x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Arab images: Through a lens sharply

A century and a half of life in the Middle East and North Africa comes into focus at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. Alasdair Soussi explains why women are especially noteworthy in many of the 300,000 candid photos.

A woman fishing in Jounieh, Lebanon, in 1928 makes for a stark portrait by the amateur photographer Marie El Khazen. Photographer: Marie El Khazen. Collection: AIF/Mohsen Yammine.
A woman fishing in Jounieh, Lebanon, in 1928 makes for a stark portrait by the amateur photographer Marie El Khazen. Photographer: Marie El Khazen. Collection: AIF/Mohsen Yammine.

A century and a half of life in the Middle East and North Africa comes into focus at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. Alasdair Soussi explains why women are especially noteworthy in many of the 300,000 candid photos t

They are the keepers of some of the most precious objects in the Middle East, a portal to a bygone age in all its rich splendour from the likes of Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

Based in Beirut, the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) has been central to the safeguarding of the region's photographs since its inception in 1997. Housing about 300,000 images dating to the mid-19th century, the AIF has established a reputation for bringing to life aspects of politics and society that have helped shape our modern Middle East.

"The AIF believes it is extremely important to preserve the photographs physically," says Akram Zaatari, a founding member of the organisation and a Beirut artist. "Without us, vernacular collections would have been left to private collectors, which would have meant leaving collections at the mercy of future speculation. I believe the AIF has contributed a lot in this area by creating a database and making its collections accessible."

Browse the AIF's colourful collection and one can view everything from weddings and funerals to political rallies and heads of state. But, far from being dominated by men, manly pursuits and male photographers, the AIF's archives, which also include photographs from North Africa and the Arab diaspora, are noteworthy for their vast collection of images in which women feature on both sides of the camera lens.

"Since the early 20th century, a few women started practising photography because many conservative families preferred that women took photos of the girls," says Zaatari. "We have a few of those in our archive, particularly from less urban parts of Palestine. The AIF has also samples of work by upper-middle-class women who practised photography because they didn't work, and they spent time with their friends, so a camera was great company for them. There are so many examples of this, one of them being Marie El Khazen from Zgharta in north Lebanon."

Zaatari also cites the changing face of female photography as one of the highlights of the collection.

"After the second decade of the 20th century people had to be photographed for ID making. You would find many women with their hair slightly covered, but frankly not as much as today. I do not want to jump to conclusions that people were less veiled in the past, because this really depended on where the pictures were taken. All I could conclude is that there was obviously no restriction from a religious point of view vis-à-vis photography. Maybe more-conservative people were less inclined to be photographed, so they did it only when necessary, and less for pleasure.

"However, what strikes me in the photographs of women is nudity. I have seen many images of women, completely nude in the fifties and sixties, made in photographic studios, which is today unimaginable. Maybe this has to do with trusting and not trusting a photographer. People don't trust photographers as they used to in the past."