The long read: NYUAD’s Centre for Photography unveils a new collection of antique images from the Middle East

NYUAD has big plans for Yasser Alwan's priceless collection of photographs, which records more than a century of life in the Middle East.

A photo of four unknown women in Egypt, the year also unknown, from the Yasser Alwan Collection at NYUAD. Courtesy Akkasah, the Centre for Photography, NYUAD
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The four young women have been living in a box for many years, perhaps even decades. Exposed to daylight once more, they meet the observer’s eye with a steady, serious gaze, wearing clothes that suggest comfort more than fashion.

Behind them is a panorama of shapes familiar to tourists; the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza, a world they are physically prevented from entering by a barbed wire fence but perhaps also by their sex and circumstances. Yet the intimacy of the group suggests a close friendship that will long outlast the fraction of a second it takes for the camera’s shutter to open and close.

The box that was their home, before the women metamorphosed into the digital realm, found its way to a Cairo street market and then, for probably just a few pounds, into the hands of an Egyptian photographer, Yasser Alwan.

Today the women might be said to live in Abu Dhabi, scanned, coded and tagged as part of a new digital photo archive that will have its roots in the Middle East but which will belong to everyone.

Alwan has been collecting, as well as taking, photographs for many years. It is now a large collection, assembled from single images, from discarded boxes of prints and negatives, and from cast-out family albums.

The photos date from the 1920s through to the 1950s, although some are much older. Most likely, all the subjects – and the photographers – are dead, which is why they were thrown out, to be sold in flea markets and ­second-hand bookshops.

Alwan’s collection has now been acquired by Akkasah, the Centre for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi. Akkasah can mean camera in the dialect of the Gulf, with its roots in the Arabic word for reflection. In this context, both are relevant and appropriate.

The director of Akkasah is Shamoon Zamir, an associate professor at the university with a background in both literature and photographic studies; Özge Calafato, a journalist who previously worked for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, is the project ­manager.

If these two are effectively the driving force behind Akkasah, then the vision is much larger. This is an attempt to establish NYU Abu Dhabi, and by extension, the UAE, as a centre of excellence for research into photography.

“For me personally,” says Zamir, “this is another way of signalling by NYU Abu Dhabi that we want to be here for a long time. That we are not just fly-by-night, that we are not just making money and getting out of here. This thing only makes sense over a 10 to 15-year period.”

Alwan’s collection represents the first step. “He’s an old friend,” says Zamir, “and we knew that he had the collection but didn’t know what to do with it. So we got into a discussion.” The result is that Akkasah owns the images, but Alwan retains the commercial copyright. It is a deal that serves as a model for future acquisitions, with the centre creating a photo library that stops short of being a commercial enterprise.

Alwan’s collection numbers around 3,000 photographs. They are slices of time captured in a fraction of a second. Often all that is known is the name of the photographic studio, stamped on the prints.

Even if the identities of the subjects and the locations are a subject of conjecture, they offer tiny insights into the past. A young man in a sharp suit pulls out the pockets of his trousers in imitation of Charlie Chaplin. A family of nine, from the matriarch to the youngest children, pose by a foreign coast that is clearly not Egypt, with a ship crudely pasted in the background. Is this a message to those still home from a new world and new life, or a memory of somewhere left behind?

Other images are even more startling. A location that is clearly not Cairo comes into focus as pre-war Germany. Here is the stadium for the 1936 Olympic Games, and that tiny figure on the balcony is the National Socialist führer, Adolf Hitler. A second image shows an athletics final. The runner bursting to the front is black. Almost certainly this is the American sprinter Jesse Owens, at the exact moment of confounding the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority.

As far as they can tell, says Zamir, an Egyptian man had a romance with a German woman that somehow ended in Berlin.

Part of the collection, says Zamir, are several hundred photographs from the same family: “Which is quite sad – presumably someone has dumped these because someone has died. But also you can see the whole generations developing through these photographs.”

Another group of images seems to have been returned to the Cairo studio that took them. Not because the subjects were dissatisfied but the opposite, judging from the messages written on the reverse: “‘Out of affection’,” says Zamir, “But I don’t know what it means.”

The process of turning essential boxes of cast-out junk into a meaningful resource involves, he admits, a “pretty steep learning curve”, but one of the strengths of Akkasah is that it is part of one of the world’s leading universities.

“Even if we have scholars here who are not photographic experts but know something, say about Egyptian history, we can sit down with them and say: ‘Look at this dress – is it from the 1930s or 1940s? How old is this building, what is this building, do you recognise this neighbourhood of Cairo?’ So slowly we build up.”

After Egypt, the plan is to continue collecting abandoned images in the same way from other Middle East countries: “Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen – if we can,” says Zamir.

The only other project in the region on this is the Arab Image Foundation, based in Beirut. “We get asked: ‘Why are you doing this when there is the Arab Image Foundation?’” says Zamir. “And I point out that this is an ethnocentric and almost racist connotation, because no one says: ‘Why is Paris building a photo archive when Vienna already has one, or London?’ The Arab world is rich and diverse.”

