Dummy design by Collective Works

Thread (2021) – Note to the reader

This work is an ongoing collaboration between Jason Walters, a former Islamic extremist, and myself as an image producer. Through a dialogical way of working, we delve into the intricacies of Islamic terrorisms’ visual and communicative strategies, as well as its presence in mass media.

On the following pages, Walters and I investigate the case of Mohammed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John,’ a notorious British terrorist named after John Lennon. Emwazi was part of a four-person terrorist cell distinguished by the members’ strong British accents, which eventually became famous as ‘The Beatles’. The practice of nicknaming terrorists seen in Emwazi's case is a common editorial strategy among media outlets. While increasing readership numbers, this approach envelops terrorists in a mythical persona which, in turn, aids the terrorists’ mission of perpetuating fear — it others and simplifies. ‘Jihadi John’ rose to fame in 2014 and 2015 due to the beheadings footage released online by the Islamic State. The vivid headlines appearing all over Western media following this period gradually established ‘Jihadi John’ as an anonymous symbol, rendering the person behind the mask exchangeable. It is assumed that the man who executed the beheadings was indeed Emwazi, however, forensic doubt he was responsible for all of the killings. With the recordings often only showing the before and after of the execution, the actual act of beheading becomes a blank space. Thread is about this blank space, undoing the mythical constructs surrounding the image of ‘Jihadi John’ by consciously engaging with Emwazi’s life story, photographically revisiting the places where he grew up and formed his ideological views. Additionally, it revisits places related to his victims, one of whom was Alan Henning, an English humanitarian aid worker in Syria. His story stands as an opening chapter of this book.

In showing that extremism often comes from within, the project leans on the idea of homegrown terrorism, taking us to the heart of London in order to understand a threat that supposedly comes from the other. The constant presence of green screens stands for the blanks in the story, reflecting on the projective nature of nicknames, as well as of photographic images themselves. Rather than providing information, the mass media approach to Islamic terrorism reporting often leaves a blank, while giving the terrorists publicity. 

A key point in the process of untangling this type of media imagery and nicknames was an editing session with Jason Walters which took place in a large green screen studio, a strange place in itself, where we talked about the images I have taken, about their inconspicuous nature as well as their associative value. The session was fully documented and appears in this book in the form of a transcript and snapshots of the resulting installation. Using the method of a crazy wall (reminiscent of police criminal investigations), we arranged the photographs on a wall, highlighting the connections between various layers of the work. We divided the images into the categories of “beetle catchers” (red) and “normality” (blue). Red indicated symbolic, associative content, while blue was used to mark images whose meaning was only revealed through context, or images which were, according to Jason, bland and lacking character. The discussion that happened over these images, just as many before, was instrumental for this work in many ways. Firstly, because we avoided discussing his biography as a former extremist in detail, but rather focused on his perspective on the bigger picture of Islamic extremism and radical ideologies. Secondly, we found an interesting connection in the fact that Jason spent some years imprisoned in Vught, a former concentration camp, and I grew up in the close proximity of one myself (Dachau). Finally, our conversations were sparked by the related experiences of Jason as someone who had recently left an extremist movement, and my extensive dealing with former Neo-Nazis over the last couple of years. While there are certainly parallels between my former work Haut, Stein, (2017) and Thread (2021), the visual approaches, always stemming from the ideologies themselves, are essentially different. If in the former, the focus was mainly on the powerful National Socialist symbology — its deep inscriptions on architectural elements and the bodies of former members of the Neo-Nazi scene, the threat of Islamic terrorism dealt with here seems more difficult to grasp and often relies on suspense. Shifting from an expressly physical presence of the individuals and the ideology in Haut, Stein, the images in Thread work as hints.