Camera Arabia: An introduction to the history of photography in the Arab Peninsula
October 3, 2015
This post provides a short introduction to a history of photography (and photograph collections) in the Arabian Peninsula. It was written in March 2012 as a report of the extensive fieldwork research I did in 2011 in the framework of the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), organised by the Arab Image Foundation (Beirut), the Getty Conservation Institute, and the funding of the Andrew Mellow Foundation. Since I wrote this piece, several initiatives took place, including the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Akkash: Center for Photography.
The Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative
The initiative aims at raising regional awareness and expertise in photograph preservation. The project has three interconnected components:
- The Survey aimed at identifying and assessing significant photograph holdings in the Arab world. Our scope also extends to collections in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
- The Courses where collection keepers are invited to learn and share best practices about photograph preservation.
- The Symposium for regional cultural policy decision-makers to reflect upon the importance of photographic heritage.
The part of the survey I was in charge of comprised the photograph collections in the Arab Peninsula i.e. the seven GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen) with insights on Libya and Turkey photograph collections.
I did a fieldwork journey in September-October 2011 to five of the Gulf countries (and to Turkey). Some additional contacts were made in Saudi Arabia but entry was not possible to due to a lengthy bureaucratic process. The countries –mostly city-states – were extensively surveyed in order to give a picture of the state of photographic collections. I travelled to these locations to identify significant collections, meet with collectors, curators, conservators and other knowledgeable parties as well as disseminate information on MEPPI to decision makers and their advisers. The fieldwork trip proved to be fruitful as I managed to identify and get in touch with most of the people involved in the field of photographic conservation, documentation and promotion otherwise unreachable. It enabled to understand patterns of photograph collections common to the countries of the region.
A short history of Photography in the Arabian Peninsula
Most of the ‘native’ collections in the region, i.e. those composed of photographs taken locally are no older than the 1950s, the beginning of the oil boom in the Arab Gulf.
Having understood this, Oil companies were the first to import cameras, photographers and developing products. Consequently, they own the oldest collections in most of the oil producing countries visited. Their collections cover most of aspects of local social life, and also include landscapes and city construction documentation.
The second major focus was the State in the person of the Emirs (prince) and their relatives. Those collections are now conserved by the Diwan Amiri (Royal Court which includes political and Emir’s Palace). They are hardly accessible but we were able to make some contacts which ought to be reinforced and further investigated. Royal courts are often related with Ministries of Information that hold archives from different State bodies.
Individuals related with the highest circles of power also own collections that include national photographs or, in the case of Qatar, an extensive collection of historical world photography. In all the visited countries, we noticed the competitive nature of photograph collectorship.
Photographers’ collections are the third category of collections we identified during the fieldwork survey. Professional photographers appeared in the region with the oil boom. Some of them were nationals hired by the oil companies and sent abroad for training (generally to the UK), as in the case of Bahrain.
In Dubai, Indian nationals emigrated and settled in the city. During their sixty year-long careers, they constituted important collections that are now highly considered and prized as they provide an image of the nation by representing its past. Noor Ali Rachid (died in 2010) has been published since then, Ramesh Shukla is still a renown photographer. In Dubai, gigantic reproductions of their photographs are now exposed in the subway along with Wilfred Thesiger’s photographs.
Newspaper archives relate with the two previous categories of collections. Most of the archives we could visit were disorganised and a complete restructuration and intensive investigations should be intended in to be able to appreciate how interesting these funds are. Abu Dhabi’s National al-Etihad English edition has a weekly magazine where they explore and document some well known photos of the nation. They published an extensive portofolio of Magnum photographs of the creation of the UAE for the 40th anniversary. The experience is original enough to be noticed. In Kuwait, a well known chronicler writes daily about pictures people send him. These last examples raise the question of documentation, which is lacking in almost all cases.
Knowing and Preserving
It appeared in the fieldwork research that there was an unquestionable trend towards the conservation of old photographs in the region. Most of the visited institutions and collections had started digitalisation projects often associated with a project of Internet publishing. However that fashion is not followed by any documentation efforts, and issues related with digital conservation are hardly considered.
I also noticed a certain lack of photographic culture: recent commercial reproductions of photographs are not differentiated from vintage prints. Counter-types of vintage photos are exposed as originals without any regard for copyrights, authentication and identification of the authors, owners, etc.
Forward: Photography Practices in the Arabian Peninsula
These preliminary elements still wait to be understood in the broad cultural context of the Arab Peninsula and the local context. Hejaz, in nowadays Saudi Arabia, is a notable exception as the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca was photographed as early as 1861.
Photography and collecting photographs has to be analysed as a cultural and social practice among other practices. Drawing on Christopher Pinney’s The Coming of Photography to India (2008), some questions arise. Was photography in the Arabian Peninsula a void, waiting to be filled by pre-existing cultural as well as historical practice? Was it disruptive, forecasting new forms of sociability, announcing new opportunities, and “focusing anxieties about the new visibility of previously secluded spaces and events”? These questions should be answered providing “an account on the limits, possibilities, and consequences of the medium” in the Arabian context. The editorial note to The Coming of Photography in India elaborates: “Explaining the dynamic incarnation of photography as cure, poison, and prophecy, (…), the book (…) asks how we should understand the arrival of this new way of picturing the world. »
I will try to develop further in the coming months and of course, I will try to publish more often.