From same-sex kisses and men in drag, to nude portraits and children posing with assault rifles, the Arab Image Foundation is replete with startling and sensationalist photographs of the Middle East. But it is the foundation’s thousands of photographs documenting day-to-day activities, neglected traditions and vanished ways of life that make it a unique and fascinating resource. For more than 20 years, the foundation has preserved its archives, published books and organised exhibitions, but its collections have been difficult for the public to access. Now, the launch of a new online platform has made thousands of previously unseen photographs accessible to the world, revealing forgotten moments and untold stories.
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The non-profit foundation was established in Beirut in 1997 to research, protect and preserve the photographic history of North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf. It currently houses more than 500,000 donated negatives and prints. “We are a platform that questions the medium of photography, the practice of photography, the different uses of photography today and pushes the boundaries of what photography is,” explains Marc Mouarkech, the foundation’s managing director. “We try always to push for the creation of new discourses that speak to a contemporary public.”
On the homepage, randomly generated links connect visitors to collections, photographers and images, encouraging new discoveries at every visit. Photographs are also arranged by category and can be sought by keyword, allowing those curious about a particular era, country or subject to explore in depth. Visitors can magnify photographs to uncover hidden details, as well as share images on social media and add their own tags and information to the website. “We want it to be something that gets built by the foundation and the community at the same time,” explains Mouarkech.
Many of the negatives and prints have sustained damage over the years. Rather than being restored or digitally manipulated, they are presented in their current condition and treated as historical artefacts. One stunning portrait of a ballet dancer, taken by Armenian-Egyptian photographer Armand (born in Turkey in 1901), is marred by white whorls like the mark of a thumbprint. The damage adds drama to the photograph, creating a delicate patina atop the ballerina’s upturned face and her diaphanous white dress.
Many of the images document traditions that have died out. Photographer Camille el Kareh was known for his post-mortem photographs, which became popular in north Lebanon in the 1920s and ‘30s. Carefully posing the deceased on their deathbeds in front of their loved ones, he created formal family portraits in which the body takes centre stage. In one photograph which exemplifies the quiet dignity of his work, the body of an old man has been posed in a black suit, with flowers in his folded hands and covering his mouth. His family are lined up behind him, while a few people crowd into the frame on the far left, craning forward for a final look.
In Syria, academic and photographer Jibrail Jabbur, born in 1900, captures a Bedouin man in the Syrian desert wearing a crisp white headdress and carrying his hunting falcon. Jabbur’s work provides unique insight into the daily lives of Syrian Bedouins who roamed the deserts in the early 20th Century.
The archive documents watershed moments that have been overlooked by history
The archive includes many images of historic events and figures, but it also documents watershed moments that have been overlooked by history, shedding light on changing social mores over the course of a century. A studio portrait by an anonymous Egyptian photographer, taken in the early 20th Century, captures two young women posing in headscarves. They have both unfastened their white face veils at one side, allowing their features to be photographed. Mouarkech believes it to be one of the earliest known formal photographs to capture Arab women with their faces uncovered.
The shifting attitude to the female body in Egypt is particularly clear in the work of prolific Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo, who took hundreds of erotic photographs of entertainers in the 1950s and ‘60s, only to burn most of the prints and negatives in his oven in the 1980s following a sharp rise in religious conservatism.
Surviving examples of these boudoir portraits are housed in the AIF’s collection, including saucy images of Egyptian actress Nadia Abdel Wahed, who asked Van Leo to capture her in 18 different poses as she removed each article of her clothing. In one photograph, taken in 1959, she smoulders at the camera as she raises one leg in the air to unroll her stocking, clad only in her bustier and high heels.
Men, too, are captured in semi-nude and even nude portraits. Bodybuilding was a popular pastime in the mid-20th Century and men often posed for photographs flexing their muscles or lounging next to their trophies. One photograph, taken by Egyptian photographer Jamal Youssef, captures three men in white loincloths posing proudly around a roughly hewn rock in a triangle formation that evokes victors on a podium, the play of light accentuating their muscles.
Other Egyptian collections document traditions that are still thriving, such as the making of local sweets. In 1960, photographer Muhamad Youssef lay underneath a sheet of glass to photograph a man making knafeh, a local delicacy combining sweet pastry and soft cheese. The chef’s smiling face and white hat are encircled by the first layers of his concoction as he applies a ring of sugary paste to the surface of the glass.
Many early photographers in the region experimented with composition and technique. One playful image, taken in Bethlehem in 1922 by an anonymous Palestinian photographer, uses an overlay technique to capture the same man in four different positions, creating a surreal tableau in which three identical men sit down to eat, the one in the centre grinning as he slices into a human head.
Taken around the same period is a photograph by Marie al-Khazen, one of the first female photographers in the Middle East. Born in Lebanon in 1899, she was a passionate amateur photographer and feminist. Her 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. One of her prints shows a man and a woman on horseback, the woman in the foreground, looming over the man. A double exposure, the photograph overlays the figures with a verdant landscape, creating a surreal but beautifully balanced composition.
In keeping with the turbulent history of the region, many of the photographs feature weapons, but Mouarkech warns that these can sometimes be misinterpreted. Lebanese photographer Hashem El Madani took hundreds of photographs of daily life in his native town of Sidon, including dozens of portraits of men and children posing with guns, taken in the 1970s in the run-up to the Lebanese civil war.
If a small kid sees an image and it helps him grow his imagination or it stays with him for an emotional reason, for us this is preserving the material that we have – Marc Mouarkech
One photograph captures a moustachioed man posing with a keffiyeh wrapped around his head, wearing a camouflage jacket and holding a Kalashnikov. Recently, a man visiting the foundation’s office was surprised the see the photograph hanging on a wall. He said the man was his grandfather, who worked for the state electricity company. Although he wasn’t part of a militia, when he went to get his portrait taken he chose to pose in costume. “It was a way to show him being a macho man in front of the camera,” says Mouarkech. “These photos were taken in the studio and it was a representation of a certain masculinity.”
The foundation’s online archive is intended to broaden perspectives of the Middle East. Mouarkech sees providing public access to the collections as part of his duty to preserve them. “The archive is a tool that needs to be used,” he says. “Preservation comes in so many different ways. If a small kid sees an image and it helps him grow his imagination or it stays with him for an emotional reason, for us this is preserving the material that we have, the history that we hold, the memory of the object and the memory of the region.”
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