share


Interview with Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari was born in Saida, Lebanon in 1966. While growing up, armed conflict and a perpetual crisis loomed over everyday life. At a young age he began documenting life in Saida under Israeli occupation, taking photographs and collecting documents and objects specific to the culture and political landscape of the time. Zaatari revisited some of these documents, oral histories and photographs in the installation ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’, while representing Lebanon at the 55th Venice Biennial in 2013. The work – which consists of a 34-minute video, a single cinema chair and a 16mm projection of Zaatari’s documentation of the Israeli military operations in Saida in 1982 – reflects on a story about an Israeli pilot, who, according to rumour, refused to bomb a school. Taking the rumour as a starting point, ‘Letter to a Refusing Pilot’ explores the circulation of images and the entangled histories of the Middle East. The work clouds the distinction between documentary and fiction, a dichotomy that Zaatari has always refused to accept.

 

I came across Zaatari’s work 10 years ago, while exploring cinematic responses to the Lebanese War from within the Beirut art scene. I found his video and photography-based works highly conceptual yet deeply rooted in the physicality of objects and the time in which they are made. Works such as Saida June 6th, 1982 (2006), a composite of six photographs from the first day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, show his forensic eye for detail. The photographs were taken when Zaatari was 16 years old, from the balcony of his parents’ home. Behind the apartment blocks, a series of explosion dominate the landscape.

 

Zaatari has created an artistic language in which he spotlights the complex histories of the Arab world, and investigates visual culture in times of conflict. Taking photography as the starting point of his work, he invites the viewer to look deeper into the life of images, into their histories and geographical trajectories. He has also played a crucial role in shaping the intellectual and institutional framework of the Lebanese contemporary art scene, and contributed to the archival turn in visual culture. In addition to producing a prolific quantity of photographic material, and directing more than 50 films and videos, he has curated exhibitions and written books. In the 1990s, Zaatari co-founded the Arab Image Foundation, which has since assembled over 500,000 photographic objects and documents from and related to the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora by working with artists, researchers and families.

 

After a decade of admiring his practice, I interviewed Zaatari over Zoom, a conversation that began in the spring of 2022 and took place between Amsterdam and Beirut.

 

Q

The White Review

— How are you?

A

Akram Zaatari

— I’m well, I really love spring in Lebanon. I’ve also finished installing my exhibition at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Hamburg 27 April – 27 August, 2022], which is my first exhibition after the economic collapse of Lebanon, but also after COVID. My body missed this kind of friction, the heat that comes with producing new work.

Q

The White Review

— What is the focus of your exhibition in Hamburg?

A

Akram Zaatari

— It’s a reflection on the 1990s in Lebanon, titled Three Snapshots and a Long Exposure. It’s centred on photography, but also the uncertainty of that moment in Lebanon’s history when the end of the Civil War 1975-1990] was announced. The images show the possibility of speculation, of change or development, and how we can trace those changes through looking at architecture or what remains of it. It is an exhibition that is totally about photography but also includes a lot of other objects – stone pieces, sculptures, textile pieces – all of which are derived from photographs.

Q

The White Review

— Your practice is about photography, but your understanding of photography is very broad and stretches beyond the standard definition of the medium. How would you define photography?

A

Akram Zaatari

— I see photography from within an expanded definition of the term, as a medium that has to do with the description of the world through scientific means. Photography is a mechanical, technological and scientific process of description. I was about to tell you that photography is closely related to light, because the term means, literally, drawing with light. But then I consider 3D recording to be photography as well, and X-ray does a similar thing without the use of light, or at least we don’t tend to identify it as light because the radiation is not visible to us. I would call that photography too. It is a great medium, a great invention. It has affected the way we experience the world and the way we describe it in so many ways – it’s not only about recording, but also about diffusion and publishing. It’s about sharing with others, thus promoting trends or ways of life. Photographs have changed our notion of time. This was an essential aspect of the invention of photography: it brought images of Egypt to London, bending time. Nowadays, if you are in Egypt and you upload your photograph to Instagram, your friends can see it in London immediately. And that shortening of the processing time, that cutting or folding of time, is revolutionary.

