ABU DHABI // "Photographs are endangered," warned Nora W Kennedy, a preservation expert from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, to a packed auditorium in Abu Dhabi recently.
"Photography is important for so many reasons. Many people have strong personal association with photography, because they have a collection of family photographs. It's a way of remembering loved ones. It's a way of remembering our children."
The conservator was in the Emirates for a talk on the importance of cataloguing history through photography and other art forms, as a part of a Middle East Photographic Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), which also held a week of workshops at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Conserving this region's photographic heritage has become increasingly important in recent years, prompting the creation of initaitves such as MEPPI, which spans Beirut, Abu Dhabi and North Africa. The three-year programme is designed to develop photography preservation, which is still in its infancy, throughout the entire Middle East, to avoid losing invaluable collections.
"It's hard to imagine life now without photography," said Ms Kennedy. "It's an integral part of our life. It documents all different aspects of it. And it's something in a way we take for granted."
"It's truly an exciting programme and I believe it's unique to the world," said Debra Hess Norris, head of the art conservation department and a professor of photograph conservation at the University of Delaware, who works with Ms Kennedy on the initiative in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Arab Image Foundation.
"The focus is on the caring preservation of photographic materials, from prints and negatives, to proper storage and housing, identification, digitising and the long-term preservation of this material," Ms Norris said. "We hope all these participants will take this knowledge to all their institutions and share broadly. Photographs are sensitive materials; they are easily damaged. They can fade and discolour; they can stick to each other."
Aside from actually preserving the pieces, one of the major challenges was first identifying the works which needed to be saved, she said. "In the Middle East, a challenge is identifying where these collections are and finding out who is responsible for them, whether they are in private or public hands. And then to be sure that there is a plan for their preservation. Knowing the value and significance of these collections is definitely one of the greatest challenges in the area."
The workshop attracted some of the key people involved in preserving the Emirates' archives, as well as international delegates.
Tareq Jamal, a representative from Al Ittihad archives, the Arabic-language sister paper of The National, was interested to hear about the importance of preserving photographs from someone with years of experience. "We have a lot of photos since 40 years that weren't digitalised, and we are digitalising them," he said. "And there are a lot of photos that might not now be important, but it will definitely be one day and people will ask for it."
There were also attendees from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA), which is developing the Saadiyat museums. "We have photographs since 1850. Here in this workshop we don't learn who's in the photos but how, for example, it started on salted paper," said Fatima Al Tamemi, a research co-ordinator with the ADTCA. "There are certain techniques, equipments, and materials of storage and preservation. We would definitely need in the coming days for the photos we are going to use in the museum.
"When I came and listened to what they had to say, I discovered that the world of conservation is an ocean. With every wave that brings knowledge, you find in the horizon another one coming. It is not only old photography, but there is also the sculptures and the art paintings, different types of documents and videos."
Quoting Sheikh Zayed, the late President, Ms Al Tamemi said: "'Him who doesn't have a past, doesn't have a present or a future.' We now know what has happened and are still living it, however our children and their children might not. Our country wasn't built in only a day and night, it was built on the shoulders of great men that have lived a tough life. It's different for them now."
History must be recorded to "remind" the young people of today of the country's past and to allow them to learn from the wisdom of their elders, she added.
Speaking to The National after her talk at the InterContinental Hotel, Ms Kennedy, who has been in preservation for more than three decades, also warned about the false sense of security felt by people who use newer technologies such as SLR cameras, iPhones and Instagram applications, and often wrongly assume their work is protected.
"Digital photography is even more endangered and more fragile than the analogue photography," she said. "People take a lot of digital images and they don't think they are very impermanent. We have all experienced losing our files when transferring it from computer to computer, or have them simply mistakenly deleted."
As an art form, photography can be especially poignant, highlighting the good times as well as documenting evidence of great sorrows. On the topic of the Middle East, photography and politics, Ms Kennedy stressed the importance of this particular medium and the importance of keeping photographs safe.
"Photography can be endangered when changing a political regime," she said. "Some photos can be dangerous to some individuals who own them. They are evidence. A friend from Iraq told me they have been collecting images from families in Iraq who were trying to get rid of them. And these photos are history; there is information in every small bit of footage. And it should be preserved, even if were not proud of them. We should be able to confront those sorrows and learn from the mistakes."
The ADTCA is seeking Emiratis who are interested in preservation, said conservator Jo-fan Huang. "We have an end goal towards 2015. And to then we need to train Emiratis to prepare them to preserve what is theirs."