Conservation Lebanon

Preserving the photographic heritage of the Middle East

A conservation grant allows a Beirut foundation to digitise two rare archives

A selection of photographs from the Hashem el Madani and Latif el Ani collections at the Arab Image Foundation

BEIRUT. When Bank of America Merrill Lynch launched its $1m conservation grant programme in May 2010, the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), a Beirut-based non-profit organisation, applied and hoped for the best. When the recipients were announced, the young foundation was among distinguished institutions such as the Courtauld in London, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and Madrid’s Reína Sofia to have conservation projects selected. Now that the project is under way, the foundation’s director Zeina Arida admits she was surprised to be selected. “We were certainly the outsiders,” she said, adding: “When we looked at the list and saw that major museums had received funds to conserve their Picassos we felt very lucky to be included.” The AIF is not only the sole recipient from the Middle East, it is also the only organisation to seek funds to preserve photographs.

Collecting, preserving, interpreting and promoting the photographic heritage of the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora are the foundation’s core activities. It was founded in 1997 by Arida and Lebanese artists Fouad Elkoury and Akram Zaatari in response to the lack of photographic archives in the Middle East and the rapid disappearance of the few that remained. Many photographic studios had sold their glass plates so they could be melted down for their silver.

According to Arida, historical factors including the region’s instability and a long history of migration have contributed to the lack of substantial photographic collections. “There isn’t the ‘archiving culture’ in the Arab world that there is in other regions,” said Arida, who added that the awareness of the importance of archives is greater today than it was when the AIF was founded. “When we started the foundation there wasn’t any research on the development of photography in the Arab world—it was an important aspect of visual culture from which Arab artists could not draw,” she said.

The foundation, which counts artists Walid Raad and Lara Baladi among its members, has a 300,000-strong collection that includes work by professionals and amateurs dating from the mid-19th-century to today. It covers a range of genres and styles from family albums to industrial photographs, and from passport photos to still lifes and nudes.

As part of its preservation activities, the AIF has already digitised 50,000 photos from its collection. The grant is being used to digitise the collection of two Arab photographers: Hashem el Madani and Latif el Ani. A native of Saida in south Lebanon, El Madani’s archive captures 50 years of life in the city. “The collection is important because it’s a complete archive, which is rare. We’ve interviewed El Madani extensively in order to identify the images,” said Arida. El Ani is a former photographer for the Iraq Petroleum Company. Active in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, his photographs show the modernisation of Baghdad.

“In the programme’s inaugural year, we received applications from institutions across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and we were truly impressed by the cultural and historical significance of the Arab Image Foundation’s collection,” said Rena De Sisto, the global arts and culture executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Of particular interest to us is the role that the foundation plays in sharing its archive with museums around the world. This matches our own belief—that greater cultural understanding leads to dialogue between different cultures and nurtures community spirit, fostering increased opportunities for all,” she said.­ Bank of America Merrill Lynch declined to disclose the amount of individual grants.

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