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On the Everyday Life of Others

Jim Lewis

December 19, 2016

Negative found at the "Yellow House" (Beit Beirut), Beirut, Lebanon.

There was a building in downtown Beirut known as the Yellow House, a neo-Ottoman pile made of ochre limestone. During the Civil War it stood on the city’s infamous Green Line, which divided the Muslim-controlled western sector from the Christian-controlled east. Because of its location, it was a popular hiding place for snipers; because of the snipers, it was a popular target for shells. By the time the war ended, in 1990, the place was a wreck; it was bombed out, pockmarked, and slated for demolition until a coalition of civic forces came together to reopen it as a war museum called Beit Beirut. As they were cleaning it out, they discovered a certain treasure, a time capsule, consisting of tens of thousands of celluloid negatives depicting life before the war, the archive of a photography studio that had once been housed there.

Studios like the one in the Yellow House have no obvious contemporary American equivalent, though they exist in many other places, where cameras are too expensive for most people to buy and photography is less a private act than a social one. They’re where people go to get a headshot for a driver’s license, where celebrants go to make memories of special occasions: weddings, birthdays, a promotion. They’re where everyday portraits are made of everyday people, alone or with friends or partners, in their daily wear or in elaborate holiday costumes: brothers in matching shirts, soldiers in uniform, friends posed arm in arm, women with their hair elaborately coiffed. Along with other forms of vernacular photography—family photographs, vacation snapshots, class portraits, postcards, and the like—studio portraits form the demotic image history of a culture.

Such photographs exist by the billions, but they’re also fragile and easily lost. The negatives from the Yellow House studio were scattered across the floor. They’d been stepped on and rained on, exposed to heat and dirt; they were crumpled and buckled and in some cases the emulsion had started to lift from the celluloid.  “This is 15 years of civil war and sniper activity,” Rima Mokaiesh told me. “And 15 more years where buildings like that were abandoned: no one really fetched things from them. They were just left exposed to dust and rain.”

This was last year, and at the time, Mokaiesh was the Director of the Arab Image Foundation. We were talking in the Foundation’s offices, which occupy a cool, quiet floor in a building on Beirut’s Gouraud Street, not far from Martyr’s Square, with a refrigerated room for the collection, a small library, and neat, modest offices filled with modest furniture—a throwback that seemed apt for the modest world they were trying to preserve: too recent to seem antique, but too pensive to feel contemporary.

The Foundation had been entrusted with the photos from the Yellow House; now they had to decide what to do with them. Most archives would try to clean them up, hoping to find the images underneath, but for the AIF, this was a practice worth debating. What did the photographs represent? Images of the distant past, or the depredations of the intervening war? “Should they stop living when they enter the cold storage room? Or should we value the mold and tears and coffee drops on them—are those new layers of inscription on the images?” Mokaiesh asked. “In a traditional archive you wouldn’t allow yourself to ask those questions. Here, we do.”

A few months later, she sent me some examples of what they’d decided: the original state of the negatives was carefully documented, and then they were cleaned, but not restored. The images underneath were absolutely ordinary—a portrait of a boy in shorts and a suit jacket, another of a baby in front of a painted snowscape, both of them taken, I’d guess, in the ‘60s or early ‘70s. But of course it’s their very banality that makes them so precious. They’re an era’s memories, images of a comfortable, middle-class life which was almost completely occluded by the subsequent war.

The Arab Image Foundation was formed, in 1997, precisely to save images like these. Three artists dreamed it up, Akram Zaatari, Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad, all of them Lebanese photographers, though at the time Elkoury was living in Paris and Mohdad in Switzerland. Years earlier, upon his grandfather’s death, Elkoury had acquired a trove of family photographs. “I started thinking,” he said. “Why not have a foundation for all these collections that are certainly going to disappear? Because in my family, when I said I wanted the pictures, everyone said, ‘Take them,’ as if they had no value.”

Bashasha (left) and a friend. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, late 1950s. © Akram Zaatari, courtesy Hashem el Madani and Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.

They believed that the Arab world, which generally treated photographs as trivial and disposable things, was courting an incalculable cultural loss. In America and Europe, the medium has been studied, collected, and exhibited for more than a century, by museums and galleries, by vast image banks like Corbis and Getty, by hoarders of folk photography posting on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, by families that hand down photo albums from generation to generation. Pictures, books of pictures, collections of pictures, hard drives and smart phones full of pictures: these are inescapable. There is no more capacious storehouse of memories, including memory itself. 

But institutions and collectors in the Arab world have largely ignored art photography, and the vernacular version has scarcely registered at all—not because of an Islamic prohibition on image-making, which is largely mythical anyway, but simply because of institutional inertia. “There were no public museums collecting photography, and hardly any public museums at all,” Mokaiesh said. And Elkoury told me, “Even my father couldn’t understand why I was spending so much time with my ‘hobby.’ And that was a cultured man.” 

