Before the Law

Law and order billboard. Mogadishu, 2013.

Somalia is a security problem. Without a doubt. For its neighbors, and for the international community, whose vessels frequently find themselves preyed upon by pirates working from its shores. Press a little harder, and you’ll find more reasons for discomfort, though. The objections are as much cultural as anything else.

No, it’s not the Islam problem. Despite repeatedly-stated concerns about al-Qaida’s influence, Somalia’s issue, at least in Western eyes, is that it’s unrecognizable. Back in the early 1990s, when US forces first began operating in the country, media were fond of calling it a ‘failed state,’ a la Afghanistan.

Before the law, all people are equal. Mogadishu, 2013.
Before the law, all people are equal. Mogadishu, 2013.

Whether it is correct or not (there are those who would argue no, in both countries’ cases) these two photos, taken in Mogadishu earlier this year, promote the accountability of Somalis to their legal system – most likely the Islamic judiciary. Somewhere in between a propaganda poster, and a mural, the billboard is its own cultural study.

So is its context, viewed in the process of being erected. The laborers’ interactions with the artwork imbues it with an ill-defined significance, almost as though they’re aware of what it means to be erecting a billboard promoting the law, in a failed, so-called, state. Granted, the photographer is American, so it may just as well be their framing.


Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of Albany Associates. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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