The Arab Image Foundation

The art of collecting imagery

Think antique images of the Middle East, and it’s Wilfred Thesiger’s romanticized shots that spring to mind, rather than Armenian-Egyptian Van Leo’s significant body of work. Even for informed historians and curators, images of the region’s history taken from the inside out, by those who lived and breathed it, remain obscure. Indeed, the dominance of hardback, glossy tomes by colonial explorer-photographers in bookshops from Dubai to New York conceals a vast archive of homegrown images that tell a diverse, human story, as well as a grander, historical narrative.

The Fondation Arabe pour l’Image (FAI), or Arab Image Foundation, which was launched in 1997, is unique in its mission to locate, collect, preserve, interpret, and promote photographic works from the Middle East and North Africa. Today, its office in Beirut houses over 150,000 images, dating from as early as 1860. Sourced from families and collections in the Arab world, Iran, parts of Africa, and the Americas, the bulk of the collection ranges from the 1920s to the 1970s, and takes in the work of both amateurs and professionals. Carefully filed in archival boxes in a temperature-controlled library, the photographs are gradually being digitized on to a bespoke database; the organization’s plans include publishing the collection online, which will enable diasporic families, researchers, and curious persons at large to sift through photographic traces of the past.

The FAI is also exceptional in its approach to archival practice: rather than viewing the photographs as footnotes in history, or saddling them with revisionist politics, the members see them as art, and seek to interpret the works within the complexity of today’s art world. Artists, filmmakers, and critical theorists, the members act as guardians. They see themselves as being on a long-term mission to present and represent the images, exploring their potential as documents, as images, as memories, as social constructs, as testaments to both private and public worlds.

Founder members Fouad Elkoury and Akram Zaatari work with elements of the FAI archive in producing their own video and film work; and Zaatari and other members, including Yto Barrada, Walid Raad, and Samer Mohdad, have curated a number of group and solo exhibitions based on the collection. “Mapping Sitting,” for example, focused on portraiture, including the vast numbers of passport-sized studio photographs and street portraits taken by itinerant “photo surprise” photographers in the early to mid-twentieth century. The exhibition, which has been touring galleries and museums in Europe for the past two years, aims — according to the curators — to question “how the photographic portrait functioned in the Arab world as a commodity, a luxury item, an adornment, as a description of individuals and groups, and as the inscription of social identities.”

The images also function as a powerful reminder of life beyond multiple news networks — of a time before the blanket coverage of disaster, “fundamentalism,” and war all but smothered alternative stories. A collection of images of Palestinian life pre-1948 is not only vitally important as an historical document, but also acts as a statement of tenancy and belonging. The level of interest in the FAI’s work and the flood of requests for exhibitions is testament to the thirst within both the Middle East and the West for images that tell narratives of the region from an insider’s perspective.

Besides pulling together threads across the collection, the FAI has celebrated notable individual practitioners, many of them previously unrecognized. Van Leo, for example, filled his Cairo studio with glamorous 1940s film stars, dancers and strippers, Scottish soldiers, and local intellectuals; in addition, he experimented with the photographic form, creating series of artistic self-portraits over the years. His work was shown in Cairo Portraits (2000) with that of two other Armenian Cairenes, Alban and Armand, and then in solo shows at PhotoCairo (2002), the Biennale of African Photography in Bamako, Mali, and Barcelona’s CCCB. The FAI is currently planning a large-scale retrospective of Van Leo’s work, with a particular emphasis on hitherto unseen self-portraits.

Hashem El Madani has been working out of his studio in Saida for over fifty years; his vast archive includes around 90 percent of the southern Lebanese town’s residents, many of them assuming roles — from popular culture, advertisements, films, and so on — for their portraits. A selection of these portraits, plus examples of his work as an itinerant photographer, is being shown in his first solo show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, this autumn. Amateur photographers include Marie el-Khazen, one of relatively few women actually credited for their work; her images display a surprisingly frank, progressive social awareness.

Following collecting trips by her colleagues to Iraq, Morocco, Senegal, and elsewhere, Negar Azimi recently undertook the FAI’s debut research project in Iran, examining that country’s particular photographic heritage; the following pages include a diary of her travels. FAI member Fouad Elkoury also details his recent research initiative in Mexico City amid that city’s Lebanese community. Hashem El Madani’s exhibition is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, October 14–November 28 ( “Mapping Sitting” is included in Home Fronts’ at the Singapore Art Museum, October 1–November 30, and at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, January 13–April 2, 2005. “Palestine Before 1948” and “Moroccan Albums” are included in “Nazar,” Noorderlicht Photofestival, Leeuwarden, September 4–October 24 (