Once the Foundation was up and running, the three of them ran all over the Arab world, to Egypt, to Jordan and Syria, to Iraq and Morocco. And the treasures poured in. “We went on like mad, getting collections from everyone,” Elkoury said. “In the first two years we had three or four hundred collections, some of which were fabulous.” Many people were happy to donate, either because the Foundation promised to keep their pictures safe, or, contrarily, because they didn’t care what happened to them at all. Most of the resulting archive is anonymous, or nearly so, but Zataari convinced a Lebanese studio photographer named Hashem El Madani to donate his entire archives, about 100,000 pictures. Another 100,000 came from a Rifat Chadirji, a well-known Iraqi architect, now 90 years old, who pursued documentary photography as a hobby. Still more came from the archives of a legendary Cairene photographer named Van Leo, who took glamourous portraits of Egyptian movie stars by day and made curious self-portraits in private and at night. In total, the AIF safeguards well over half a million images.

One afternoon last spring, Akram Zaatari drove me down to Saïda, a port city about 25 miles south of Beirut, to meet Madani. The day was bright; the highway was clean. We passed into territories controlled by Hezbollah, but you wouldn’t have known it just from driving through: there were no stops or checkpoints, just some dusty suburbs on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.

Madani’s studio was on the second floor of a building downtown. It was a warm day, but he was wearing a slightly threadbare suit, a tie, a scarf, and a fur hat. The ceiling was low and the floor was slightly sloped. There was the noise of traffic from the street below, and somewhere a radio loudly broadcasting. All around the room, under the glass top of Madani’s desk, in frames on the walls, propped up in cases, there were photographs of the people of Saïda. Madani is in his late ‘80s now, and his business is all but closed, but he still stops by the studio every day. “I adore it,” he said. “I love it. I come here only to breathe my pictures.”

He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1930, the son of a Sunni religious scholar who had studied in Cairo and settled in Saïda. He had been fascinated by photography from childhood, and when he reached 18, he decided he wanted to adopt it as a profession. He checked with his father, who declared it a perfectly acceptable trade, and then he went down to Haifa to study with a Jewish photographer there. That association ended with the start of the First Arab-Israeli War, in 1948. Madani went back to Saïda and set up shop, opening his sown tudio, which he called Shehrazade. 

Along with the portraits Madani made in his studio, he took pictures of shopkeepers in their stores, wedding parties, kids diving off the rocks in the harbor. Over the years, he shot about 90 percent of the people in town, and his portfolio is at once ordinary and enchanting: young men dressed as cowboys or cops, posing with cardboard cutouts of models from film advertisements; girls in wedding dresses or kissing affectionately, bodybuilders, babies; and a lot of people simply staring into the camera. Some of them suggest submerged stories: a portrait of a young woman crisscrossed by scratches because her jealous husband tried to destroy the negative; sisters dressed in identical outfits; a little girl with a prosthetic leg.

Madani was not especially ambitious: he was a journeyman; he ran a small business. Some of his pictures are gorgeous, but that’s almost beside the point. Beyond a certain competence, technical or aesthetic skill in this kind of photography is otiose: what makes them beautiful is that they exist at all. Ordinarily, when it came time for him to close up shop for good, a photographer like Madani would box up his negatives and store them somewhere. After he died, his children would likely throw them away. What use is a bunch of old pictures of people no one remembers? But in 2002, Zaatari and another early Foundation member named Walid Raad produced a book called Mapping Sitting, consisting of page after page of pictures, many of them Madani’s, of schoolchildren, military cadres, ID photos, family portraits, even a series of jockeys atop winning horses. In organizing it with such scope and care, they produced an August Sander-like typology, not just of people, but of the way people are photographed and the uses to which those pictures are put. The accompanying exhibition travelled around the world; images from it are in the permanent collection of the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Pompidou, and the publishing wing of the AIF has produced two monographs of Madani’s work alone.

“Sherihan, actress.” Van Leo Studio, 1976. Van Leo. Courtesy of AIF/Van Leo © Arab Image Foundation

Not everything the Foundation does is quite so splashy, nor is it meant to be. By now they’ve grown to a dozen members, and the range of projects has expanded accordingly. Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh spent five years living in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon called Burj al-Shamali, teaching photography, collecting images, and staging intimate performances for deliberately small audiences, both inside and outside the camps. Lara Baladi has worked with votary images created by the families of victims of the 1996 Israeli shelling of Qana. This, too, is part of the Foundation’s mandate: to free artists to work in unexpected, ad hoc ways with more personal pictures, those private talismans which serve as powerful stopgaps against loss and forgetting. 

