Scarlett Coten – Mectoub, 2016
In her series “Mectoub”, which was awarded the LOBA in 2016, the French photographer questions the roles and image of men in the Arab world. Her portraits draw attention to the discrepancy between social conformity and individual longing. Coten is well-versed in the Arab world, which she has been exploring repeatedly in long-term photographic projects since graduating from her studies.
Gazing directly into the camera with appealing eyes, lascivious poses and attributes with feminine connotations: from the very first glance, the portraits of young Arab men convey an unusual viewpoint, which is precisely what the photographer intended. With a deliberately feminine approach, she has been carrying out her own personal projects in Arab countries for many years, resulting in new and surprising perspectives.
Following the Arab Spring, Coten began looking into diverse aspects of the changes taking place in societies in North Africa and the Middle East. “In 2012 I decided to photograph men. I travelled from North Africa to the Middle East, in order to look into male identity. The series explores the men in this region in a deeply personal way, interweaving portraits and places. I play with the idea of both staged and documentary genres, while blending testimony with intimacy.”
“What is ‘Mectoub’? It is a standpoint, a relationship I decided to have with men who were strangers to me.”
Over a period of four years, Coten took photographs in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. The contradiction between the strength and the vulnerability seen in the portraits, is further enhanced by the powerful background colours or the derelict spaces she chose for the motifs. According to the photographer, “in ‘Mectoub’ the camera itself has a gender, and the feminine gaze holds a position of power, challenging the viewer to question traditional ideas of the overly predominant male gaze in the history of art.”
“‘Mectoub’ is a unique vision of the world. I would like to invite the viewer to reconsider the supremacy of the masculine perspective throughout the history of art. Because the conquest of the feminine perspective is recent, and allowing oneself to look at men is the fruit of a long struggle.”
It is also a political gesture, allowing the men she portrays the chance to make a personal, sensitive presentation of themselves, one that is not of the kind normally seen in photo reportages from these countries. “In patriarchal societies, where individual freedom appears to be an act of rebellion, it is they who, through their attitude, their look, their choices, their differences, make a political statement. It is they who put themselves in danger.” The photographer sees her task as offering a platform to these life choices, and, at the same time, of sensitizing the viewer towards universal questions of identity, stereotypes, gender and the relationship between men and women. “I play with the idea of both staged and documentary genres, while blending testimony with intimacy.” Consequently, ‘Mectoub’ – a play on words between the colloquial French ‘mec’, guy in English, and the Arabic ‘maktub’, which stands for the fateful ‘it is written…’ – represents a very timely project in an ever-changing world. The series has already been exhibited a number of times. “The responses were very positive, both in the US and in Algeria and Jordan, where the exhibition was met with an enthusiasm way beyond my expectations. This touched me particularly as it is a subject that concerns them directly,” Coten explained in 2016. She is aware of the complexity of her project, yet says, “I always thought that art, precisely, was a landscape of freedom, where borders and taboos could be pushed back. This is how I live it as an artist.”
(Text updated 2020)
Born in 1958, Coten works as a free-lance photographer on long-term projects set mostly in the Arab world. After graduating from the École nationale supérieure de la photographie in Arles, she travelled to Egypt in 2000 to produce her first important series. For “Still Alive”, she spent months accompanying Bedouins in the Sinai Desert. The series was published in 2009 by Actes Sud Beaux Arts. She has been working on her “Mectoub” portrait project since 2012. It has already been exhibited on a number of occasions.