(Gnomic Book, 2020)
What belies the riches of the Persian Gulf? The region’s grand structures—its bastions of deluxe hotels, arenas, and golf courses—are deeply dependent upon the workforce of migrant laborers who erect them. In LIKE, a photobook by Ryan Debolski, the men in this precarious sector are photographed with an affable eye, estranged from the grueling and under-compensated work that shapes their days and, instead, spotlit in their sliver of leisure time on the beach. The American photographer, who won a Fulbright Fellowship to Oman, intended to focus exclusively on the country’s striking panoramas, but expanded his scope after befriending and socializing with a handful of laborers to reflect the troubling reality: that these landscapes are underpinned by the oppression required to develop them.
His ensemble of sun-baked images have a quiet solemnity. The parched, craggy desert—sharp with pitiless heat and light—is offset by construction site debris, aridly winding roads, and silhouettes of palm fronds. The images contain a sense of forestalled expectancy: a brightly colored telephone booth connecting to no one, a car window splotchy with protective plastic that distorts the reflected sky, an oversized upright tire obediently going nowhere. In one image, a hand reaches out to coax a snake into a plastic bottle, attempting to contain its wild will. It’s symbolically menacing: can we be so easily entrapped, or will our writhing natures compel us to spring away?
While Debolski’s commentary on socio-economic disparity remains latent, Jason Koxvold (a working photographer himself who founded the independent art press Gnomic Book, which published LIKE) wrote an impassioned postscript to the images that is more emphatically critical. In his text “Raw material: Capital and Exploitation at the Neoliberal Frontier,” he acknowledges that the regional landscapes are “eerily beautiful spaces sometimes redolent of the American West,” but condemns the status quo in the contemporary Middle East—where he himself spent time, in Kuwait—as “a place of brutal inequality papered over with a veneer of progressivism… designed to be shared in selfies, to drive desire and tourism and dollars,” adding: “Our species has a long and well-documented history of using the Other for thankless work… the poor are enlisted to build the temples of the rich, turning sand into gold.”
Koxvold discerns activist undertones in Debolski’s project: he compares his work to that of post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (whose 1884 oil-on-canvas Bathers at Asnières painted working-class men within an idyllic riverside setting), as well as to sociologist Lewis Hine (whose documentary photographs exposed the horrors of child labor in the United States in the early 20th century). Both, notes Koxvold, created work fortified by “a critique of the economic systems that govern our lives.”
He also sees echoes with fashion photography, noting that Debolski depicts his subjects as though they’re in a magazine editorial and that his “gaze lingers on the men, sexualizing them in a way.” Indeed, the corporeality of the beach setting becomes a site for masculine frolic and proximal touch: body hair slicked askew by the water; wet dripping brows; entangled feet and forearms; sandy limbs. “Debolski’s subjects look to each other for community, these beachside gatherings of colleagues affording them some kind of proxy for kin,” Koxvold states. Women are completely absent from the scenes, only cited in transcribed text messages as ex-girlfriend memories or fantasies of femininity in foreign lands. Set alongside the photos, these text exchanges between Debolski and his subjects entrench the visual codes of masculinity and brotherhood even further through dude lingo. “Hey Bro,” they greet each other; “How r u sir” they inquire; “I’m fine, man” they reassure each other. Forgettably banal, they nonetheless hint at deeper malaise. The men lament the instability of job opportunities and shrug off to watch porn, highlighting a hollow cycle of work and release. “where are u” they ask each other, and the logistical query takes on an existential tone.
The title, “LIKE,” is “its own commodification,” Koxvold notes. Social media has converted personal approval into commercial value: “it is hardly surprising that likes can also be bought and sold… and eventually converted back into real products and services, bartered for cappuccinos, concert tickets, and hotel rooms.” The word “like” appears in the book in a more casual manner: Debolski asks his subjects if they like the photos he sent them; he reassures a worker who will leave for Italy on a new mission that the weather is not like Oman. But like also means “semblance to,” as in linking similar qualities or characteristics. The word could function as a means of aligning the reader with the subjects, bridging our experiential gaps to find empathy. Given Debolski’s subtle and humanizing framing, in which he studies these men and represents them beyond their hardships, perhaps it has a slightly less cynical connotation.