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Pierced Memories: The Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi

Pierced Memories: The Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi

[Fatima Hammdo in a traditional dress and an army uniform, from the Alkarsiffi family album, 1970s.] [Fatima Hammdo in a traditional dress and an army uniform, from the Alkarsiffi family album, 1970s.]

[Text by Ania Dabrowska, photos courtesy of Diab Alkarssifi.]

The Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi is a project about a collection of photographs belonging to an ordinary man with a passion and a story. It is also a project about the process of an artist (myself) transforming this collection into an archive within this particular cultural context: two migrants living in London, a Polish artist and a retired Lebanese journalist, an artist’s residency in a homeless people’s hostel.

We are not supposed to believe that a treasure might one day unexpectedly land on our doorstep. Yet, this is precisely what happened when Diab Alkarssifi’s collection came into my life in 2010. I had just started a SPACE [1] artist’s residency at Arlington House in London, a hostel for the homeless where Diab lived at the time. He visited my studio one day, bringing two very big bags filled with negatives and photographic prints. I was intrigued by the content of the bags, and no less by the man who stood before me.  

Diab Alkarssifi was born in Baalbek, Lebanon in 1951, into a land and family that has survived many wars. He contracted polio during his childhood and the resulting disability later saved him from being drafted into the army. This suited him well. Following his passions, he became a journalist and a photographer, spending the next 16 years working on assignments for local and national media. What Diab brought to my studio was what he could carry when he, his beautiful wife, and small children, left Lebanon for the UK in 1993. A majority of his collection was apparently still hidden in Baalbek. He spent the next seventeen years protecting this personal treasure.

Diab explains, “For many years these photographs were hidden. In these bags lay my life’s work and passion, but I often wondered if that really mattered and what I could do with them. After we started working, I felt as if I remembered myself again. I kept this archive safe for many decades. The forgotten lives, friends that died or went away, places and ideas that no longer existed, were brought back. The light was shining on them again.” [2]        

The objects instantly seduced me: tenderly wrapped negatives and stacks of old prints tied into bundles were like a giant puzzle waiting to be re-ordered. Everything was covered with a patina of scratches, dust, fingerprints, stains, inscriptions and stamps. The wraps were once torn from newspapers with no regard for content of their pages. They were covered with notes of dates, names and places, promising a sense of historical orientation in time that was opening up. The studio filled with smells of faint cologne, musk, old paper, and celluloid.

I started with pragmatic matters. How exactly does a collection become an archive? Noting the frequency of certain themes of tradition, family, and the lives of people close to Diab, I started looking at narrative patterns and the construction of different types of stories. By focusing on a structural analysis, I hoped to objectify these stories enough to liberate myself from their embedded chronology and a historically driven order. Instead, I could focus on a conceptual dimension of the project and let that inspire a different way of reading. Why would you want to travel to this particular land across space and time?

Diab’s collection covers over 100 years (1890-1993) of the personal and socio-political history of Lebanon, with some photographs from Kuwait, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. He claims to have amassed around 27,000 photographs. I have had access to only a small part of this collection, but it comprises an eclectic mix with its own merit. The photographs come from three sources: Diab’s work, collected family albums (his and other people’s), and various additions from several small photographic studios. We see the history of three generations of the Alkarssifi family, the Baalbek community, his student life in 1970s Moscow and Budapest, all set against public narratives of political and military conflict. Amongst the photographs that came from the commercial photographic studios, many had no annotations regarding identity of the photographer, sitters, time or place. We found passport and studio portraits, uncollected holiday snaps, and photographs of public social events, including visits of state dignitaries and monarchs. People come and go, reflecting changes in fashion, attitude, and politics in the bustling cities of Baalbek, Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo.

The majority of the collection is made up of Diab’s personal work. From his childhood in the early 1960s to 1993, Diab was an obsessive photographer of everything he saw and of everyone around him: his immediate and extensive family, neighbours, students, fellow journalists, co-workers, party comrades, and strangers. His proximity to the subjects creates an intimate portrait of real people, a poetic documentation of life told in the first person. We see babies being born, children going to school, weddings, people growing old, and death, in a cycle of winters, summers, and springs. His immediate subjects are so used to his camera, they are natural and unpretending. This ground level vision of tenderness and closeness is easy to connect to because of the simultaneous impact of the narratives and the work’s aesthetic. The common nature of many scenes depicted in the photographs makes them instantly familiar because of our own experience of family albums. Yet, unlike ordinary family albums, we get an insight into all layers of life, a spectrum of emotions, action, stillness, and the mundane. We see washing lines, empty courtyards, buckets, flocks of birds, and other details of the everyday. He is equally interested in people performing daily chores, a spontaneous snow fight, picnics, or a production by an amateur theatre group as he is in the way his community reacts to the continuous social unrest and wars.