Q

The White Review

— Would you call photography the mother of all modern mediums?

A

Akram Zaatari

— Yes, of all technology-based media. There’s a word in French, techno-facture, which is not manufacturing, but techno-facturing: automation. If I asked you to paint the same thing that I have painted, it would never look the same. But if I put the camera on a tripod and ask you to take the same frame that I’ve taken, both frames would be identical if the camera’s settings were the same. From that perspective, photography is an automation based on a scientific invention that produces descriptions of objects, people, situations. It is at the service of whomever is overseeing the process, either human or AI. Of course, there is subjectivity in every scientific invention, there’s always the choice of subject matter, of what you frame. How do you want to show it, from which angle, in which light conditions? All of these choices are very, very subjective, but the tool itself is one of automation. Photography is automated.

Q

The White Review

— How would you define a photographic object?

A

Akram Zaatari

— As an object that could be a tool for achieving a photographic recording. A camera is a photographic object, but so too is something that has been derived from a photograph. A reconstitution of an object from a picture is also a photographic object, because it has been enabled through photographic techniques or through surveying. Films are made with individual photos: 24 images a second makes for perfect movement. They call it film, and distinguish it from the photograph, but essentially a film is photography as well. Hence film projectors of all sizes are photographic objects too.

Q

The White Review

— One of the most striking works in the Hamburg show, Venus from Beirut (2022), is a marble relief based on a photograph. Would you also describe the ‘Venus’ as a photographic object?

Venus of Beirut from: The Fold, 2022, 3D routed, hand-polished Grey Bardiglio imperiale, 50,5 x 50,5 x 4 cm © Akram Zaatari. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.
A

Akram Zaatari

— I see it as a photographic object. This work is a 3D routed marble relief of a photograph that was part of a collection of a few transparencies that belonged to a medical practitioner named Farid Haddad, which I got from his grandnephew in the 1990s. Farid Haddad was a medical doctor who practiced in Beirut between the 1920s and 1940s. He also practiced painting on the side and often painted overweight nude women. One evening, I was presenting my research to a small circle of friends, and a grandnephew of Farid Haddad, George Haddad, also a medical practitioner, told me he had something to show me. He invited me to come with him to a small living room and he pulled out some transparencies from the bottom of a closet. These transparencies are unlike anything I have seen before. They show very obese women proudly and happily posing naked in front of a camera. This relative told me that his great uncle loved painting, and to paint the nudes he needed to first take photos of nude subjects. The photos would be printed on transparency, which he would later place on top of an overhead projector and project the image onto a canvas and get the outline painted within minutes. This facilitated the process of painting, but the photographs were not meant to be shown. There was an implicit agreement with the models that the only thing that would be shown were the paintings.

Q

The White Review

— So the photograph was a kind of a sketch.

A

Akram Zaatari

— It is a sketch: an automated sketch, a visual note, not meant to be distributed or shown to the public. The specific photograph that Venus of Beirut is based on posed an important question, to me at least. Do we, in the absence of the author, display the image that was meant as only the middle step in the creation of a painting? Given that Dr. Haddad lived for 90 years and never showed the photographs himself, does this mean that I can attribute them to him and show them in a public exhibition? I am not so sure, and therefore I never showed them. The Arab Image Foundation where Haddad’s small collection is housed today] also rarely used them in any exhibitions, but this specific image was shown in The Arab Nude. The Artist as Awakener exhibition at the American University of Beirut in 2016, curated by Kirsten Scheid and Octavian Esanu. It was unfortunate that this photo was used as if ‘Arab nude photography’ functioned as a category, which has never actually existed, and especially not as something to be exhibited to a wider public in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In the exhibition, a few photographs of nude subjects were enlarged to the size of paintings and hung on the same walls as paintings of nude figures, which prompted me to reflect further on displaying photographs that were once made as a middle step in creating another object. Can one simply enlarge and frame them as if they were the final artwork, and hang them on a wall along with paintings that have been signed by their makers, shown in art galleries, produced and sold to institutions, who kept on showing them over the past decades, thus expanding their exhibition record? In doing so, I fear, the exhibition – and maybe the Arab Image Foundation – blurred the photograph’s trajectory by not making public its full history.