Beirut’s infrastructure is in such disarray that random blackouts occur daily, the tap water is hardly fit to wash in, let alone to drink, garbage goes uncollected, and internet speeds are among the slowest in the world. The Syrian border is just 30 miles away, and the city has been flooded with refugees.  But a number of people told me that the AIF could not have happened anywhere but there, and one can see why: It’s perhaps the most effortlessly cosmopolitan city in the region. The same sectarianism that led to the Civil War encourages a sophisticated complexity in peacetime. The city has a first-rate university; construction cranes jockey for position in the sky; there are Chanel and Prada stores; there are two lovely corniches, and children playing everywhere. Hamra, the city’s main drag, looks much like its counterparts in Europe, and Gemmayze, where the Foundation’s offices are, feels as bohemian as any arts district in the US. The city’s population is young and almost preposterously diverse.

Some of the Foundation’s members live in Beirut; others are scattered around the globe, in Brooklyn and Boston, London and Vienna and Cairo. Their support is equally international, with much of their funding coming from the US and Europe. So one can’t help but wonder whether their purpose, at least in part, is to present to outsiders a picture of the Arab world that counters the standard themes of bellicosity, religious fanaticism, and displacement. Here in America, we rarely see photos of Arabs (or anyone else outside the West) that they’ve taken of themselves, in peacetime, among friends, at home, and for their own pleasure.  That fact alone is startling, and gazing upon these pictures we can’t help but feel a sudden dilation of our sympathies, no matter how much we might wish it was unnecessary, or how uncomfortable we may be with an aesthetic reaction that begins with a revelation as bland as “It’s a Small World (After All).”

Beyond that, interpretation is up for grabs, as it always is with pictures created in such careless intimacy, whether they come from Mosul or from Kansas City: photographer and subject are locked in a single moment and looking at each other—from opposite sides of a divisive apparatus, to be sure, but living in the same instant, in the same culture, oblivious to the world beyond and history to come. The rest of us, Arab, Western, or otherwise, bring a thousand things to bear on them: nostalgia, delight, curiosity, intertwined threads of identification and dissociation. Even among the AIF members there are generational divides. The older members, who were in their teens when the Lebanese Civil War broke out and Islamism began its rise, and who have direct memories of the time before, seem to see the archive, in part at least, as an attempt to reconstruct their childhoods and re-establish connections to their parents. Those who are a little younger are more likely to see the AIF’s work in more starkly political terms, as a matter of what can be addressed now. The youngest set, for whom the Arab Spring—however that phrase is construed—is as monumental as the Civil War was for their elders, see these pictures as both a warning and a promise, the one because, after all, most of the people depicted were, to various degrees in various places, under secular authoritarian rule at the time, the other because they nevertheless offer at least a glimpse of what a more stable society might look like.

Artists’ collectives are fragile things, and rarely last more than a decade or so. The AIF has been around for 19 years and, like the Ship of Theseus, almost all of its original parts have been replaced. All three founders left, along with some of the more prominent members, and for a few years, the place went fallow. “We started it very accidently, and really it was like a dream that came true very quickly,” Zaatari told me. “Too quickly.” I asked him what the dream was. “Writing the history of photography in the region. But that’s really too naïve and too wide and too... too much of a dream. It encountered the institutional, it was subjected to laws of gravity.” 

Zaatari has since returned, but what happens now is anyone’s guess. The place has taken on a life of its own and keeps on growing; there’s plenty of new material to engage with, a wave of youthful energy, and a lot of work left to be done. Towards the end of my conversation with Elkoury, he toggled rapidly through his thoughts and feelings about the place. He wanted to tear it all down and start anew, but he was proud of what they’d done: “The idea of the Foundation is fabulous,” he said. “I think it’s an institution that should last forever.“ Still, when I asked him what he thought they’d accomplished, a hint of bitterness came through. “In terms of the Arab world? Not much.” Most of the interest in the place still comes from the West, he said. “Which proves that we have totally failed to bring photography to where it should be.” He had wanted to establish it as an art form equal in prominence and respect to writing or cinema, but it hasn’t happened—not yet, anyway. “The Arab Image Foundation has failed,” he said. “I don’t know why we failed.” A week earlier he’d been arrested in Amman simply for taking pictures, and it still rankled. He was agitated, and I wanted to be sure of his response, so a little later I asked him again if the AIF had lived up to his hopes for the place. “No. The answer is no. We failed, We totally failed.” He caught himself. “Wait a minute. The Foundation is a fabulous institution. We failed in bringing the art of photography or the culture of photography into the Arab world. But when the Arab world wakes up, it will be very happy to find such an institution.” 

Info & Credits

Published on December 19, 2016 Written by Jim Lewis Images courtesy of the author and the Arab Image Foundation

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