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Volume 52, Number 1January/February 2001

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The Pictures Between

Collecting, conserving and exhibiting the work of early Arab photographers, both amateurs and professionals, builds an indigenous way of looking at modern Arab history.

Written by Lynn Love
Photographs courtesy of Arab Image Foundation

"In between, you have nothing!" says Fouad Elkoury, as he describes what the world has seen in more than 150 years of photography in Arab countries. Prior to World War I, he explains, "you have a typology: ruins and monuments, street scenes and landscapes of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cairo, and their so-called 'exotic' locals." Beginning in the 1970's, he says, largely negative stereotypes, borne by news media, became dominant. It is the half-century between these two eras, and all the subjects "in between"—and beyond—the stereotypes, that are scarcely represented, says the 48-year-old Beirut-born photographer.

Photographic literature bears him out. For example, Naomi Rosenblum's authoritative A World History of Photography, published in 1989, includes a number of European travelers' early shots of the Holy Land and North Africa: When Arabs are depicted at all, they usually serve as little more than anthropological objects. Today, news photographs still often fail to depict Arabs or Arab societies fairly. "The images we have conventionally seen in no way express civil society, or the range of social movements or of gatherings of the people of Arab regions," says Elkoury.

The Arab Image Foundation (AIF), of which Elkoury is a founder, is the first attempt in the Arab world to change this external viewpoint. The method is to collect, conserve and exhibit work by Arab photographers who photographed locally, either as amateurs or professionals, and thus build an alternative to the visual history defined by the West. Although focused mostly on the period from World War I to the 1970's, some of the AIF'S collection dates to the late 19th century—a fact which, Elkoury maintains, refutes the contention that Arabs themselves were not taking pictures locally even in the earliest days of the medium.

The AIF is run by 10 Arab photographers, filmmakers and scholars who live mostly in Beirut, Paris, New York and Cairo. Nearly all have been educated both in the Arab world and the West, and their bifurcated educations have helped inspire their commitment to changing how modern Arab history is understood through photography. Founded in 1997, the AIF has already collected approximately 15,000 images, mostly from North Africa, the Levant and Iraq—and its members know there are many more waiting to be "discovered" both within those regions and beyond. As if to symbolize its organizational maturation, the AIF will move this year from the apartment-sized office it has shared with an architect to its own publicly accessible exhibition, research and education space in Beirut.

The first of the AIF'S three major exhibitions to date, "[Histoires Intimes] 1900-1960" ("Intimate Stories") was organized in 1998 in Paris for the Lebanese Cultural Season at the Institut du Monde Arabe. Curated by Elkoury and fellow AIF founding member Samer Mohdad, it surveyed work by previously unknown Arab amateurs from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. The show was the first to elucidate ways Arabs came to photograph Arabs. For example, the few early European photographers who stayed in the region began to work for the affluent classes in cities such as Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Beirut, Aleppo, Cairo and Alexandria, where they trained and inspired the first generation of local Arab studio photographers. Later, in the early 20th century, as Arab individuals began to acquire cameras for private use, they often photographed each other according to the European stylistic conventions.

Among the early Arab amateurs, Marie el Khazen is an outstanding example of a photographer who took well-composed, thoughtful pictures of family events, everyday life and friends. Class and social standards, Elkoury says, both promoted and limited Arab photography at the time. "El Khazen's work is exceptional. [French photographer Henri] Cartier-Bresson was also from a wealthy family, had access to a camera and took pictures of what was around him. It was only in his 40's and 50's that he decided to commercialize his work. I'm sure if Marie el Khazen had lived in another social context she would have done the same." Additionally, he explains, although photography was available to the Arab bourgeoisie, it was regarded as a hobby. To pursue it professionally would have lowered the photographer's social status to that of a craftsperson.

The exhibition, like the others curated by the AIF since, also displayed strong, often vernacular, aesthetic characteristics. The images shared neither the Western sense of photographic grandeur in views of landscapes and monuments, nor Western notions of documentary photography, which grew out of a particular mid-20th-century American ideological climate. An analogous indigenous "Arab documentary photography" has not yet been identified, but the AIF is one of the few institutions in the Arab world that could provide a setting where scholars might undertake the necessary critical review of images from the region and connect them with the social contexts in which they were made.

The second AIF exhibition, "Cairo Portraits," showed in France, Switzerland and Lebanon in 1999 and 2000, and delved into the studio-commercial aspect of photography in the Arab world. Three Armenian studio photographers—Van Leo, Alban and Arman—developed distinctive, related styles in Cairo during the 1940's. What is intriguing about the work of this trio, says curator Akram Zaatari—a cofounder of the AIF with Elkoury and Mohdad—is the iconic quality of the photographs. "The images have this serenity," he says. "There's so much emphasis on the mise-en-scène— the lighting, the poses, the character. It was almost like staging a shoot for a film." Indeed, Zaatari adds, studio photographers of this era often did work for Egypt's film industry: "Doing the setup and the lighting is what they cared about." The differences among the three also fascinate. Alban and Arman tended to photograph the bourgeoisie and high society, including the foreign community. Van Leo concentrated on marginal performing artists, and he had an experimental streak that came out best in his numerous self-portraits.

