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“I Have The Picture!” Egypt’s Photographic Heritage between Neoliberalism and Digital Reproduction (Part II)

[Detail from an anonymous photography album, Egypt, early 1940s. Collection of the author.] [Detail from an anonymous photography album, Egypt, early 1940s. Collection of the author.]

The Arab Image Foundation (AIF)—a private archiving initiative founded by a group of artists and collectors in 1997, and run through foreign and local grants—appears on the surface like the very antithesis of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (discussed in Part I of this article). While based in Beirut, the AIF holds a substantial collection of photographs from Egypt and represents an important model of archive and heritage-making in the region.

The AIF’s approach to preserving and curating its extensive photographic collection is highly professional. Its online database is well presented, described, and sourced. The author and source (provenance) of every image is acknowledged on the main website. Additional information about the technique and size of each photograph appears through the advanced search option once the viewer has registered on the website (registration is free). However, this online database is not entirely immune from criticism, most notably in how its search categories are constructed. Many of the categories are poorly chosen and seem to reflect the database-maker’s own research interests: categories such as “old woman,” “smiling,” or “frowning” are subjective. While information about photographic technique and artifact size is given, there is no indication of medium (e.g., carte postale, carte de visite, part of an album, loose mounted or unmounted print). Such information remains crucial to the social and cultural historian in order to understand the circulation and usage of any given photographic object. Photographs should, ideally, also be scanned with their edges visible. Cropping the edges of a photographic object strengthens its reading as a dematerialised “image,” as it denies a key feature of its “objectness.” In this particular context, cropping the photograph’s edges is one way the AIF translates a three-dimensional social object into a two-dimensional aesthetic text. Compared to the Library of Alexandria, however, and compared to the very poor archiving record of the region in general, the AIF database appears as a breath of fresh air. Despite its shortcomings, it was clearly conceived by archivists (or by artists and photographers who share the archivist and historian’s respect for the artifact) as well as for researchers.

[The Arab Image Foundation website's front page.]

[The Arab Image Foundation's archive search page.]

Given the AIF’s origin among artists, much attention is given to the aesthetic qualities of individual photographs. Their collecting policies, exhibition activities, and publications are structured around artistic projects initiated by its founders and members. Like other regional custodians (e.g., the Library of Alexandria and the collectors discussed below), the AIF also emphasizes “production,” which in this case includes art exhibitions, books, films, postcards, and mixed-media art forms. The AIF’s bias for presenting their photographs as primarily art objects takes precedence at the expense of its historical or research potential. Although it is a non-profit organization supported by international cultural grants, it operates as a private estate mediated through artistic projects. This aesthetic bias does not in and of itself preclude the simultaneous use of the collections by researchers interested in other aspects of the material. If only researchers could access them, that is. The original photographs, numbering around 500,000, are officially unavailable for viewing. About ten thousand scanned photographs are available to the general public to view on the website. Another ten thousand scanned copies are available for select researchers to view in the Beirut office. For those researchers personally unknown to the AIF, access to the vast majority of the collection is very difficult.

The AIF also runs a program called MEPPI, the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative. This initiative has a double aim: to “map and survey” significant collections in the region, and to train local personnel in archiving and preservation skills. A similar “mapping” initiative was recently carried out by the Archive Map, a project that evolved from the Speak, Memory Symposium of 2010 organized by the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo. Both ventures—by the AIF and the Townhouse Gallery—represent the production of heritage in the age of neoliberalism. Neither institution is an archive in the sense of a depository whose main purpose is to serve the public and researchers. Rather, both originate within private artistic ventures that understand culture as a privilege for those in certain, well-known, elite circles.

[The MEPPI website.]

