On the occasion of the launching of the Arab Image Foundation’s newest endeavor, the Research Center and its forthcoming newsletter/journal, I was asked to write a piece reflecting on the Foundation’s history and character and the challenges they have faced. Since, for various reasons, it will not be published as planned, I am posting most of it here. A bit long for a blog post, but here it goes...
Profile of an Archive in Flux
The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, Lebanon is a unique, multifaceted place that supports individual artist projects on the visual culture of the Middle East while also operating as a non-profit institution dedicated to the collection and preservation of photographs. These two primary, but quite different, aspects of the Foundation are entirely interconnected and woven together. The different needs, priorities and interests of each leads to dynamic, stimulating creations and also to an identity seemingly in constant flux.
In 1997 the founders – photographers Fouad el Koury and Samer Mohdad, and artist Akram Zaatari – were motivated by the deteriorating photographs they saw in their own family albums and in dusty commercial photo studios to establish an institution that would collect and conserve this heritage.
Even at this original moment of unified purpose the Foundation encompassed a range of different perspectives and goals. Each founder had his own vision of what type and quality of photographs should be collected, the criteria for how they should be chosen, and for what purposes they could be used. While one wanted to collect individual, aesthetically compelling images that would provide a counterpoint to the stereotypes of Orientalism, another preferred to create an agency for photographs (including his own) that would be displayed in exhibitions and licensed for use to publications, and the third wanted to research how photography functioned in social context with an emphasis on collecting whole bodies of work and complete albums.
With their first grant the original core group brought in Zeina Arida as executive director and were thus freed to conduct collecting and research missions while she established the office, took over fundraising, and developed the organization’s structure.
Inside vs. Outside Perspectives
The last several years have witnessed increased internal debate about the Foundation’s identity and direction. A number of associate members of the Foundation explained in interviews that the group finally decided that there is no need to formulate a clear-cut definition of the organization’s identity. Instead, they seem to have developed loose and flexible guidelines for addressing vexing issues such as the acceptable uses of the archive’s photographs (by artists, curators, publishers, researchers); the criteria used in collecting photographs, acquiring bodies of work and for choosing collaborations; and how to open the collections for greater public access and involvement. In fact, members Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Negar Azimi both emphasize that the lack of definitions, the acceptance of difference and multiple perspectives at the heart of the Foundation, is fruitful, pushes it forward, and compels their involvement. One of the fascinating features of the Foundation is this seemingly constant interrogation of its own principles, goals, and activities. Although this intense self-reflection can lend the group a certain esoteric quality, and lead to complicated descriptions of its interests and approach, it should be considered a strength. Ongoing, open contemplation is unusual for an institution and is likely one of the qualities that keeps the Foundation so vital and inventive.
While the Foundation embraces its multi-faceted identity, non-members often see the institution in much narrower terms. The way outsiders understand the organization depends on their own needs or interests, for example as a source of images to dig into for exhibitions and publications, an intellectual venture, an artists’ project, an alternative to Orientalist imagery, a regional role model in photographic preservation, a licensing agent for owners and collectors of photographs, and as a photography archive.
The Foundation, like any entity, has changed over time. But since the beginning it has almost uniformly been characterized in newspaper articles, art reviews, and magazine essays as, consciously or not, offering an alternative view of the Middle East to a misinformed public in Europe and the United States. Art critic Holland Cotter in the New York Times review of the exhibit "Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography" (a project by Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari that uses photographs from the Foundation) noted that one hope of the exhibition was to “replace Western stereotypes that the word ‘Arab’ evokes - bearded gunmen, black-shrouded women - with a sense of the complicated modern ordinariness that is the reality of Arab life, just as it is of American life” (NY Times, 2005). Others have suggested that the AIF’s work provides “an alternative to the Orientalist tendencies of prevailing representations of this region and its people” (Prince Claus Fund, 2008), builds “an alternative to the visual history defined by the West” (Aramco World, 2001), and is “dedicated to safeguarding a local perspective often overshadowed by the works of Western photographers” (CNN, 2010).
