Michelle L. Woodward
Some Thoughts on Archives and Artists in the Middle East
In the Middle East it seems it was artists who were able to make photo archives relevant to a larger public, though not perhaps for the general public yet. The Arab Image Foundation, which maintains the largest archive of photographs in the region, was unique when it was founded in 1997 by a group of artists and photographers with the goal of collecting, preserving, and studying the photographic heritage of the Middle East. Much of the collecting is achieved through artist-led projects.
This group of artists and photographers found photos tucked away in cupboards, family albums, in boxes at flea markets, and moldering in defunct commercial photo studios. They appreciated them as interesting and historically important images. And they also realized that these kinds of images, family photos, local photojournalism, studio portraits, could introduce other facets and realities of the region into the transnational flow of images (mostly hackneyed and misleading) that are used to represent the Middle East. These archival photos are capable of opening up spaces for voices from the region to tell their own stories, to transmit a sense of everyday experience that is often missing from the dominant frameworks such as the news media and romantic (or hair-raising) travel narratives.
I think that the lack of any institutional or government support for public archives (of all types, not just photos) in the Middle East created a opportunities for individuals interested in preserving, using, and collecting abandoned photos. Artists were some of the first to step in.
So, I find it quite appropriate that in the case of Ania’s project “Lebanese Archive” an artist is engaging with an almost-lost, mostly unknown group of photos collected together by a photographer from the region, Diab Alkarssifi. Their work together to highlight the everyday lives of real people through historical photographs seems to be part of this trend, or even tradition. It has been artists in the region who have established a practice of taking inspiration from, and also taking responsibility for, historical photos. They not only use them as material in their art practices, they also help provide for their conservation.
Some artists, such as Walid Raad, have created fictional stories and additional documents out of real archival material. Others, like Akram Zaatari, have presented the material artistically, but without embellishing on it, like in his project with the Lebanese studio photographer Hashem Medani (who took photos of the people of the town of Saida for 50 years).
Ania is likewise engaged in both taking inspiration for her own art work from the photos as unique and compelling images and is assisting with their preservation as historical documents.
The attention that artists’ work has brought to archival material has helped build a wider public curiosity about historical photographs, and also awareness of the importance of conservation and preservation. While artists have been instrumental in this process, they haven’t been doing this alone, of course. They have relied on the organizational talents and long-term visions of a handful of directors, archivists, conservationists, catalogers, and others. Zeina Arida, director of the Arab Image Foundation, who has been a major force in building this photo archive and also programs for spreading knowledge of photo archiving and conservation, will certainly explain more about the support that is now available for collections around the region.
While artists are, and have been, crucial for creating, promoting, and saving photographs in the Middle East, critical questions should still be asked about their role. We should ask what impact does their selective vision, priorities, and ambitions have on the building of archives (collecting practices) and on the interpretation and presentation of archival material.
I believe another important issue is to create opportunities for the authors and subjects of the photographs to speak about them, whenever possible to make their voices heard. We shouldn’t rely solely on the voices of collectors, curators, and artists to make sense of the images.
Historians, researchers, teachers, students, and other publics should also have easy access to the photographs in a form that protects the originals but allows for study and appreciation. All these various groups will interpret and value the photos differently.
This is one reason I am so impressed with Ania’s project with Diab. She is determined, right from the beginning of her project, to engage multiple audiences. She is not only following her own interests but is also making sure to serve the interests of others who are invested in these wonderful photographs. I’m looking forward to seeing all that she accomplishes and to seeing much more of Diab’s remarkable collection.