Given the fact that the funding and participating institutions are also powerful global collecting institutions (i.e., The Getty and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the case of MEPPI), the act of “mapping Middle East archives” can also be read as a strategy for opening up new markets. The markets currently being opened are those for knowledge and expertise flowing into the region. But they carry the potential of becoming markets of objects flowing in the opposite direction. This is not illegal, and whether it is desirable or not is a very contentious issue. But we should not be naïve towards the many possible repercussions of our actions. I am myself part of this process. The emergence of a market is often the function of discovery. By discovering, we—historians, curators, or collectors, united by our search for new and previously unseen objects or sources—create value, and we create, feed, or encourage a market.

Collectors and Custodians

A third set of actors in the heritage drama is the individual custodians. They include collectors proper (i.e., those who acquired collections mostly by buying) and custodians of family collections (i.e., those who inherited family collections). The bulk of photographic heritage—the “real stuff”—is located with them.

Collectors are a socially diverse crowd, and their attitudes towards photographs differ. Some are well aware of the uniqueness of the material object, while others believe that an “image” is all there is to be had, and trade digital copies on the market. But collectors also share many similarities. They are very conscious of the historical time in which they live: that there is now something that needs to be “saved,” sold, or—for that matter—something to be guarded against the acquisitiveness of archives looking to expand their collections. “My things are mine only, I am the one who will look at them and who will speak about them,” says one long-term collector of photographs and popular culture ephemera. He explains: “I collected this myself, it’s my life’s work. I am free to do with it as I want. I picked it up from the trash. It was trash. Now they want to come and take it?” This was over ten years ago, just before the public fashion for nostalgic value and ensuing narratives of conservation began to take the shape they have today, and before the prices of old photographs on the market skyrocketed accordingly.

The attitudes of private collectors and collection custodians have historical roots, as well as reflect the recent attitudes of the two major institutional players: the Library of Alexandria and the AIF. All of these actors share a negatively defined ownership: as having photographs “against” other parties: the state (who forcibly takes away), society (who destroys or does not understand), other private collecting institutions (who outsmart you and do not pay the fair price), or even researchers (who, holding unspecified esoteric knowledge, might deflower your virgin photographs). Common to these attitudes is the perception that photographs somehow contain “truth,” or that they contain “value.” Therefore, they have to be either controlled or marketed.

In the extreme version of this story, some collectors refuse to show their collections to researchers. One collector justified his refusal in the following terms: “If you write your history [of photography] after seeing my photographs, then what will be left for us, owners of these photographs, to do?” While, luckily, his complete refusal is uncommon (if not entirely unique), the logic informing his suspicion and possessiveness is not. Because of the confusion of object and image, original and copy, as well as the excessive demand placed on images as repositories of “truth,” many feel that their images have a virgin quality that can only be taken once.

Suspicions towards researchers were only part of the many anxieties that Egyptian collection owners shared with me. After all, researchers might be a nuisance, but not a threat to collection owners as such. For many, the worst enemy has historically been the state. The state stands for the one who takes things away, and who imposes its own version of history. This is the case with one custodian of a large family archive, a descendant from a notable Ottoman-Egyptian family whose members—since the nineteenth century up until the 1952 revolution occupied high state offices and were close to the palace. The post-1952 history of this family, as with many similar elite families, was shaped by real or perceived threats of dispossession. When the collection custodian spoke to me, there was little difference from his perspective between the nationalizing socialist state of the 1960s and the neoliberal Mubarak state from the 1980s onwards. Functioning as a web of interconnected mafias, powerful actors within the Mubarak state could mobilize Egyptian national heritage laws to lay its hands on people’s property, which then ended up as de facto theirs.

The other problem this particular collector (and he is not the only one) has with the state’s legacy in culture and heritage is about the interpretation of history. Like others of his social milieu, he feels strongly that his family was excluded from the writing of post-1952 history, or even vilified. He sees his role not just as a custodian of family property, but also as having a duty to write his family “back into Egyptian history,” so to speak. “There has been too much history written by the state,” he explains, “too much history as politics.” While this specific person might not see it this way, this mistrust can be productively extended back towards colonial history, as a history that is always written by someone else. In the Egyptian context, the feeling of mistrust towards history equally applies to post-colonialism and it does to post-socialism.

