Arab Photography Archive Puts 22,000 Historic Images Online: Get a Rare Glimpse into Life and Art in the Arab World

The his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy, as most of us know it, has expand­ed by sev­er­al thou­sand images and sev­er­al more coun­tries, thanks to the launch last month of the Arab Image Foundation’s online archive of pho­tog­ra­phy “from the Mid­dle East, North Africa, and the Arab dias­po­ra dat­ing from the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry,” as the Get­ty’s pho­tog­ra­phy blog The Iris reports.

The Beirut-based non-prof­it AIF has since dig­i­tized 22,000 images from its phys­i­cal col­lec­tion of 500,000+ pho­tographs, col­lect­ed since 1997, notes the Foun­da­tion, in “research mis­sions and projects in Lebanon, Syr­ia, Pales­tine, Jor­dan, Egypt, Moroc­co, Iraq, Iran, Mex­i­co, Argenti­na and Sene­gal.” AIF hopes to even­tu­al­ly upload 55,000 scanned images, but fund­ing issues have made the project a chal­lenge.

Nonethe­less, the trove of pho­tos and neg­a­tives already made avail­able not only sig­nif­i­cant­ly expands our view of photography’s reach and scope, but also our view of the Arab world—recording lost tra­di­tions, mod­ernisms, and an array of cul­tur­al prac­tices and atti­tudes that may sur­prise us, and that have since been sup­pressed in many of these same soci­eties.

“From same-sex kiss­es and men in drag,” writes India Stoughton for the BBC, “to nude por­traits and chil­dren pos­ing with assault rifles, the Arab Image Foun­da­tion is replete with star­tling and sen­sa­tion­al­ist pho­tographs.”  There are many pho­tographs of flam­boy­ant stage per­form­ers and celebri­ties. And there are many more con­ven­tion­al col­lec­tions, such as the fam­i­ly por­traits of Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramal­lah, and Jaf­fa before 1948.

Amidst the hun­dreds of stiff por­traits and awk­ward fam­i­ly pho­tos, the archive fea­tures can­did street shots and “many images of his­toric events and fig­ures.” It also doc­u­ments “water­shed moments that have been over­looked by his­to­ry.” Pin-up pho­tog­ra­phy and pic­tures of male body­builders in Egypt; sur­re­al­ist exper­i­ments with dou­ble expo­sures in 1924 by Lebanese pho­tog­ra­ph­er Marie al-Khazen, “one of the first female pho­tog­ra­phers in the Mid­dle East,” writes Stoughton.

Al-Khazen’s “avant-garde com­po­si­tions and habit of pho­tograph­ing her­self and oth­er women enjoy­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly male pas­times, such as smok­ing, dri­ving and hunt­ing, made her a fas­ci­nat­ing and uncon­ven­tion­al fig­ure.” The same adjec­tives apply to many of the pho­tog­ra­phers in this archive, whose work often shocks and sur­pris­es, but just as often com­mu­ni­cates in more sub­tle ways the tex­ture of every­day life for peo­ple in the Mid­dle East and North Africa over the course of the late-19th to mid-20th cen­turies.

These images cap­ture the dai­ly lives of over­looked peo­ple groups, like the Bedouin hunters of Syr­ia, as well as the lives of reg­u­lar peo­ple before con­ser­v­a­tive regimes swept into pow­er around the region and wiped away traces of mod­ern­iza­tion and the per­son­al, reli­gious, cre­ative, and sex­u­al free­doms we see rep­re­sent­ed. Now this pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry joins sev­er­al oth­er com­pre­hen­sive online libraries of his­toric pho­tog­ra­phy, such as Euro­peana Pho­tog­ra­phy, the George East­man Muse­um, the Sovi­et Union’s pre­mier pho­to mag­a­zine, and many more.

While not as exten­sive as some of these oth­er col­lec­tions, the AIF’s dig­i­tal project is no less essen­tial for the light it sheds on a past, and a medi­um, that con­tin­ues to prove itself resis­tant to stereo­types. Enter the Arab Image Foun­da­tion’s dig­i­tal archive here, and learn more about how these pho­tographs have been dig­i­tal­ly pre­served at The Iris.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it a New Dig­i­tal Archive of 2.2 Mil­lion Images from the First Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy

Thou­sands of Pho­tos from the George East­man Muse­um, the World’s Old­est Pho­tog­ra­phy Col­lec­tion, Now Avail­able Online

Down­load 437 Issues of Sovi­et Pho­to Mag­a­zine, the Sovi­et Union’s His­toric Pho­tog­ra­phy Jour­nal (1926–1991)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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