World In London Project: Behind Libya’s Portrait

Mid-February 2011. A surprise email arrived in my inbox from James O Jenkins, a professional British photographer, asking if I would like to model for a portrait to represent Libya’s participation at the London Olympics as part of the ‘World In London’ photography project. 

At the time I hadn’t even realised that Libya would be taking part in the Olympics as sports and politics have been inter-mixed with dangerous consequences under Qaddafi. The recent kidnapping and later release of Nabil Al-Alam, Libya’s President of the National Olympic Committee (NOC), only highlighted the problem. My initial response was therefore hesitant and reluctant.

Most certainly I didn’t wish to represent Libya with any political association with the regime and I knew that Libyan sports had been hijacked by Saadi and Mohammed Qaddafi for quite some time. The former had been the obsessive control freak behind the national football team who forbade any popular support for individual players by banning the calling out of their names. He also pressurised referees to favour his Tripoli Ahli team, whilst the latter was the head of the NOC.

So much for fair play and the spirit of honest competition that typifies athleticism on the world stage. Despite all these challenges, it seems that five courageous Libyans did qualify to take part in the individual sports. They were: Ali Mabrouk El-Zaidi (marathon runner), Sofyan El-Gidi (butterfly swimmer), Ahmed Koeseh (judo), Hala Gezah (100-metre sprint), and Ali El-Kekli (weightlifting).

But then this was a critical time for Libya and the Revolution had kicked off and Jenkins assured me there would be no political message to my participation. So I took the risk to represent Libya in the hope that the country will be free by July 2012. I also did inform him that there were many gorgeous and much younger models that he could choose from, but he insisted on me because he had come across my blog.

He told me: “I was given the list of countries that were available and I don’t really know why I chose Libya. It’s worth noting that I chose it before the start of the revolution and the portrait was not to do with the political troubles there. It is about London and you being Libyan in this city.”

My readers know that if there is anything I am super-passionate about, it really is London. So in the end I wanted to celebrate being a Londoner and a Libyan simultaneously; and, to also feel proud in taking part in this project.

Finally on the first day of the Olympics the Libya portrait was unveiled, along with the other 203 images of the other Londoners who were representing their countries taking part in the Olympics.

The Photographers’ Gallery, which commissioned Jenkins and 200 other photographers – who were picked from London’s most noted, talented and emerging talent – kept the project top-secret for three years. They admit it has been their most ambitious project to date and are now super pleased with the outcome.

The World In London Project’s artistic ambition and desire is to showcase through photography London’s rich cultural diversity and to celebrate its incredible mix of people from all over the world. The exhibition is free for residents and tourists to view. The 204 large-scale portraits will be at two sites for the duration of the Olympics: the external wall of the BT London Live site in Victoria Park, E3, and across the Park House city-block in Oxford Street, W1.

Jenkins and I are very happy with the final Libya portrait and the choice of dress and background. Hopefully it will please everyone for its simplicity and the intended layers of meaning about what it means to be a Libyan. I did also take part in a related project, the ‘Oral Histories’, which will feature a recorded interview to go with my portrait.

In the coming days, I intend to fully support the Libyan athletes and hope they will do us proud. For the future also I hope that more young boys and girls can pursue sports for the joy and thrill of open and fair competition and to see it as a great measure of personal achievement.

For more on the World in London project:

For more on James O Jenkins:

Note: This article was first published circa July 2012