The visual quality of these photographs often reminds me of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, not surprising perhaps, as both men belonged to the same era, which left its characteristic marks on the materiality of their work. Diab was often forced to shoot on outdated photographic stock and to use broken equipment, which resulted in frequent over, under, or multi-exposures, misalignments of frames, shifts of tonality. With time, his negatives also grew scratches, stains, kinks, and mildew. Diab’s photographs also remind me of Tarkovsky partly because of the subject matter: they tell stories of similar people, longings, suffering. Beneath the veil of nostalgia and romanticism, there is a distinct political dimension in this work. Where people seem to have better things to do than to stop and take stock of where and what they are, these photographs do it for them.

As a journalist, Diab covered all kinds of local stories in the social documentary tradition of Magnum Photos, the celebrated photography collective. Characters come straight out of a Fellini film, in scenes reminiscent of Italian Neorealism cinema and the French New Wave. Political figures, artists, singers, or peasants are shot in a similar style, often with an ironic, humorous, critical, or surreal dimension. Stories from the Lebanese civil wars are mixed with portraits of a Lebanese Miss Universe, or George Hawi visiting a military mountain camp. Diab captures people unaware, daring to stare where we have been taught to avert the eyes, into peripheries of vision, as well as center stage events – into faces of the dead, private courtyards, secret kisses, women gossiping behind someone’s back, sweaty armpits exposed in a drunken dance. His lens returns to people’s faces with the stubbornness of a mosquito, catching them in a quick succession of frames, creating the effect of a suspended animation, adding to the filmic quality of the stories. We stop, because we have remembered how to look, how to be attentive. Through ritualizing the everyday, Diab creates a way of liberating himself and his subjects, a way of coming to terms with the perpetual presence of conflict. Persistent repetition of similar stories provides reassurance, and narrative continuity, whereas fragmentation of the historical narrative is pushed to the background, reflecting the instability of political rhetoric. This shift of perspective on history takes us back to the project’s conceptual context. 

Questions about personal and collective memory have underpinned many of my works in the past. I have repeatedly attempted to look in two directions at once: turning to history while trying to make sense of something in the present. In developing the project Lebanese Archive of Diab Alkarssifi, I considered these questions in a new light, from a philosophical perspective. If childhood memories influence our beliefs, our beliefs motivate our actions, and actions change destiny, can memories allow us to re-evaluate our beliefs, and thus enable us to control our future? Looking at these photographs floods my mind with memories of 1970s Poland, at the time still firmly communist. A few years later we would face the martial law of 1981, food shortages, electricity blackouts, curfews, winters that broke freezing records and that lead to an unprecedented baby boom. My memories are those of a child, un-tinted by intellectual hardship, fear for life, or any other collective anxiety. Hide and seek was the game to play, as people negotiated a line between their public persona and family life. The system crashed as I reached adulthood and started to negotiate my new freedom. What has been distinctive about working on and looking at Diab’s archive is that it takes me not so much back in time, but home again, to a place that is simultaneously familiar and new. Even though we are looking at images of the past, we are re-affirming what home means for us in the present, a process particularly relevant in a context of political and economic upheavals or migrant displacement.

During two years of initial research and development of the project, I worked closely with Diab Alkarssifi on digitizing and cataloguing the photographs, and recording his stories. The project has had a big impact on both of us not only because of the photographs’ content and the ideas it generated but also because of the processes involved. The context of our encounter and work within the parameters of an artist’s residency has allowed us to structure our respective personal, intellectual, and artistic agendas. As the author of the majority of photographs in the archive and owner of the collection, Diab has allowed me to exercise conceptual, artistic, and curatorial freedom over the work – a generous gesture and an act of trust. 

With the completion of the SPACE residency at Arlington House at the end of 2012, the project is now moving into an exciting new phase. I am about to travel to Lebanon with Diab to find the remaining portion of his collection, to create work there, and to focus on final editing, printing, and production of the project’s outputs: an artist’s book, a digital catalogue of Diab’s archive, and an exhibition. A team of designers working in London has joined our team and are engaged in sketching drafts and developing design solutions for print and an online launch at the end of 2013. These multiple platforms aim to showcase our archival and contemporary fine art photography. All this, we hope, will lead to a long-term solution for preserving and housing Diab Alkarssifi’s life work either independently or as part of a larger institution.

Read selected stories from the archive on the SPACE residency blog.


[1] SPACE is one of the largest arts organisations in England and has been at the vanguard in promoting the role of artists in society since its inception in 1968 by an artist Bridget Riley. http://www.spacestudios.org.uk/

[2] From transcripts of Ania Dabrowska’s Conversations about Archive, 2012

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