 

With this in mind, in 2018 I put one of the transparencies on an overhead projector, in the framework of The Fold – Space, time and the image exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. After the exhibition, I thought that I needed to transform the transparency and use it simply for what it is, a middle step. I started researching icon makers in Italy. I went to Carrara, and finally I settled on marble, thus marrying one of the oldest media with one of the most recent techniques. The makers in Carrara transformed the photograph into a relief using clay, one of the oldest modelling techniques. The lab scanned it and transformed it into a 3D model that I was invited to consult and tweak, which was then routed in grey marble. The machine that routes the 3D models is a robot, an automation, an extension of photography. This is why I would say that Venus of Beirut is also a photographic object – it is the result of an automated transformation of the photograph into a bas-relief in stone, similar to a late medieval or early Renaissance icon.

Q

The White Review

— What is the role of research in your practice? Can you walk me through your process?

A

Akram Zaatari

— There is no single process, but research is essential in navigating the social tissue around me or around the subjects of my interest. To me, research does not mean knocking on the door of a library and asking for books about a certain topic, this is not the research that I do. What I do involves looking for people, looking for their descendants, going to each member of the family and asking for papers relating to the people that I am interested in. I’m really doing my research in the privacy of people’s homes and their documents, looking in the private domain. I have of course spent time in institutional archives, but I don’t usually start there. The essential work is fieldwork, out there.

 

My inspiration comes from the things I encounter, the problematics I see. There is something that is deeply personal about certain obsessions that keep on coming up in my work. The obsession with the figure of the male fighter. The fascination with images of TV screens. The obsession with all forms of the human body posing naked or with all sorts of accessories. I normally start with either an obsession or an existing object, including photographic documents. Most historians probably wouldn’t start with obsessions, but it doesn’t mean that they do not have them. I certainly do not try to hide mine.

Q

The White Review

— Do you consider yourself a historian?

A

Akram Zaatari

— No, because history is a science in which I’m not trained. But many non-historians have tried to use cultural works to understand historical moments. Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988) is the best example: a film that claims to tell the history the twentieth century through the history of its cinema. I am also an artist who is navigating the production of historical records. Within the art world, I’m a historian, but within the field of history, I’m an artist.

Q

The White Review

— You were one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation, an organisation that collects, studies and preserves photographic archives from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora. For the last 20 years, you have researched and exhibited photographs from the massive archives of Hashem el Madani’s photography studio, Shehrazade, in Saida, Lebanon. Madani photographed the lives of Saida’s inhabitants from the early 1950s to the last years of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. More than 750,000 photos were taken both in his studio and around Saida, creating a collection of images that work as an unparalleled visual guide through the complexities of life, politics, family relations and gender identities in the second half of the twentieth century in Lebanon. How do you approach these complex histories? How do you make sense of the entirety of an artistic oeuvre?

Traditional quilt, satin/linen fabric, cotton-filled, hand-made by Mustapha Al-Qady, Saida, Lebanon, 2019, 200 x 180 cm. © Akram Zaatari. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.

 

Photographic Currency, Archival silver gelatin fiberprint, 18 x 27 cm. Photograph by Hashem el Madani, featuring Abdel-Rahman Al-Qady. Saida, early 1950s. © Akram Zaatari. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.

 

A

Akram Zaatari

— I met Hashem el Madani in 1999, and collected some of his images, which I have used in many projects, namely The Vehicle: Picturing moments of transition in a modernizing society (1999), and later Mapping Sitting (2002) with Walid Raad. In 2004, I decided to take his entire collection as one body of work, and started what I refer to as the Hashem el Madani Project, giving it the title Objects of Study: Studio Shehrazade, addressing the photographic work of Hashem el Madani and his brother Hussein. This is an art project that takes Madani’s studio as a site of excavation. Since then, under this label, I have been producing work that communicates the complex performative nature of Madani’s photographs, and his ties to the urban history of his city, Saida.

