“Mops And More” © Jan Oberg 2023
October 20, 2023
I assume that most readers here know me as a peace and conflict researcher and as co-founder and director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, TFF.
However, since 2009, I’ve also worked as an art photographer, done projects, and arranged almost 30 exhibitions in my studio here in Lund, Sweden. See more on Oberg PhotoGraphics.
I grew up with contemporary art; it’s always been an essential, joyful interest of mine. And in 2002-2003, I found out that I could reach people not only with texts but also with images.
Back then, I went on fact-finding in Iraq and interviewed some 160 people at all levels and also took photos with an early digital low-resolution camera – of people, cafées, nature, streets, children, cultural places, museums and… life in general, nothing special. It was merely snapshots made between meetings in an otherwise quite tight meeting schedule.
Upon my return home, I wrote extensively about what I had heard and seen and I included some of the photos. You may see some of both here on TFF’s homepage at the time as well as all the articles TFF Associates and I published 2002-2005. In 2004, I published the book “Predictable Fiasco” about the West’s invasion and war (in Danish).
To my surprise, there were more people around the world who reacted to my photos than to my texts. I remember that the most frequent type of comment was something like this:
“The images we have seen about Iraq are almost all photos of Saddam with different hats, shooting in the air or watching a military parade. Your pictures show the people, the children, culture and daily life in a way that opened my eyes to the richness of Iraq and also revealed to me that a special negative type of pictures is disseminated as part of preparations/demonisation prior to actual US warfare…”
Several people who commented actually pointed out that the Iraqis had mild eyes. Whether that is true or not is not the point – but people who deserve to be killed or harmed cannot be presented as having mild eyes. Saddam was an evil man with hard eyes and so, the inference was that so were all 21 million Iraqis.
Now, that opened my eyes. I had spent my professional life reading and writing academic texts – and teaching courses based on text. I had never used images.
Add to that that twenty years ago was about the time that all kinds of images broke through all over the world, not the least thanks to computers, digital cameras and mobile phones. And today, whether we like it or not, we live in a world in which images – still as well as videos – are of tremendous importance. And, as it seems, everyone has become a photographer.
From there, I began to think deeper about a peculiar part of reality and the creation of world perceptions that people live with: the world – the real world as well as that of entertainment – is full of images of violence while nobody seems to ask: What would images of peace be like?
These many years later, I cannot tell what I believe an image of peace looks like. But I know that the images of war and violence, while certainly depicting an important part of human reality, don’t tell the whole story, that the incredible dominance of such images everywhere is unhealthy and that it requires much more thinking and creativity to create a picture of peace (in a broad sense) than shooting photos in a war zone.
In addition, there is enough doom and gloom around us. Much too much!
In 2018, I travelled around China for about 40 days without prior plans – able to stop where I wanted to dwell for a while. I met wonderful hospitable people everywhere and took photos; actually some 6000.
I had visited China in 1983 as a member of a Danish cultural delegation. That gave me the gift of comparison. I could see the tremendous positive change – economic, social, cultural, education-wise, etc – that had taken place in just 35 years.
It so happened that I had been invited by the European Cultural Center (ECC) in Venice, Italy, in 2016 to exhibit some photos at its “Personal Structures” series of exhibitions with artists from all over the world. So upon my return home, I began working on what became a large multi-media four-panel installation inspired by the China-initiated Belt & Road Initiative in 2013.
It was shown over 6 months in 2019 in the ECC’s “Personal Structures – Identities” exhibition as part of the Venice Art Biennale, the world’s most important venue for contemporary art.
SPAR stood in Palazzo Mora and was seen by 300,000 people from all over the world. And it created a lot of dialogue about how the world is changing. I personally talked with about 1,500 visitors from all corners of the world and listened to their views of their own society and culture and that of others – as well as to their fears, their hopes and their visions.
Recently, the board of TFF decided to make SPAR a cooperative project between TFF and Oberg PhotoGraphics. We now work with text and with art as equal media in our struggle to promote the UN Charter’s extremely important norm that “peace shall be established by peaceful means” (Article 1).
In 2019, everything was ready for the SPAR installation to go to China, but then came the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, I have added two new dimensions to the original installation: 10 small mixed-media paintings and some 50 photographic prints.
The ambitious plan is to find partners in China, get the whole work over to China, have it touring around there in 2024 and perhaps 2025, being shown at different galleries, museums, art venues, institutions, etc. – and then have it travelling and shown in some of the capitals of countries party to the Belt & Road Initiative and, finally, come back to Europe.
During that process, it will be a) exhibited, b) new works will be co-created with Chinese and other artists and be added, and – hopefully – c) stimulate some fascinating intercultural dialogues about the world’s future.
TFF and I want to sow more and different seeds for better mutual understanding. And for peace – which is always a win-win phenomenon – in times when the West is busy demonising China and laying the groundwork for an ongoing Cold – if not Warm – war with China which will be a lose-lose for all.
To be anti-war and armament is indeed noble and necessary, but it is not enough. We must work for peace with a vision, be pro-peace and thereby show alternatives to militarism and prevent the next wars…
That’s what SPAR is about!
Here is the main place where you can read much more about the SPAR – Silk Peace Art Road – project and explore the many works created so far. And support it if you like its idea and vision.