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The photographic heritage of the Middle East is now one click away

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On the occasion of its 22nd anniversary, the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) just re-launched its digital platform, making more than 22,000 images from its archives available to the public.

In the aftermath of the civil war, many young Lebanese were frantically searching history books for some hint of an answer to difficult questions related to both local and regional issues. But the books they had at their disposal all ended abruptly at the same point: Nov. 22, 1943, the day Lebanon gained its independence from the French Mandate. There was no official trace of what happened next. To fill this void and the absence of photographic archives of the region, three local artists launched the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) in 1997 (www.arabimagefoundation.org). Over 20 years later, Fouad el-Khoury, Samer Mohdad and Akram Zaatari recently relaunched the platform, better outfitting it to become a tool for discovery, research and experimentation.

“In addition to collecting and preserving images, to reflect on several different narratives of our history, such as the representation of our region, the dialectic of the objective versus the subjective, and furthermore to the educational aspect that we aspire to develop, the foundation has acted as a bridge between different fields of thoughts and practices, reflecting on new ways to look at photography. It all starts with breaking down the barriers,” Mark Mouarkech and Clemence Cottard Hachem, the current co-directors of AIF, explained.

Ask the picture

AIF–which is admittedly still a work in progress–doesn’t take a rigid and conventional approach to photography. Instead, it has always looked at it as a field of endless possibilities. “Is it an image, a practice, a technique? We keep asking ourselves the question. In fact, rather than providing answers we have always preferred, through this multidisciplinary platform, to ask questions, reassess the picture and our relationship with the past,” the co-directors said.

The foundation’s mission initially focused on collecting and preserving photographic heritage from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Senegal and Mexico, among other places, that was mostly stored in the archives of professional and amateur photographers. “Whatever cannot be accessible, at least visually, cannot be preserved,” Mouarkech and Cottard Hachem said.

With this philosophy in mind, AIF launched its digital platform to make more than 22,000 images accessible to the public. “For us at the foundation, it was essential to allow all visitors to project themselves into these pictures, first for the sake of preservation and second, as a way to activate these photographic objects. This is done through research, vision as well as interventions from the artists. This platform reflects our stance today: more open, more inclusive and more collaborative,” the co-directors added.

Portrait of woman on horse, Abu Izzedine, Egypt, 1900-1910, Gelatin silver negative on glass. Faysal Abu Izzeddin Collection, courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

Multi-layered and porous objects

The new platform allows users to search for images from 1860 to 1993 by keyword or private collection. “Since we also question the notion of institutional domination, we do not wish nor do we try to impose our message. That is why we have limited the information related to an image, and we ask the visitors of the platform to submit their own input. This way, they can build their own narratives around these objects and become the new mediators,” Cottard Hachem explained.

AIF’s co-directors view the images on their site as three dimensional objects whose fronts, backs and even sometimes negatives each reveal something different. “They are mostly multi-layered objects, each layer disclosing more about the given item. There is the actual image, its content, the way we use it over time as well as its autonomy in space, including the impact that all the transfer and moving had on the object,” the co-directors said.

The co-directors of AIF go beyond conventional photographic language when describing the images in the archive. They refer to them like porous, sometimes magical objects of enormous fragility, swaying between poetics and the political, crossing through social, historical and intimate layers. “There is also an immense interest in the metaphor of a photographic object. We ask ourselves: what are we preserving? A story? A regional context? Or rather a narrative system based on laying one layer of archive over the next because some of our images belonged to previously numbered archives.” they added

Faced with many challenges, mixing conventional archiving methods with a contemporary art approach, AIF has managed to create a modern and up-to-date archiving system that will become an inspiration for the next ones to come.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of May)

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