artist from central Florida, trying to relate myself to the larger art world in New York, for instance, feels like [New York art scenes] are truly out of touch. It feels like, a lot of the time, New York art scenes are only interested in themselves, and if you leave that city, they don’t really care—especially when it comes to queer issues, which a lot of my work used to revolve around. It felt like I would see queer photographers in New York City making work that felt tone-deaf. There’s all this talk about what HIV and AIDS was in the art world in the ’80s and ’90s, but rarely have I found people that talk about it in a contemporary way. This is why places like Visual AIDS in New York City are so important. In Polk County, HIV contraction rates are still rising. It was frustrating to go to an art show in New York about AIDS that talks about what AIDS used to be. We still have that problem, big time! You add a Palestinian identity on top of all of that . . . I was hoping that, by coming to this school, I could stretch out the narrative, decenter it, and try to have this conversation about queer people of color’s issues somewhere else. 

YH:  On the note of bringing a new voice, what do you hope that your work communicates? 

NH:  I guess I’m still trying to figure that out. I know that, on the base level, it’s just trying to get people to think, “What would it be like to live somewhere else? What would it be like to live in Polk County and be gay? Or queer, or trans, or Palestinian, or black, or whatever?” Where I’m from is a bizarrely diverse place, and you wouldn’t expect it—I hope that people can start to consider that. I know that an MFA program here is full of students from LA, Chicago, and New York, and I know that those people come from other places and go to these schools, but I came from “another place.” I very much try to drag that with me here. I want people to reckon with the fact that people live differently in other places, and those other places are in this country. People in this country still have problems that we take for granted. I’m just trying to figure that out, and hopefully it works. 

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