"Cairo Portraits" also points out the breadth of the little-known Armenian role in early photography in the Middle East. It began in 1859, just two decades after the word photography was coined, when Yessayi Garabedian, leader of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, started a photographic workshop. In 1885, several Armenian photographers left the employ of the Ottoman sultan and traveled from Constantinople to Cairo, where they opened a studio. From the turn of the century through World War I, photographers, and well-educated craftspeople who became photographers, were among those who joined the Armenian exodus from Turkey. Among them was Levan Boyadjian, who in Cairo adopted the pseudonym Van Leo.

While AIF'S exhibitions are important, they depend upon the success of its mission to collect and preserve photographs, and it was on this basis that Elkoury and Mohdad conceived the foundation. In their discussions, during the snowy winter in Lebanon's mountains in 1996, they contemplated the untapped wealth of photography that had been produced in the Arab world, held almost entirely in scattered family collections, and they envisioned an organization that would find out just how much was really there. Months later, they received a start-up award of approximately $100,000 from the European Union, and their discussion became an occupation. They had to start finding the photographs.

Elkoury started close to home, with family albums and boxes that dated to the late 19th century. Then a businessman friend of Elkoury's donated some of his family photography. After several months of networking, Elkoury, Mohdad and Zaatari had persuaded a number of their colleagues to join the foundation, contribute photography from their own family collections, and help search for more. Thus family photography became the basis of the collection, and finding it gave the founders the confidence to continue searching for a broader range of work in locations beyond Lebanon. They began with Egypt and Jordan.

In Cairo the founders met with Lara Baladi, a free-lance photographer who works there and in Paris. She joined the AlF in 1998 by donating some of her family's collection and helped make the AIF known in Cairo by hosting a presentation at the British Cultural Center. "People need to see Arab photography in order to understand that there is a richness to it, and that what they have in their own family archives might enhance this richness," she says. Such collecting trips and informal networking have become part of the foundation's core activities, and the collection now holds contributions from more than 150 private collections from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

The collecting efforts have benefited from the fundraising successes of AIF Executive Director Zeina Arida, who joined in 1997 as the first full-time staff member. While the European Union grant supported initial operating expenses, she helped secure further funds, earmarked for collecting, from the Dutch Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. This money financed a trip to Iraq in the spring of last year by member Yto Barrada, a Moroccan photographer, during which she gathered images from a number of private collections. This year, AIF'S expanding operations are being underwritten by a $150,000 grant from the US-based Ford Foundation as well as funds from other donors, most of them in the UK and Lebanon.

Arida's goal for the AIF lies beyond solvency, she says, in a system through which research monies will be available dependably each year, so that collecting trips can be planned strategically, rather than grafted onto to the personal travel plans of AIF members. She is also concentrating increasingly on soliciting Arab-based support to reduce the AIF'S reliance on European and North American philanthropy. "It is beginning to be a question of ethics," she says. "More Arabs should be involved in our activities, and this includes monetary support."

Though impressive to date, the AIF'S collecting efforts are still very young, says Elkoury. "Don't forget, this is the Arab Image Foundation, meaning from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. The area is vast. So far we've only been to some families in Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. And recently we've sent Yto to Iraq, where it is rich with photographs, but where conditions are very difficult."

In researching photos, the AIF takes the original print or negative, makes a copy, and gives that copy to the owner of the original. Information about the original is documented, the image is digitally scanned and the print or negative is put into archival storage for safekeeping. "It isn't always easy to get people to part with their photographs," says Zaatari. "They want to know why we're interested in their grandmother. We tell them, 'Yes, it's a photo of your grandmother, but it's a historical record, too.'"

The foundation has had to find ways to ensure that donors are comfortable with the future uses of their photographs. If a donor doesn't want his or her photographs reproduced or exhibited, the foundation designates such images as in-house resources. These receive the same conservation efforts and make the same contribution to historical knowledge, but the donor's wish for privacy is respected. In most cases, however, donors of photographs share both the copyright of their images and any royalties generated from their use.

Although collecting and exhibiting are the centerpieces of day-to-day activities, AIF members are also finding that the foundation is becoming a crossroads of sorts, a salon for contemporary Arab photographers. With nearly all 10 current members working somewhere in the field of photographic arts, says Zaatari, "a lot of Arab photographers are contacting us. They want to be affiliated with the foundation because they are interested in seeing more, and because they want to communicate with other photographers or other people in the field." In this way, the AIF may contribute to the current evolution of Arab photography. Zaatari adds that he would like to see exhibitions featuring contemporary work, and that contemporary work is beginning to be included in thematic exhibitions. "Until now our collecting has been limited to the period until the 1970's," he says, "because the notion of the photographer as artist did not take root in the region until then."