 

The question of how I approach complex histories like this is a difficult one. It takes one’s lifetime to explore a body of work made by another. It – my work on the work of others – is always under construction; in the sense that it’s never actually complete. It’s important to establish a starting point, a thread you can hold onto through the research process – just like determining the horizon line when you’re in the desert, or dropping an anchor at sea. That horizon, that anchor, will temporarily guide you. For example, in the exhibition in Hamburg, I decided that I was going to use images from a photographic studio that existed in the south of Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s. These images were accidentally made available to me – I bought them from someone who was selling negatives, a whole lot of negatives, that belonged to a studio owner who died around 2000. The studio was in a very specific location that was taken over by a military checkpoint during the Lebanese Civil War. Why? Because it was a strategic entrance to the city from the south. So, whoever was the most powerful at a given time took over the entrances to the city. We’re talking about different military factions, different armies, the Syrian army, the Lebanese army, different Palestinian and Lebanese militias. When I saw that the 35mm archive of this studio was being sold, I acquired it hoping that, one day, I’d say something about the Lebanese civil wars through the portraits of those individuals, who had joined militias and came to the studio to be photographed. Had I bought the collection from another studio in the East of Beirut, the photographs would have been very different, but they would still tell a story about Beirut. Things like locations and historical specificities are the possible starting points I mentioned earlier, the resources and tools that help navigate complex histories. Even though they might not be the only anchors that you can get a hold of, they’re still something to hold on to and, eventually, one anchor-point leads to another. I do not follow a methodology blindly. I do like to use photographs as possible anchors. I privilege photographic material because I can unpack it well. I also like to contextualise it with the literature of the times, the journalism of the times, how people thought and how they approached photography, how the photographers themselves might have looked at their own work.

Q

The White Review

— What were your anchor points when researching Hashem el Madani and Studio Scheherazade’s collection?

 

Objects of Study/ Studio Shehrazade – Reception Space (partial view), 2006 C-print in three parts 110 x 200 cm. each, 43 1/4 x 78 3/4 in. each. © Akram Zaatari. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.

 

A

Akram Zaatari

— The project, entitled Objects of Study/Studio Shehrazade, takes the entire archive of Madani, and his studio Shehrazade, as study material to understand the complex relationship that tied a studio photographer to his working space, equipment, the economy and aesthetics. It further explored a photographer’s ties to his clients, society and the city in general.

 

I was lucky to have to have met Madani and have built a relationship with him. I interviewed him over 15 years. The last interview was in 2014, three years before he died. Between 1999 and 2014, I made so many audio recordings and did a lot of working sessions with him, which I call ‘fieldwork’. Over the years I printed thousands of his photographs from negatives and went back to him to see if he could recognise stories behind them, their people or locations. I considered his studio as an archaeological site of a practice, to which I went sometimes once a week, sometimes every day. I discussed with him all of the aspects of his profession, asking him questions such as ‘How did you price your pictures?’, ‘What did you used to sell?’, ‘Who used to come to the studio to be photographed?’, ‘How did you promote yourself?’, ‘Who did you train?’, ‘Who trained you?’, ‘Did anyone cause you trouble because of your photographs?’, ‘What about ethics?’, ‘What about relationships between boys and girls?’, ‘What about Christians, Muslims and Jews living in Saida?’. I asked questions that people had not bothered to ask, because they seemed too obvious or naïve. I also looked around in his studio, at the machines that were intended for sale but nobody bought. They were 30 or 40 years old, and there were cameras that you can now buy on eBay for 10 dollars with price tags of 500 dollars. Madani was a simple man and a hardworking photographer, who absolutely wanted to serve his community. In my opinion he wasn’t willing to accept the fact that these cameras, and the technologies they represented, have become obsolete. Most photo studios did not only offer photo services to their communities, but sold a range of things, and were equivalent to what a ‘concept store’ might be today, without the pretentiousness. They brought novelty and promoted the culture of photography, music and film, in very unpretentious, simple and popular ways. Over the years, I also gradually transferred a large number of the studio’s negatives, which I selected from his archive, to the Arab Image Foundation’s collection in Beirut, to be numbered, digitised and preserved.