This collector, like every other of the dozens of collectors I have encountered, plans to set up his own archive. Others dream of having their own museums, research institutions, or cultural centers. Yet others use their material to produce coffee-table books or films. And some sell scans of their images to big banks, businesses, or publishers producing calendars or other marketing tools capitalizing on the nostalgia for the Old Regime. This cultural ethos of nostalgia for pre-1952 Egypt, much in evidence during the last decade of the Mubarak Era and currently carried over by a host of websites and Facebook pages, should be understood within the context of the full retreat from the economic and social models of the 1950s and 60s. While this is not always evident to most of those who indulge in the consumption of such nostalgia, much of what appears to be purely commercial exploitation has an important ideological element: it is, again, “history as politics.” The implicit message these nostalgic items convey is that colonial Egypt was clean, modern, and beautiful, thus laying blame on the post-colonial era for taking Egypt “backwards” to chaos and dirt.

As a result of all these genealogies, there is hardly a collector of old photographs (or documents or other vintage objects) in Egypt who would collect for the sake of having a unique object. Furthermore, there is no private institution that would be happy to act as “only” a depository. There hardly is a collection owner in Egypt who would not at least dream of being also a knowledge producer or using his collection to produce some commercial, artistic, or intellectual “product.” 

In the new understanding of culture, being “only” a depository almost sounds like a dirty word. All the actors discussed above, individual or institutional (all of them being private, something that is often blurred by the highly problematic term of “independent”) shy away from being “only” a custodian of valuable material—whether this value is defined as aesthetic, historical, or other.

But is this attitude actually new? All of these attitudes are implicitly defined against the failure of the state’s custodianship of cultural heritage. What the new private actors discussed here do amounts to the same: they perceive their collections as their ‘ezba (estate) alone: as assets to be guarded from others, and exploited for their own exclusive benefit. Because they “have” the material—they “have the picture”—many of them believe they also have the “truth” that resides in it.

All of these attitudes are defined in opposition to what “the state” does. But the state, the villain, has already died. He died a slow and painful death under torture over the past thirty years. He was a controversial fellow: some might mourn him, others do not. Some mourn him in some respects and not in others. He failed miserably to care for Egypt’s heritage, but he also achieved much, especially from the perspective of somebody of my generation, brought up on twentieth-century (and increasingly outmoded) ideas about “equality,” the “public,” and “research.” Egypt is still arguably better off with bad and often abused national heritage protection laws and its badly run public museum collections than without them. (See Pahwa and Winegar, Middle East Report, Issue 263, 2012) To me at least, the one who killed him—the neoliberal ethos of culture as privilege, and heritage as the domain of a select few—seems much worse.

The situation now appears as follows. Cultural products—such as photographs—are valorized, both culturally and materially. They start to be considered “antiques” and “collectibles,” and they beg to be considered for the prize of “national” (or conversely, “universal human”) heritage. In the deep sea of everyday social reality, precious fish are swimming. Two kinds of globally articulate fishermen compete to catch them. One kind catches the fish to take a picture of it, and puts a digital picture of it on his website. Then he kills the fish to make sure that nobody else has the same picture of this same fish on their own website. The other kind of fisherman catches the fish and places it in a first-class aquarium. He makes a big fuss of having it, and shows it, sometimes, to some people. What often happens, however, is that the first fisherman (he is an ibn al-balad after all) catches the fish, takes a picture that he puts on his website, and then sells the fish to the other kind of fisherman for exhibition. Both think that they have won, and both are happy. Seeing this game, some fish owners hide the fish they have and wait to see who will pay more. In either of these cases, we, whether as the general public or as academic researchers, lose.

About the Photography Page

The photography page aims to provide a space for reflection on photography in its various forms and uses in the Middle East. We showcase the work of photographers active in the region and cultivate critical thinking about photographic practices, representations, and history. The page publishes photo essays, articles, interviews, reviews and more. It also provides information on photographic archives, agencies, and institutions, exhibits, events, and publications.