There is truth to this understanding of the Foundation’s effects and some early members, especially el Koury and Mohdad did talk about the photographs they were collecting (and taking) as correctives to prevailing imagery and were interested in staging exhibitions to this end. However, most of the members have no interest in educating a largely misinformed Western world. The Foundation’s projects are instead focused on situating “a wealth of different photographic practices in a complex field of social, economic, political and cultural factors.” (AIF website) Reducing the Foundation’s interests to merely a response to outsiders’ biased misunderstandings of the region obscures this sophisticated perspective on photography.
Another common view is that the Foundation is an archive, which in its basic definition as a depository of records is clearly accurate. Although the Foundation likely had a role in inspiring the interest in archives and archiving processes that is so prevalent among contemporary Lebanese artists, some members of the Foundation have been known to object when the organization is characterized as one.
It is true that the term archive may not seem to fully apply because the photographs have not been collected according to one clear-cut institutional plan, by employees. The term “archive” implies for many a certain objectivity. Archives, though, are never neutral. Through the act of making choices (whether loosely unified around an institutional plan or determined by individuals), members of the collecting group distill the cacophonous physical world into an ordered, annotated, assemblage that embodies particular points of view. The multiple, contingent interests that determine which items are collected may not be publicly or even privately acknowledged in formal institutions, but they still exist.
The members, who have collected most of the photographs, are not workers following an institutional directive, but are instead well-known, highly accomplished artists, filmmakers and scholars in their own right, separate from their roles at the Foundation. Perhaps members are concerned that their unique work, and crucially, the artist or scholar’s identity as an author, could be obscured by the “archive” label.
Additionally, since the members maintain a complex understanding of photography as a set of practices, they resist any attempt to reduce the photographs to merely documents of the past. There is a concern that the photographs not be treated simply as raw material, either in the collection phase or in their later usage by artists, publications, or curators. As requests to license the use of photographs have gradually increased, up to about two per week now, specific conditions of use have been drawn up and careful attention is paid to the circumstances of that usage.
The Foundation is proof that there is a sometimes challenging, but productive, hybrid form of archive that merges the artist’s solo vision with the institution’s dedication to a broader mission. Instead of rejecting the label of archive it might be more useful to embrace it in order to consciously probe its meanings and functions (something the members are intellectually well equipped to do)
Research Creates the Collection
The work of the Foundation that its members see as most central, most vital, is research. The tasks of broadening the world’s view of the Middle East or functioning as an archive of photographs are peripheral to this primary activity. Research is fundamental. The practice of conducting research is at the heart of the artists’ projects, it enables collecting, informs how exhibitions and publications are organized, and ultimately creates knowledge about photography and its role in our lives.
Zaatari’s approach to photography in particular has been a powerful force in shaping the Foundation since the beginning. He has always been the most active member, responsible for bringing in more than half of the entire archive’s content, and the only founder who remains. Zaatari’s conceptual and intellectual interests have often driven which photographs were collected and the methods for collecting. He explains that after a few years of collecting, “I realized that what I was doing was an authored work, in the sense I knew I was constituting a collection with particular features that derived from my personal interests and desires, and was trying to convince other researchers in the foundation to link their research missions to potential projects, whether thematic or else.” (All quotes from email interview, October 2010.) At the beginning he chose to collect those photographs that appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities or that fit into his conceptual framework. But as he began to investigate Hashem el Madani’s commercial photography studio in Saida, Lebanon, Studio Shehrazade, he explains that “I started to enlarge my angle of interest first to think of the entire collection as one, then to consider the photographic collection and the studio and its equipment as one, and later to think of the studio and the photographer as one total subject, a living subject, and announce the Madani project as an open excavation.”
Zaatari’s practice of collecting photographs, his methods and criteria for choosing and presenting the images, are intimately linked to his work as an artist. His art work and Foundation work overlap and are deeply entwined and thus add another layer of meaning to the photographs. Each member engages in his or her own unique practices of researching, collecting, presenting, and studying photography. A scholar, curator, or curious individual looking at the photographs in the Foundation’s online database may not be aware of what creative practices have brought each photograph into the archive since there are few indicators of the members’ work among the notations that accompany each image. The Research Center, with its library, workstations, programs and publications, will make these layers of meaning more visible. It will invite artists and scholars to engage directly with the collection of photographs but also to reflect on, debate, and critically examine the “conditions and consequences of image making … by considering photographic, artistic and archival practices as inextricably linked to their political, social, economic and cultural contexts,” as Research Center Coordinator Daniel Berndt explains.
