[photography studio Khalil, Palestine 1890]
Cairo doesn’t have one, but it should. Egypt is probably one of the most photographed countries from the advent of photography. Like all of Egyptian modern heritage, photography has been neglected by the regime and not taken seriously as a significant medium for recording Egyptian history and heritage. The National Archive has dismal photographic collections and the best facilities in Cairo are in the Rare Books Library at AUC. However, a country like Egypt needs a massive institution (something like the International Center for Photography) with access to resources to collect, organize, display, and make available to researchers Egypt’s photographic memory.
Photography wasn’t always neglected, in fact until the 1960s there was an active community of photographers ranging from studio, journalistic, documentary to experimental and the state hired many of them regularly for official shoots and for the culture ministry’s publications. Before 1952 the royal family took an interest in photography and photographers were on hand to document family life and official occasions. In addition the emergence of photography in the popular press, beginning of 20th century, transformed Egyptian popular culture dramatically and made pictures and images accessible and consumable by the general public which intern took interest in photography.
When I took a “history of photography” course in New York a few years ago I learned that photography from the Middle East in general is unknown, dismissed or ignored and doesn’t figure into the canon of the history of photography. I have written about a similar experience with the history of modern architecture. Modern development, or the trappings of modernity as experience by the people of the region, are seen by the west as derivative and therefore unimportant. Unfortunately since 1970 Egypt has been ruled by an elite class that had adapted those narratives and saw no need to research and to construct alternative narratives. Collections in scattered archives remained scattered, were lost, sold and forgotten. The profession eventually declined and only few collections such as the photographs of Van Leo were saved (at the AUC archive). While the Arab Image Foundation has continued to attempt to salvage as much of the region’s photographic history as possible. Since the 1990s the state under Mubarak even forbid photography in public places using the “threat to security” logic which drove much of the regime’s policies.
[street scene in downtown Alexandria, 1920]
[pyramids during the flood season, 1920]
[Cairo opera soon after construction, 1869]
[student protests in Cairo, 1936]
However since last year’s uprising began there have been two major changes: 1) photography made a come back not only as an artistic endeavor but as a tool of popular journalism and pictures have flooded the internet showing everyday life, protests, political events and artistic experimentation by professional and amateur photographers. 2) the last several months have witnessed the appearance of multiple groups on Facebook that share daily tens of images from Egypt’s and the region’s photographic memory. These groups have been immensely popular with membership in the thousands. The group “The people of Egypt long ago” or اهل مصر زمان is nearing 100,000 followers. This means that there is a surge in the production of images and photographs, which are documents of the contemporary moment, but also a surge in the sharing and consumption of images from the past.
[Alexandria Grand Square- also known as Muhammad Ali Square or Mansheya Square- in 1855 (top) and 1882 after British bombardment (bottom)]
I am particularly interested in the consumption or viewing and sharing of historic photographs on Facebook. Luckily these multiple groups share images that move beyond the west’s favored orientalist and ethnographic photography of the region. The images available here show everyday life, street scenes, various social groupings ranging from peasants, urban workers, shopkeepers to nobility and Egypt’s dynasty. What is particularly fascinating is that for many Egyptian Facebook users these images scattered in their newsfeed make history accessible to many who would not go out of their way to seek it. One could be confronted with an image of Alexandria’s Grand Square after the 1882 bombing and subsequent occupation by British forces. Or one could find random street scene showing water carriers at the end of the 19th century bringing drinking water to Cairo’s residents. If the news of the day involves some political unrest or a protest, the administrators of such Facebook pages might upload pictures that show political protests from the past, perhaps in 1919, 1936 or 1977. Film stars, singers and dancers that were once household names but have been lost on a younger generation might capture the attention of twenty-somethings who had little or no opportunity to learn or consume the cultural production of the 1940s or 1950s. Dress code from the 1950s, cityscapes from the 1930s, daily life from another era long ago as captured with a camera have survived and been digitize and shared on the popular social network. The comments on these pictures by users are worthy of study as they reflect the interest and bemusement of a public that has been denied access to its own past. In each one of these photographs a now famous statement is constantly verified: Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The cliché “A picture is worth a thousand words” also comes to mind.
What these Facebook groups sharing images, and what their popularity and the comments the images generate prove are: 1) There is a wealth of photographic heritage that has not been collected, studied nor made accessible to the public through traditional institutions such as museums, libraries and official archives. 2) There is public interest in the past in general but more specifically in photography as a medium of capturing that past and making it accessible today.
While the dynastic family and its members saw education, museums and history as tools for building a modern enlightened society, the first decade of Egypt’s military rule in the 1950s witnessed more continuity than rupture with a keen interest in all the above albeit for the formulation of a different kind of Egyptian subject. However, as with many other aspects of Egyptian public life, the legacy of the Sadat and Mubarak presidencies has been one of deterioration, ignorance, mismanagement and erasure. The emergence of these historic photography groups have allowed an older generation to relive the past nostalgically. But for a younger generation who have limited access to the past, these images are allowing a rediscovery of Egyptianness and of one’s heritage.
Is the photography museum online? not exactly. While these groups and the image they share have been eye openers to many, they have limitations. On the most basic level these sites are excellent amateur platforms for sharing and viewing photography but they are by no means filling the gap created by the Egyptian state’s negligence and the absence of an institution dedicated to photography. The shared images are ephemeral and are viewed passively. Although some groups provide some context and text with some images, most of the time we encounter images severed from their history, with little or no information on the history of the image itself, as a document, beyond what the image captures. This is the work of professional historians, curators, and archivists and there must be an institutional framework that brings these forces together with the wealth of material available.
With the current system of cultural management in Egypt it is best that nothing is done until there is real change in the way this state controls history and culture. For now the photography museum is on Facebook and you can find some of the exhibitions at the following galleries:
Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) will host a lecture by Lucie Ryzova on Egypt’s photographic archive on July 4th at 7pm. More info, here.
[Aziza Amir (1901-1952), one of the founders of Egyptian Cinema]
[Cairo street scene, undated]
[Egyptian army on the streets of Cairo protecting the central bank after the January 1952 ‘Cairo Fire’]
[buildings facing Ismailiyya Square -later Tahrir Square- 1940]
[aerial view of downtown Cairo with Egyptian Museum to the lower left, 1931]
[Muhammad Naguib, Egypt’s first president, visiting a Cairo synagogue, 1953]
[A Ramadan feast for the general public in the garden of the royal palace, 1930s]
[Cairo cloths ironing and cleaning shop, 1942]
[Egyptian upper class women shopping at a Cairo shop, 1910]
[Two women in drag, by Lebanese amateur photographer Marie El Khazen, 1929]
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