Sara Naim Image Credit: Supplied

Sara Naim’s work challenges our notions of visual art. The young artist is interested in questioning the ways in which we see and in exploring the boundaries between the seen and the unseen. Her first solo exhibition, enigmatically titled “When the Lights Went Off We Saw”, is an attempt to capture the physical effects of such an abstract notion as light. The show features a series of photographs that defy description. All you can see in the dark pictures are streaks of light of different hues, or hazy images that could be fingerprints, specks of dust, distant planets, plant cells or just scratches. The titles, simply describing the colours in the pictures, offer no clues to the content.

In fact, these are not photographs at all. They are scanned images of negatives that were either overexposed or un-exposed negatives that were affected by light leaks from a broken camera shutter. So, essentially, Naim’s photographs are not images of things she has seen, but rather an attempt to glimpse what remains unseen. Through these abstract, hidden and non-existent images, the artist wants to invite viewers to look beyond the surface and think about how we perceive the world around us.

In her previous work, Naim has explored subjects such as sound vibrations, the cells that make up our body, and the human cornea, which helps us see what we do.

But for the past two years she has been working on the present series. The artist, who is of Syrian origin, was born in London and grew up in Dubai. She graduated in Photography from the London College of Communication in 2010, and then spent two years working with well-known photographer Ryan McGinley in New York. Naim is now doing her masters at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

She began working on this series while she was in New York and has passionately pursued it since. We spoke to her at the opening of the show and tried to understand her abstract concepts and the technique she uses to create these intriguing artworks. Excerpts:


How does this series relate to your earlier work?

Most of my work is about exploring the intangible, and I use science to do that. In earlier series, I have photographed dead skin cells, the cornea of the human eye and sound vibrations. I find it interesting that so much exists outside of what we typically see, with visible light occupying only one-thousandth of a per cent of the spectrum. I have a habit of celebrating the other 99.999 per cent.


What is the concept behind this series?

I wanted to investigate light and all our notions about it. Light has so many contradicting qualities: It is the source of colour, yet it has no colour itself; it is omnipresent, and yet it is intangible. I find all this very interesting, so I decided to use the elusive nature of light to visually examine it.


Why did you choose the title ‘When the Lights Went Off We Saw’?

Usually, it is difficult to see when the lights are off. But there is a Taoist saying that “you need light to see darkness and darkness to see light. This is basically the essence of my work. I chose the title because it conveys the idea of contradiction, but is at the same time open to various interpretations.


Are these photographs you took that did not turn out well, or were they deliberately overexposed?

I did not consciously take any photographs for this series. What you see in this exhibition is a collection of mistakes — images that were corrupted by light leaks, wrong exposures, stains and scrapes.


So what technique did you use to transform the mistakes into these mysterious artworks?

I chose a series of negatives and digitally scanned them. After some minor editing, I printed them using a C-Type digital printer. It is the same process that I would use for any exhibition.


What do you look for in the spoilt negatives?

I try to select images that I find visually stimulating and that which look the least like light leaks.


How do all these colours appear in the pictures?

Sometimes the colours are the result of light leaking through the camera and on to the film, creating chemical reactions and distortions of colour. But a lot of the colours are imagined and misinterpreted by the scanner.


Why, then, are the titles of these artworks based simply on the colours in each picture?

Light is the source of colour, so I titled each piece based on what colours they comprised.


What do you see in these photos and what do you want viewers to see? What are you trying to say through this work?

These photographic images aim to be at odds with their realities. The idea is to encourage the viewer to speculate on the abstract and formless nature of the artworks. But I do not have any one particular objective in mind, because I do not want to limit the possibilities and potential of the work. I want to leave it open for every viewer to interpret in their own way.


Photography is a visual art; why did you choose to do something so abstract in this medium?

Photography is an art, but it is also science. It uses light, reflection, and chemicals, making each of my images a chemical reaction. I feel there is no better way to discuss light than by using it in my process.


You have been working on this concept since 2010 and have used more than 100 films. What keeps you so interested in this series?

I have always been interested in this subject — even my university thesis was on the concept of “lightness” and darkness. I like to explore the boundaries between art and science, and enjoy the fact that the idea of “tonality” is scientific, but I can play with it visually and artistically. This series has the perfect balance between art and science to satisfy my interest.


How has the series evolved over the past two years, and how do you wish to take it further?

I started out using a friend’s old scanner in New York, and researching a lot about light. But when in London, I rescanned my original negatives on a better scanner, and was surprised to see the images reinterpreted with new colours, textures and patterns. I realised then that each time I scan the same negative, a new image will be created because of the scanner’s unpredictable response. In terms of recent work, I have just completed an installation to accompany the visual research of light, and I know that this is an ongoing, long-term project.


Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.


When the Lights Went Off We Saw will run at The Pavilion Downtown Dubai until October 24.