 

You asked: How does one make sense of all this? It’s like writing a biography of somebody, not through texts but through images, samples of their work. You need to reconstruct that person’s universe. And you, as the author, or biographer, decide what medium you want to use to communicate best this universe, be it through a book, an exhibition or a film. In the case of Madani’s collection, I decided to reproduce his work through photography and film, in chapters: Studio Practices (2004), Promenades (2007) and Itinerary (2009). These are existing bodies of work that have circulated as solo exhibitions accompanied by publications. In the exhibition in Hamburg I showed something completely different from these three chapters, but closely related to Madani’s studio. I got hold of photographs of quilts and quilt makers taken in the 1950s. In the absence of any catalogues for patterns, the makers used to invite the photographer to come and take pictures of the quilts hanging on the street before they sold them, to keep a record of the drawing or stitching pattern to show to prospective clients. For the Hamburg exhibition, together with quilt maker Mustafa Al-Qady, I reproduced 12 of those quilts in silver satin. I initially did this for a street window showcasing by LaVitrine, a Beirut Art Residency space, in 2019, and called it Photographic Currency, because it used photographs as currency to remake the quilt patterns from photographs. The quilt-maker I worked with ended up being the son of one of the quilt-makers in the pictures. He had never seen a photograph of his father at a young age. He was emotionally shocked to see the photos.

 

You can only get an answer if you ask the question, and my work is, in a way, an extension of the questions I have asked to random people about banalities like making quilts and stitch patterns.

Q

The White Review

— In your essay ‘All that refuses to Vanish’ (2018), you write that ‘photographs never stay the same over time’. Erasure, enlargement, mistakes in exposure and other visible interventions into the photographic process play an important role in your work. In a photograph you picked from the family album of a former pilot, Hani Galal, in Cairo in the 1990s, on display as part of the work The Fold in the exhibition at Sfeir Semler Gallery, a group of men sit around a long dinner table to commemorate a social occasion at Dar al-Hikmah in Cairo. The print clearly shows that the photographer tried to erase the figure of a waiter from the picture. In Victims of Prolonged Struggle (2022), your work on photographs taken at the Houmani studio in Ouzai, Beirut, you have erased the guns from the hands of soldiers. What do these interventions mean to you?

Galal Abul Ula, dinner at Dar al-Hikmah, Cairo, Egypt 1941. 17 x 24 cm, Photographer: George Akl. Collection: Hani Galal Abul Ula. Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation
Part of Victims of Prolonged Struggle, C-print, 90 x 60 cm. Based on a photograph from Studio Houmani, Ouzai, 1980. © Akram Zaatari. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery.

 

A

Akram Zaatari

— In my research between 1997 and 2002, I interviewed dozens of people and looked through their family albums. Later I brought some of their family photos to the Arab Image Foundation’s collection. Galal was one of them. He was a retired pilot when I met him. When I encountered the photograph that was taken in Cairo in the 1940s, with an erased figure of a servant, it was a great revelation for me, because erasure highlighted the servant’s absence. Highlighting erasure is something that I have used a lot in my film and photography works over the last 25 years. It’s a way to converse with images. Removing parts of the image, and leaving a blank space where something was supposed to be, forces the viewer to rethink the picture. It asks the viewer to see that something is missing here, to see that something has been constructed and then un-constructed. It is an invitation to read the photograph as a text, a historical document that has gone from hand to hand – to go beyond what the photographer wanted us to see. Sometimes the photographer isn’t the one who erased a part of the picture, some 20 years later someone in the family decided to cut out parts of it. I like bringing these interventions to light, showing how they constitute the life of a picture. A photograph is not shaped only at the moment in which it was taken: it gets shaped along its life. It travels together with this initial moment it captured, dragging it along into the future until it’s destroyed completely. How can you bring the attention of the public to the fact that photographs are not about the moment of the click, but about all that happens after it as well? It’s a huge difficulty, because everybody wants to see this image suspended in time, let’s say in 1941. If it became famous two years later, by getting an international award and being published on the front page of every newspaper in the world, this would mean the image is no longer what it used to be. It would have become a common item – we could not have claimed that it is the same image that was taken in 1941. I invite people to reflect on this and ask what it all means, to consider the history of the photograph, starting from the date of its taking and continuing into the present and the future.

