My copy of Bidoun's Fall 2010 issue on a slightly smoggy Beirut morning in November.
Bidoun magazine's latest issue provides all sorts of interesting food for thought. I was drawn in while browsing at Librarie Antoine bookstore on Hamra street in Beirut. Each copy of the magazine had a different original photograph affixed to the front. I had to choose but wasn't sure what criteria I would use. Did I want the most aesthetically appealing, the one that seemed the oldest and thus most nostalgic, or the family snapshot? I went with the black and white identity photo of a young man, maybe partially because it made me more comfortable as it seemed to be made for public (bureaucratic) consumption and didn't feel like an invasion of privacy. There is writing in Arabic on the back of the photo but I haven't felt like prying it off to read it yet. I like the look of the cover, it has a minimalist, off-center design that was likely accidental.
The photos, it is explained inside, all come from Cairo and were bought for about 18 cents (1 Egyptian pound) each, then sent directly to the magazine's publisher. The staff and editors have not seen the photos. I wonder, though, who bought them and made those first choices, before I made my choice?
The cover is an interesting counterpoint to the interior. While the cover photos were procured and distributed with much randomness, the issue itself is devoted to reproducing fragments (images and textual passages) from books and printed matter Bidoun has collected. This highly edited, curated selection comes from a wide array of materials that were themselves carefully selected "with no regard for taste or quality, in an attempt to document every possible way that people have depicted and defined - slandered, celebrated, obfuscated, hyperbolized, ventriolquized, photographed, surveyed, and/or exhumed - that vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as the 'Middle East'." It's oddly compelling, even the excerpts from dry promotional publications.
The use of original photos on the cover brings up some questions for me, for example, what are the implications of this use of found photographs? These were "discards," as Babak Radboy notes in the introduction to the issue, that have been only momentarily rescued from obscurity. But given that archives of photographs of the region (by photographers from the region) barely exist beyond the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut (which has 300,000), shouldn't we be rescuing these for long term study and preservation instead of taking advantage of them for purposes of art and consumption? I do realize that we can't save all available photos since any archive must be selective in the allocation of their resources (each photo costs money to conserve).
Also, what about issues of power and rights? If it was my brother's photo used on the cover without his permission I might not think it was so cool. Which also brings up the question of how that photo came to be for sale to begin with. Do families sell their photos? Why? Do people find them in the trash and then sell them? Were they in some discarded collection (like the files of a government institution or company)? There must be some sad stories in there somewhere.
Do any other readers have the impulse to post a photo of their unique copy? I'd certainly like to see them (in the context of where the issue now resides). Maybe I'll start a Facebook group to give them one more life, digital this time.
[By the way, this post marks my return to Beirut. It's good to be back!]