Certainly Akkasah is unique in the Arabian Gulf, for while Qatar is known to have assembled a large collection for a planned museum of photography, the project appears to be on hold.

Akkasah, though, will be more than a database of images. “Once we get the ball rolling on this, it’s not just a matter of putting these things in boxes and having them here,” explains Zamir. “We have to build a programme of scholarship around it so that we have resident scholars, people coming to visit the archive, maybe fellowships on Middle Eastern photography, courses and workshops.”

The first of these, which also served as a launch party for the project, took place this week: a three-day conference, Photography’s Shifting Terrain: Emerging Histories & New Practices, that invited more than 30 of the world’s leading scholars of photography to the Saadiyat campus, including the Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, who has been working in Kurdistan since the early 1990s and gave a public talk.

A glance at the list of papers presented over the three-day event illustrates the potential of Akkasah, although, as we shall shortly see, it also, perhaps unwittingly, also suggests an apparent black hole in the study of photography in the region.

Subjects included Shima Ryu, believed to be Japan’s first woman photographer, who was working in the 1860s, and Latif Al Ani, an Iraqi documentary photographer born in the 1930s and still living in Baghdad, but who apparently hung up his camera, unable or unwilling to continue, after Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979.

Many of the papers focused on the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the region through to 1918; a period in which photography established itself as an artistic medium. It was a time when Turkey was anxious that the world perceive it as a forward-thinking, modern culture and photography was critical in presenting the right ­image.

Tourists, of course, had other ideas, flocking to the Middle East with heads bursting with Orientalist fantasies. The local commercial photographers were happy to oblige, not just by perching their European visitors on camels in front of the Pyramids, but cloaking them in Arab robes, both male and female, in fake studio sets that represented the harem or desert tent – an enterprise that incidentally that still continues in several UAE shopping malls today.

A great number of the region’s first professional photographers, from Istanbul to Cairo, were Armenian. The work of studios like the Abdullah Freres and David Abdo Studios, in Jerusalem, includes carefully posed portraits, but also a record of local artisans, landmarks and street scenes.

Joseph Malakian, of the Middle East and Armenian Photo Archive, who presented a paper on the conference’s final day, suggests that the Armenians, as the second-largest minority in the ­Ottoman Empire, were more likely to be both involved in commerce and, as a result of contact with Christian missionaries, more likely to embrace western technologies.

He quotes from one Armenian photographer, interviewed in Jordan in 1980, whose words ring true today for the Middle East’s beleaguered minorities: “We are a minority and have no worries about making pictures; above all, in the time of persecutions we had to be able to swiftly begin life again ‘naked’ in a new place. Skills cannot be robbed and we could always get new lenses and paper wherever we fled.”

Out of around 34 papers presented over three days, the organisers estimate that about two-thirds related to the Middle East. Topics included work by contemporary Palestinian artists, perspectives on Iran and many aspects of photography under Ottoman rule. There were also papers on Uganda, Benin and Ghana, and an examination of black portraiture in the United States during the American Civil War.

Only one, though, directly addressed the photographic history of the country in which Akkasah and New York University Abu Dhabi is based: the UAE. This is a familiar issue. The Arab Image Foundation has barely a handful of photographs from the Emirates in its huge collection. Most of the world’s major photographic agencies hold selections that might charitably be described as random. Yet life here has been well-recorded on film since at least the middle of the previous century. The issue is visibility.

The single exception at last week’s gathering was Michele Bambling, whose Lest We Forget initiative is supported by the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. Bambling, a former professor at Zayed University, has encouraged young Emiratis to share images from their family collections, showing them to the public at two Qasr Al Hosn Festivals and with the intention of publishing them in a book.

Zamir says Lest We Forget is the first step in establishing a vernacular of Emirati photography. Akkasah, he says, is not a competitor to Bambling or the Arab Image Foundation, but a partner.

The centre, he says, will focus more in the future on the UAE, particularly seeking out private collections created by expatriate families. “I think it is really useful if we can work with migrant communities that have been here for many many years. We don’t have to own them [the photographs], we just have to digitalise, catalogue and build up life stories around them.”

Other ideas under consideration include an archive of profiles of eminent Emiratis: “It’s one way of persuading other Emiratis to work with us.” The centre has also started commissioning independent photographers to produce new documentary work centred on the UAE. “It is a rich documentation of UAE life that in time will become historic,” he explains.

Creating a database that fully represents Emirati life was always going to be “a very difficult task”, Zamir accepts, not just in locating sources of images but also overcoming a cultural reluctance to share them. In time, he hopes, Akkasah will play a part in helping to recognise the importance of these collections and preserving them for the future. “There is a younger generation of students coming up who are going to have a very different attitude,” he says. “But unless someone collects it now, it will be gone.”

James Langton is a senior editor at The National.