Eid-Sabbagh’s own Foundation supported project, “How beautiful is Panama! A photographic conversation from Burj al-Shamali camp” embraces ambiguity. Through years of helping young people learn and use photography in this Palestinian refugee camp, where she also lived, she came to know and be known by the residents, leading her to begin a new project to digitize and conserve their visual history. Borrowing photographs from family albums and commercial studios she has created a database of images annotated with the owners’ descriptions and other information. Aware of the complicated politics of showing and using the personal photographs of Palestinian refugees who have few rights and resources, she has no plans to make this visual database accessible, to incorporate it into the Foundation’s archive, or to mount an exhibition.
The Foundation is unique in its support for collection practices per-se, regardless of any tangible output. The most innovative aspect of the organization is this focus on research and knowledge creation. This is a priority that even eclipses acquisition and display of the over 300,000 photographs in the collection. Zaatari has been a guiding force behind this approach, explaining that “this is a foundation dedicated to supporting collecting practices, as much as it is for photographic conservation.” He sees the Research Center and its residency program in particular as new ways the Foundation will support collection practices in all their diverse forms.
Even though the Foundation is now so well established that its collection was the central focus of the important art fair Paris Photo in 2009, it continues to branch out in new directions. The Research Center is, according to Berndt, meant to be “a platform for experimenting with new forms of study, exhibition, publication, urban intervention and public interaction.” It has also launched a residency program that supports an artist, scholar or curator whose work will focus on “resonant themes that cut across the Arab Image Foundation’s collection and encourages other photographic and archival projects, which foster contextual reflection, inquiry and debate and promotes especially collecting practices based on field specific research.” (AIF website)
This restless spirit of constant invention and reinvention keeps members engaged and the Foundation’s audience inspired.
It’s not all serious theoretically sophisticated projects at the Foundation, of course. There is a playful streak, an appreciation for popular culture, and a willingness to try new ventures. At Paris Photo in 2009 the Foundation launched the first of what will be yearly portfolios of ten limited edition prints chosen from the archive by a noted artist, curator or collector. In 2009 the selection was determined by long-time supporter Martin Parr, best known for his luridly flash-lit photographs of the banal and his collections of tacky pop culture artifacts. Such a commercial use of the images in the archive seems a little out of sync with the usual intense concern over principles among the group. But the steady direction and persuasive power of Arida in her dedication to the fiscal health and high profile of the organization has pushed the members to look beyond their research agendas. Arida, along with other members, also plays a critical role in the world of photography in Lebanon as a promoter and mentor to young photographers and organizations, connecting them with workshops, funders, curators and editors around the world.
With the launch of the Research Center there is potential for the Foundation to attract and engage a wider spectrum of people who work with, and are interested in, photography. The aim of the Center, according to Berndt, “is to create an open resource for the study of photography, artistic and archival practices; to provide the people and the city of Beirut with a public space for research, critical inquiry and experimentation; to bring the work of the AIF to the public in a more sustained and systematic way; and to engage new and previously untapped audiences.” The recent donation of two large collections of Lebanese press photography along with plans to eventually invite proposals to study these images will further broaden the archive. The photographers are Assaad Jradi, covering the period from the 1950s to 1990s, and Radwane Matar, who photographed from the 1980's until 1995.
Arida is also dedicated to sharing their experience in archiving and conservation with other groups around the region. In January 2009 she collaborated with the Photograph Preservation Institute (PPI), co-directed by Debra Hess Norris and Nora Kennedy, to hold a two week intensive workshop in Beirut for keepers of public and private collections in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and Jordan. Following up on its success, and the increasing interest in archives and archival practices in the region, she is securing funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to hold additional workshops on the preservation and management of photographic collections.
Local photographers (not just artists but also photojournalists and commercial photographers), photo editors, scholars, artists, students, and collection managers should feel welcome to find ways to generate and share knowledge with Foundation members and staff. With its artistic and conceptual roots and tight-knit membership the Foundation may seem remote and inaccessible to some. The Research Center offers a way to peel back some of the more esoteric layers of discourse and to find ways to connect to a broader public. I trust that the always thoughtful and ambitious Foundation will rise to the challenge of maintaining their sophisticated critical approach while also expanding beyond their core group of friends and associates to further deepen their unique work on photography.