 

In the case of Victims of Prolonged Struggle, the collection reached me more than 15 years after the photographer died and his studio closed down. So, I could not even think of relating to it in the same way I did with Hashem el Madani’s work. But, because I was interested in the military subculture that took over Lebanon, or hijacked its public space for 15 years during the Civil War, I acquired that collection and decided to use the photographs of fighters posing proudly with machine guns to bring that aspect of military struggle into question. The title refers to Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s line in their seminal documentary film, Here and Elsewhere (1974), in which they warn of the risks of prolonged military struggle becoming a culture of its own, promoting demagogy and producing blind followers, thus victims of prolonged struggle.

 

In my essay ‘Three Snapshots and a Long Exposure’ (2021), I highlighted how West Beirut fell into the hands of gangs under the pretext of the liberation of Palestine. I withdrew the guns from the photographs of fighters because I wanted to deprive them of the main purpose of taking the picture. They took these pictures in a context where having a gun was a sign of power. Maybe if they were born in another society, based on the times and on the social context, they would have adopted a different posture to look powerful or manly. Throughout my work on studio photography, I have tried to prove how the studio space is a performative space, somewhere people go to be someone they are not. Whether their request to the studio is ‘make me look beautiful’, ‘make me seductive’, ‘make me look powerful’ or ‘make me look ruthless to my enemies’, it’s all performance. Through my work on Madani’s photos, I was able to find many pictures in which men have borrowed guns to pose with. What these men did not realise was that for most of the world, posing like this is associated with threat and is a negative representation. They are not aware that their performance is going to be seen, against their expectation, as something negative, and therefore I see them as victims. To dedicate your life to a military struggle is to quit your own culture, your education, the values that you were brought up with. When you carry a gun and go to war, come back after one month, either winner or loser, you have lost at least one month of your life. When you lose 30 years of your life, because you dedicated it to Palestine, Lebanon, Israel or any kind of struggle, you’re no longer who you were initially. You stop looking for knowledge, you stop looking for education, you stop reading poetry, all that you target is the enemy. It’s when you become a victim. And this erasure highlights how one turns into that victim of a prolonged struggle.

 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Akram Zaatari was born 1966 in Lebanon, and lives and works in Beirut. Zaatari has produced more than 50 films and videos, a dozen books, and countless installations of photographic material. He was one of a handful of young artists who emerged from the delirious but short-lived era of experimentation in Lebanon's television industry, which was radically reorganised after the country's civil war. Zaatari is a co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation, an artist-driven organisation devoted to the research and study of photography in the Arab world. His work was shown at Documenta13 in 2012, and he represented Lebanon at the Venice Bienniale in 2013. His films include three features: The Landing (2019), Twenty-Eight Nights and A Poem (2015) and This Day (2003).

Julia Kozakiewicz is a researcher and curator based in Amsterdam, Netherlands with links to Warsaw, London, and Berlin. She has worked closely to support the work of multiple international artists, thinkers and filmmakers inside major museums and institutions across the world. With a focus on moving image and photography, Julia explores notions of social and environmental justice, memory and identity in times of conflict.

READ NEXT

Interview

November 2014

Interview with Juan Goytisolo

J. S. Tennant

Interview

November 2014

Juan Goytisolo is one of Spain’s leading writers, but one with a fraught relationship with his home country, to put it...

Interview

Issue No. 8

Interview with Deborah Levy

Jacques Testard

Interview

Issue No. 8

‘TO BECOME A WRITER, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and...

fiction

June 2017

Ferocity

Nicola Lagioia

TR. Antony Shugaar

fiction

June 2017

A pale three-quarter moon lit up the state highway at two in the morning. The road connected the province...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required