The AIF'S two most recent exhibitions, "The Vehicle" and "Mapping/Sitting" move in this direction. They are conceptual shows in that they use photographs as bits, of evidence that collectively illustrate and explore a historic theme. Although the photographs are historical, drawn from the archive, they lay the groundwork for AIF'S showing of contemporary Arab photography in the future because they offer the beginning of a discourse on Arab visual culture that can easily encompass new artistic work.

"The Vehicle: Picturing Moments of Transition in a Modernizing Society" examined ways the Arab world internalized notions of "modernity"; it was displayed in Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Damascus. While the exhibition's title literally refers to the new or improving modes of transportation—cars, ships, trains, planes, bicycles and motorcycles—the show maintains that the camera itself was no less of a "transporting" device: The amateurs who bought Kodak box cameras at the turn of the century to photograph their families, friends, trips and the events around them were also creating a collective portrait of their society. In this show, Zaatari says, "photos of the new means of transport are used as a metaphor for a society and its people on their way to modernity."

The exhibition's categories—speed, mobility, liberation, collective imagination and looking at oneself—not only depict Arabs often literally in the driver's seat, but they also depict, for example, women exercising new social privileges, men humorously flexing muscles at picnics, and individuals and families playing with alternative identities by posing with varied props and costuming themselves as beggars, noblemen, soldiers, villagers, artists and so on. "They all illustrate a fascination with 'the look,' or maybe a celebration of the newly permissible pleasures of modernity," says Zaatari.

"Mapping/Sitting" is scheduled to open in Beirut in July. It brings archival collections of studio portraiture, passport photography and institutional group portraits together with a body of contemporary work called "Photosurprise" by Hashem al-Madani, a Lebanese photographer, who made images of passersby every day from the same locations, usually public spaces such as streets or beaches in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine.

Curated by Zaatari and AIF member Walid Ra'ad, a photographer and professor of visual culture at the City University of New York, Queen's College, "Mapping/Sitting" seeks to "dissect" forms of portraiture to discern the logic of the choices photographers made in creating their images—their "mapping"—of faces and places. According to Zaatari, "we want to reveal the codes that photographers used constantly and repetitively with different clients. For example, with some studio photographers, there would always be a close-up of the client's face, a three-quarter view and a full-length shot."

Ra'ad sees "Mapping/Sitting" and other such forward-looking, conceptual AIF exhibitions as necessary endeavors in creating both a contemporary Arab visual culture and an Arab understanding of the past through images. "The works in this project share a commitment to the kind of photography that is repetitious and seemingly endless," he says. "These images provide ways of thinking of Arab photography in culturally and socially critical terms," rather than as discrete works of art by individual artists. Or, as Zaatari puts it playfully, "It's as if you write the same postcard to all your friends and each one thinks it is a personalized message. But if someone were to collect all the postcards and put them side by side, a different 'message' would come through," one that spoke to the purposes for which this was done, who was included and who was not, and so on.

Regardless of contemporary contributions, the archive will continue to be the backbone of many of AIF'S exhibitions and publications, and in Beirut it is largely Arida who has organized it. One of the few AIF members who is not a photo-artist herself, she is the resident expert when it comes to conserving prints and negatives rescued from non-archival sources. Assisted by archivist Tamara Sawaya, Arida is also the administrative muscle behind the AIF'S digital database, which after more than two years of often tedious scanning, cataloging, repairing and copyrighting now contains some 9000 images, or more than half of the entire archive. This project may lack the glamour of the larger-than-life-size prints hung for "Cairo Portraits" or the percolating modernity of "The Vehicle," but it creates a resource that, when it becomes publicly available on-site and online, will make the AIF collection accessible around the world.

Once it is online, Arida aims to begin improving the physical condition of the photographs in the archive. "We store all of our negatives and prints in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage area, so what we have won't deteriorate more than it already has. But we would like to do more restoration work," she says. To prepare, she attended conferences in Europe last summer to learn more about photographic restoration, and she has proposed a conservation exchange program with the National Photo Restoration Workshop in Rotterdam.

With its own exhibit space and an online presence, the Arab Image Foundation is no longer a fledgling in 2001. The breadth of its promise gives it momentum as it explores its own middle ground, an ever-growing collection of pictures "in between" that reveal parts of Arab culture not previously visible to either an Arab or an international public.

Lynn Love is former editor of the visual arts journal Afterimage who lives in New York. Last year she was a writer-in-residence at the American University in Beirut. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

This article appeared on pages 28-37 of the January/February 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2001 images.