In the early 1990s, I attended a secondary school in south-east Bangkok that was surrounded by large tracts of what used to be rice fields. Over the course of a single school year, the country’s largest shopping mall at the time – Seacon Square – emerged out of the mud-plain outside of our windows like some leviathan rising out of a bog. Needless to say, my classmates and I were driven to distraction by its emergence; my memory of the year is of a constant squall of window-rattling construction noise, and the defeated expressions on the faces of our teachers, who had already been struggling to make themselves heard over the high pubescent derangements of sixty ornery teenagers. (Personal PA systems would quickly become de rigeur in the classroom, which tended to make our teachers look like extremely sad buskers.) But we were also distracted by our equally seismic ideas about what the coming mall might contain, especially once its posts and beams began to give us a sense of its enormity. Speculating about what that gargantuan steel-and-concrete skeleton might house – well, it was far more interesting than anything those teachers were trying to make us learn.
I thought about that year as I considered Aline Deschamps’s photoessay of contemporary Iraqi theme parks. While theme parks are often understood as kitschy capitalist fantasias, Deschamps’s photographs present us instead with the mystery of a human dream. In many of the photographs, the grounds appear somewhat empty if not deserted. There are few decorative accents and the attractions are standard amusement-park fare: a swing carousel, rollercoasters, a Ferris wheel, bumper cars. Few people are on the rides and nobody seems to be queueing up for them. (Nobody seems to be operating them either; we are apparently in amusement parks without employees.) Many of the images have been captured at dusk, and it is unclear if these are the first visitors of the day or the last. They are mostly teenagers or young adults – some mugging for the camera, others caught in moments of apparent candor – all of them handsomely dressed in their finery. Given the twilit atmosphere and the vast spaces available to them, the subjects of Deschamps’s photographs look like they have arrived either too early or too late to a party. They look like they might be trespassing. The photographs do not feel like a documentary record of kids in theme parks so much as a startling lyric glimpse of some inner vision that they all might be having of one. They’re not going to Baghdadland. They’re dreaming it up.
And then there is the oddness of ‘Baghdadland’ as a name, which might at first seem like a malapropism or satire, like something out of a George Saunders short story featuring, say, beleaguered Desert Storm LARPers. But such a tonal impression would rely upon received ideas of Baghdad outside of the city itself, of what Baghdad might mean to non-Baghdadis, and the tone of Deschamps’s photographs is decidedly not comic and satiric, nor is it solemn and tragic. The mood here is one of wonder and joy, and strangely for photographs of amusement parks silence and stillness. Many of her subjects are having a great if mundane time. They are simply being amused at an amusement park – the boy in the tiger face-paint, the young women laughing in their bumper cars, the young men in matching leather jackets and gloriously coiffed hair – even as others strike more pensive, introspective postures, like the young woman in the first photograph pausing to consider something just outside of the frame while her companion leads her towards the park’s attractions, or the young man lost in thought against the towering backdrop of a Ferris wheel.
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