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Politics of Photographic Portraiture

Session IX-16, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
In the first century of photography, portraitures were the majority of what was recorded through this new technology and medium. This panel considers the many histories of photographic portraiture in the Middle East from the Constitutional Revolution in the Qajar Empire to Ottoman Iraq during WWI to Turkey and Palestine. Through examining four sets of photographic portraitures, we demonstrate the increasing significance of photography in twentieth century Middle East politics and society to disseminate ideas about both the state and the self. Recent scholarship on early decades of photography in the Middle East has focused on the Ottoman and Qajar palaces and a few famous photographers in the capital cities of Istanbul and Tehran. We examine the larger contexts of production, circulation, and reception of portraiture photographs beyond these usual suspects by considering the role of photography in communicating and shaping political identities in provinces and at home. Moving from the center and the state as foci of analysis, we consider the importance of photographic portraitures for revolutionary movements, provincial governments, and individual citizens in using the self to portray political ideas and identities. Through analyzing the context through which the photos were taken, the people portrayed, their costumes, as well as the captions and inscriptions accompanying these portraitures, we demonstrate the significance of photos in constitutionalist movements, the war effort, and the making of citizens and national identities. Shifting from state archives as main depositories of photographs, the panel demonstrates the various means and circles of circulation of photographic portraitures, from postcards to collections in family albums, and how that shaped the relationships between photography and politics as well as state and society in the early twentieth century Middle East. While all four sets of photographs were staged, they show the various ways the self embodied political identities. From portrayal of bodies subject to violence, symbolizing Islamic unity, to those modeling the “authentic” nation and the “modern” citizen, we demonstrate how photographs were used to shape and disseminate ideas about gender, class, and age. Studying politics of visual sources, this panel argues that photographic portraitures are as important as textual sources in understanding the history of the Middle East in early twentieth century.
  • During the First World War, a photo postcard started to be distributed in western Iran at the borderlands with the Ottoman Empire. The postcard, titled "Islamic Unity between Ottomans and Iranian in Najaf," showed a number of Shi’i ulama and Ottoman military personnel, with two of them shaking hands over a table which was adorned with a piece of paper claiming this was a unity between the two governments. It was published by an Iranian constitutionalist, Seyed Abdulrahim Kashani, in Tehran. It followed a series of individual and group fatwas or calls for jihad issued by the Shi'i ulama residing in Ottoman Iraq in favor of the Ottoman state against the British. This paper considers the larger context of production, circulation, and possible reception of the “Islamic Unity” postcard by considering the history of pro-Ottoman Shi’i fatwas, which actually go not that far and only started in 1909. I argue that the consecutive constitutional revolutions in Iran (1905-1907) and the Ottoman Empire (1908) led to new means of political participation by the Shi'i ulama in Ottoman politics. They functioned not within the paradigm of Sunni-Shi'i schism but anti-colonialism. The fact that the ulama published the fatwas calling all Muslim to jihad not only in Ottoman Iraq but also in newspapers in the Ottoman center in Istanbul, shows their active political participation not only in regional politics but the imperial politics writ large.
  • The phenomenon of ‘cultural crossdressing’ – western tourists marking their visit to Palestine, or the region more generally, with a studio portrait taken in ‘traditional costume’ – has been well addressed within Orientalist frameworks, though less attention has been focused on the significant Arab participation in the practice, particularly in the early decades of the twentieth century as the Ottoman Empire gave way to the British Mandate. This paper will investigate the deployment of ‘traditional’ costuming in photography as a marker of identity. It will question the cultural negotiation that the deployment of such costuming engenders, particularly with regards to notions of class, urban-rural divides, gender, nationalism and belonging. It will argue that ‘traditional’ costume was central to the deployment and production of a putative authenticity. It will consider the ways in which this notional authenticity was a cultural articulation of nationalism that impacted on identity formation processes during the formative rise of Arab nationalism. In addressing the relationship of nationalism to cultural cross dressing, it will contrast the transgressive nature of the practice in articulating differing articulations nationalist identity in the Palestinian urban and middle-classes as well as other communities. By analysing photographic evidence of the adoption of cultural crossdressing by local communities, this paper ultimately asks what the transgressions of class, gender and urban-rural divides can tell us about how urban communities articulated new modes of nationalism and how they related to their compatriots.
  • In this paper, through a series of portraits given or sent to one individual named Şükrü Bey in the late 1920s, I look at how the circulation of vernacular photographs helped to construct and disseminate the image of the new Republican citizen among family, friends, and colleagues. Inscriptions were central to the circulation patterns of photographs, contributing to memory-creation and identity-building processes among the new Turkish middle classes. They reveal the diverse functions of photographs as effective modes of communication, at times used in lieu of letters, circulated among not only families and friends, but also colleagues and acquaintances. With the transition from the Arabic to Latin alphabet, elaborate Ottoman phrases were replaced by simpler diction, disclosing the effects of the language reform that resulted in the homogenization of Turkish as a modern national language. Inscriptions demonstrate the vernacularization and secularization patterns of the early Republican era that emerged in the 1930s and that would characterize the circulation of photographs until the digital era. Taking the Şükrü Bey series as a starting point, this paper shows how middle-class Turkish citizens used photographic exchanges and inscriptions not only to build and share memories but also to promote a classed self-image. I analyze the complex networks in which photographic prints were circulated within and outside family circles, serving multiple functions as effective modes of communications. Through a detailed analysis of the linguistic patterns used in photographic inscriptions in the 1920s and 1930s, the paper reveals the political, social, and cultural significance of language in the making and dissemination of the modern Turkish identity.