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The SWANA Region through the Lens of History and Photography: Possibilities, Uses and Issues of Visual Archive

Panel XIII-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
From the 2000s onwards, photographic archives in the Middle East region have been the object of growing interest, also thanks to the contribution, among others, of the Arab Image Foundation, 1997 (Baumann, 2012). In general, attention to archives has allowed for the exploration of a multiplicity of issues ranging from the writing of the history of the region to the history of the photographic medium itself (Behad, 2016; Nassar, Sheehi, Tamari, 2022). Finally, as shown by numerous publications, exhibitions, associations as Umam Documentation and research, and research projects dealing with the region, photographic and audiovisual archives are also at the center of the contemporary creation of artists in the region to address themes such as the modalities of transmission of memory, the phenomenon of disappearance related to conflicts, but also the transformations and struggles that have gone through the entire twentieth century and that still mark the region today (Mermier, Varin 2010; Downey, 2015; Hochberg, 2021). This panel proposes to reflect on the visual archive as a place of production of alternative historiographies in the Middle East region in relation to different countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine an Iran) and historical contexts. The panel will also explore the visual archive as a tool of resistance, particularly in the context of marginalized communities. The participants (researchers and artists) will address the theme of the archive also in relation to the phenomenon of circulation and remediation of images generated by artistic practices. Several approaches will be mobilized: photographic and film studies, social history, postcolonial studies, anthropology, but also digital humanities and audiovisual preservation. Discussions will focus on the possibilities and limitations of visual archives, on photography as a tool for writing history, on the role of artists as cultural producers, users and creators of visual archives, and on the phenomenon of image circulation that derives from them in relation to a specific geographical and cultural context.
Art/Art History
  • The Orientalist archive of Palestine is a stolen archive. Innumerable images of the visual geographies of indigenous peoples are recast into a vision where only the colonizer sees and, if she even exists, the colonized is only to be seen. This is no more apparent than in Palestine. This Orientalist vision is coded by the overarching Holy Land narrative that is entwined with the creation of Zionism itself. Orientalism stole the visual landscape of Palestine long  before the Zionists. This indexical theft then is related epistemologically to 1948. This presentation will chose one image, generically titled “Moslems Sheikhs and Effendis.” The image however is that of the Khalid Library in Jerusalem. We will see in excavating and re-appropriating this photograph that the theft of the photographic index is the colonial condition of photography, which deterritorializes the index. This is a condition of colonialism itself, which involves not only an expropriation of land but of visual indices, geographies and histories. If the Orientalist archive is one of extraction, as Ariella Azoulay shows us, one that produces meaning and capital for the colonial empire, we also find this image in Palestine. In unpacking the American Colony image of the Khalidi Library, we will learn of the journeys this images has taken in Europe and in the United States. But also, we will re-matatriate the image to Palestine, through the photography albums of Wasif Jawhariyeh. In this self-generated archive, that he called the “Illustrated History of Palestine,” we will see the reanimation of this Khalidi Library, its social history and the social relations it holds.
  • The two major events of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Revolution (1979) and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) have deeply marked the history of the country, but also the history of Iranian photography (Krifa, 2001; David, Dabashi 2008). Indeed, the reportages of several photojournalists such as Kaveh Golestan, Bahman Jalali, Jassem Ghazbanpour, Kârmân Shirdel, Abbas etc., in addition to producing a poignant and indispensable testimony of these events, have contributed significantly to the formation of a generation of photographers who, even today, continue to turn to this visual memory (ex. Babak Kazemi, Saba Alizadeh, Ghazelh Rezaei). Through this paper, I propose to explore how images related to these events circulate today in contemporary photographic practices (Ghabaian, 2012; Daneshvari, 2017). What are the historical and aesthetic issues related to these phenomena of remediation and/or re-appropriation of these documentary images (Rajewsky, 2005)? What role do these phenomena play on the constitution of collective memory and its transmission between different generations? What relationship between past and present do they establish? And finally, what contemporary "archives" do these transformations allow us to imagine or create?
  • In 2018, ill with an incurable cancer, the French-Lebanese filmmaker and artist Jocelyne Saab embarks on a general retrospective of her work as an artist. Her choice goes to the still images. Since 2007, marked by the violent criticism and censorship of which her film Dunia is victim in Egypt, Jocelyne Saab turns to contemporary art and photography. Her first series have been exhibited worldwide. Others have remained unpublished. Between moving and still images, the work that Jocelyne Saab carried out at the end of her life was in line with her initial work as a war reporter: to show the reality of civilians, to denounce injustice and to choose the weapon as a means of going against the grain of the mass media. With her book Zone de Guerre (2018), Jocelyne Saab tackles a new medium, and another audience. The publishing is another language to spread her works. This book freezes in a few scrupulously selected photograms the 35 documentaries she made during the Lebanese civil war, alongside the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara, in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution and in the Egypt of Sadat and Mubarak. Saab also unveils location photographs from her fiction films and art videos, as well as unpublished photographic works. In this way, she brings to life projects that had never been able to see the light of day and offers, within this book of images, fifty years of Middle Eastern history. In light of her prolific career as a journalist and filmmaker, I wish to revisit the methodology adopted by Jocelyne Saab in the conception of this work, which magnifies the present of the history of the films she shot by freezing them in symbolic images, and which gives life to the stories she was never able to tell, by revealing series of photographs and fragments of unfinished projects. I want to show that her choice of the still image poses a challenge to the viewer who sees her films as archives or heritage: because they were extracted from the original films at the end of the artist's life, one must say that the images in War Zones are from 2018, not before. It is this dialogue between the past and a present without tomorrow established by Jocelyne Saab that I wish to discuss in her personal relationship to the history of Arab countries.