The Middle East Archive Project puts the Arab world in focus with no filter

A social media photo archive offers a new take on the history of the Mena region and the experiences of its people

Staff work at the American University of Beirut Hospital in the 1950s. Lizzy and Vivienne Vartanian Collier / Middle East Archive Project
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Scrolling through a host of Instagram photos, from selfies to perfectly framed pictures of food, you occasionally come across something a little different. The Middle East Archive Project is one such gem on the social media platform. 

The sepia and grayscale tones of the images on the account are no filter effect. The pictures are a true snapshot of bygone era, forming Darah Ghanem's social media archive of personal pictures from the Mena region.

Ghanem, a Palestinian who lives in Dubai, started the project last year. It runs on Instagram and Facebook, posting crowdsourced material from people in the region who are willing to share old family photos, documenting the stories behind them. The project's Instagram page has started to garner greater attention, with more than 2,000 followers and people sending in new images every day.

Darah Ghanem started the Middle East Archive Project last year
Darah Ghanem started the Middle East Archive Project last year

"I've always been interested in visual storytelling, particularly through film and photography, and I've always known what a powerful tool archival material is for telling stories and documenting the region," Ghanem tells The National. "I wanted to create a digital space where you could see an alternative narrative and history for the region.

"One of the greatest ways to do this is through family archives. To me, family records provide a more nuanced, diverse and multifaceted spirit, and a narrative closer to the truth. Our history lies inside our families' homes, suitcases, briefcases, jewellery boxes, envelopes, etc. And these are elements of our history that are in the private realm, not in museums or public spaces, and you won't see them in history books about the region."

The project is Ghanem's way of reclaiming the narrative around the Mena region's history and making it accessible to everyone through social media – a place usually used for documenting contemporary life. Alongside each image is a long caption summarising the events behind the picture, described by the people sending the snaps.

Followers are able to see the archive grow in real time, as social media makes it convenient for people to send in pictures from anywhere across the world. It also allows Ghanem to chat with those submitting the images and ask questions about them. "A lot of the people that submit their photos often become very avid followers of the project because they can't wait to see other people's stories and also become attached to how others receive their story," she says. "People start to see themselves and their families in the stories of other people's families."

The snaps show everyday moments, from Christmas gatherings in Palestine to university jam sessions in Cairo. Set against the backdrop of major political events, such as the Arab-Israeli War, Ghanem says she wants the project to promote diversity and inclusivity and offer an alternative outlook on the region. "It tries to challenge mainstream and orientalist narratives about the region. My definition of what it means to be Middle Eastern is broad and open-ended," she says.

The project features people from different ethnicities, religions, countries and even those in the Arab diaspora, she says.

"It's important for me to be critical of our region's history. I'm proud of my roots … but I know that there have been wrongdoings on our part as a community and there have been other identities, faiths and races that we've shunned throughout history."

A family photo in Moscow, Russia, in 1967. Yousef Hilmy / Middle East Archive Project
A family photo in Moscow, Russia, in 1967. Yousef Hilmy / Middle East Archive Project

Some of the posts include images of Ghanem's family, such as a passport photo of her maternal uncle, Shams Jaber, taken in 1967 at a studio in the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, where her mother's family is from. The caption reads: "This is the year that my grandmother took her eight children and moved to Jordan, as a result of the 1967 exodus which took half a million Palestinians out of the occupied territories and scattered them across the Arab world. I think my uncle was 14 or 15 at the time."

Wedding photos are another common submission, which Ghanem says reveal a lot about changing fashion trends, from the sleek designs of the 1920s to the full skirts of the 1950s. These personal snapshots can also show a lot about social norms, economic and political situations of a certain time, what people did for leisure and where people migrated to and from.

The project showcases wedding styles through the decades. Yara Hindawi / Middle East Archive Project
The project showcases wedding styles through the decades. Yara Hindawi / Middle East Archive Project

Pictures of couples having picnics and enjoying other outings also pop up, which Ghanem says she loves to receive. "Some of the stories that sit with me for a long time are diaspora stories or tales about Palestine because I'm Palestinian," she says. "Seeing stories of my own history and what other people's families have been through, being able to connect with them and learn things about my history that I didn't know, is amazing.

"One photo I got is about a Palestinian family on the beach in the 1970s and they're in swimwear. I never imaged that in the 1970s, postwar, under occupation, people would be going to the beach in a bikini."

With the popularity of social media, similar projects are beginning to appear, such as Colorize Lebanon and Iraqi Archive. Compared to traditional archiving and history telling, Ghanem says she believes these accounts reach a wider audience, require less money and licensing to run, and allow people to keep their original photos and documents, which traditional archives tend to take for preservation.

A Palestinian family in Jaffa in the 1970s. Bayan Dahdah / Middle East Archive Project
A Palestinian family in Jaffa in the 1970s. Bayan Dahdah / Middle East Archive Project

“Traditional archives require the expertise to properly preserve, collect and chronicle these materials,” Ghanem says. “They’re not always accessible to the public or you have to be part of an academic circle, so I wanted something that everyone can access, engage with and be excited about sharing.

"In 100 years' time, all archives are going to be of digital photographs – everyone is taking photos on their phones, or with digital cameras and storing them online, so what is traditional archiving going to look like in a century? The fact this project is online speaks to that and it's not sustainable to always archive physical material. It is important, but technology is moving so fast and materials are not being printed."

Ghanem says she hopes to expand the project by organising events where people can bring along their family archives to share with others and connect with them through personal stories. She also intends to produce a book of wedding photos, showing the different trends over the years and what can be discerned from a moment in time.

You can follow the Middle East Archive Project on Instagram and Facebook