“Whoever Owns Heritage is a Temporary Custodian”: An Interview with Akram Zaatari

In this interview with Katarzyna Falęcka, the Lebanese filmmaker and artist Akram Zaatari discusses his practice based on collecting and studying photography. Over the past twenty-five years Zaatari has conducted research into private archives and family albums in the Middle East, exploring how photography has shaped aesthetic and social codes in the region. The interview was held in relation to the Transregional Academy “Fragment – Power – Public: Narrative, Authority, and Circulation in Archival Work”, organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien in cooperation with the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages of/at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the framework of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), between 26 August and 6 September 2019. It expands on several themes and concerns raised during the Academy surrounding the ownership of archives, digitization and, crucially, artistic excavations of historical material. The interview was conducted via e-mail in November 2020.

Katarzyna Falęcka: In 1997, you co-founded the Arab Image Foundation, the custodian of nearly 500,000 photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and its diasporas. Since its inception, the AIF has been run by artists who researched the histories of the medium in the region and carefully assembled a collection. But you have been reluctant to call it an “archive.” How can we then think of the difference between a “collection” and an “archive”?

Akram Zaatari: I have always argued that the Arab Image Foundation is not an archive of photographic practices but one of collecting practices. This is because collecting was the Foundation’s primary activity from 1997 until 2005-2008. At least this is how I see it. The AIF was created to organize research activity and give it an institutional framework. I see it as an engine that is tied to the study of photography in the region. The AIF founders clearly set an axis of research and a conservation program. Within this framework, groups of photographs, tied to one another through the desires and interests of artists or scholars who researched them, were brought to the AIF. They did not originate from existing archives but through fieldwork as photographs were carefully selected from family albums, photographers’ archives and sometimes medical or industrial institutions.

Akram Zaatari. On Photography People and Modern Times, 2010, video still showing photographs of ships crossing the Suez Canal, taken by Fouad Helmi in the late 1950s. Courtesy of the artist.

Taking pictures can be an authored practice and so can be the act of collecting pictures, namely when it takes place within an artist’s practice. Collecting old forms of vernacular poetry, as an example, is also an authored form of research and of writing. Similarly, collecting photos from family albums and other original (non-archive) sources can also be an authored practice. Fieldwork, as a collection of data, as statistics, as mapping, is a common methodology in the social sciences. Fieldwork in urban studies could be the collection of data such as land-use, traffic count or else. When those are carried out by the state they belong to the public, but when carried out by private companies that paid their license to collect data, they are subject to copyright laws. In archeology, fieldwork is about looking for traces of older civilizations in layers of earth. In the nineteenth century, independent amateur diggers carried out excavations in the Ottoman Empire and considered whatever they found underground as their own property, until imperial laws were developed towards the end of the century. In the fields of the arts, in documentary practices, all these research and collecting methods are borrowed from the social sciences and used as tools in the service of an artist’s research, possibly for the making of an artwork or the elaboration of a position. So that methodology, when set up to serve an individual inquiry in an artist-led-practice, becomes an authored work and is hard to dissociate from the artwork that was based on it.

Somewhere in the early 2000, I started to define my practice as one that is based on collecting and studying photography. But, I did not conduct research in existing archives or libraries or photo agencies, like colleagues such as Walid Raad would do, or later Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. I always addressed private archives and family albums held by ordinary people. And that helped me distinguish an important nuance in a larger practice (what is often unjustly referred to as archival art). So, from there on, I considered my fieldwork to be similar to the one of an archeologist, who solicits finds in earth and not on museum shelves, unless the museum itself becomes the excavation site. It is a research-based-practice that produces projects that use not only pre-existing photography, but photography extracted from private possessions. And I even started to talk about that practice (my collecting of photography) as “Photography” as well.  So, funnily, the AIF collection would or could become – only from that perspective – an archive of photographic practices, in the most expanded sense. But again, if the AIF were to think of itself as a repository of archival documents without being aware of an expanded definition of Photography, it would fail in recognizing the heterogeneity of its collection. It would fail to see the nuances. And then, what is the Foundation exactly? A storehouse or library? An institute for photographic heritage? It is almost an existential question to me in relation to the nature of the AIF and its collection.

In your practice, you have engaged with photographs taken by other image makers, re-animating them within your own work. In doing so, you attend to the multi-directionality of images, moving beyond what Carlo Ginzburg defined as a “physiognomic” reading that considers visual representation as illustrative of what one has learned by other means, through textual sources for instance. What forms of knowledge can we draw from the visual?

Akram Zaatari. Against Photography, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

The forms of knowledge that one can draw from the visual are infinite. Photography is not only about description or about recognition. Photography has been for years a process that existed in the labs of chemists! Photography’s output may be an un-recognizable image, yet, it would still be considered a photograph, or an art work. Indeed, physiognomy is a legitimate way to use photography, but there are so many other ways as well. There are photographs made without cameras, like some of Wolfgang Tillmans’ and Waleed Beshty’s. Other photographs are made with a camera but without lenses, like Ziad Antar’s or like the tradition of Pinhole Photography. In the series entitled AGAINST PHOTOGRAPHY, I made prints from the textures of deteriorating negatives, without showing what was recorded on the negatives. I am sure physiognomy is taking photography in an interesting utilitarian direction, but what interests me as an artist is elsewhere.

I wonder how you think about the ethics of engaging with images that may have been taken for personal purposes. How do you approach documents that were once deeply embedded in social and affective networks?

Photographs are not produced for the same ends, with the same desires. Some photographs are made entirely with the strong desire of the photographer, others are made with the desires of both the subject and the photographer. For example, a photographer may use the subject for a specific potential, like asking an athlete to do a specific acrobatic gesture in front of the camera. The athlete has not asked for this picture. The idea originated from the photographer. But the photographer could not have photographed this same posture without a body that is capable of performing that gesture. Similarly, an ID photo produced for an official document is not the same as a picture that you took of yourself to send to someone you love! The provenance of a photograph is not only where it came from geographically, but its genealogy as well; how it was produced, how it was consumed and how it functioned in a certain habitat.

Photographs cannot be taken altogether as generic images and hence decoded or interpreted according to one principle. They cannot follow protocols of distribution that are blind to the difference in provenance, inherent in them. The same goes for image use, indexing and conservation policies. I am aware that this might complicate the life of a conservation institute, but on the other hand, once those differences are considered, it would expand the field of knowledge in both conservation and photography, and the arts in general. We are talking about a very heterogeneous collection, that is the Arab Image Foundation’s, most of which was carefully picked by artists from private holdings in different Arab countries. I believe this should have been enough for the AIF to resist “blind” or standard archiving and diffusion measures.

As for the ethics of distribution, I believe one needs to resort to common sense and allow a kind of fair use to take place. A photograph sent by a person to their mother for sure could have a lot more to say in another time, outside family context. So, for the purpose of writing history, it might be relevant to use it. Any image is usable when one considers its history and the circumstances of its making that are part of its biography. Any image is also usable when one considers creative ways to publish it that are not in contradiction with its making or origin. I do not think that images are made to be hidden. On the contrary, a basic function of a photograph is to “show” something to someone, as articulated by Roland Barthes.

To explain further, let’s take a sarcophagus, made within a certain past culture. A sarcophagus is made to contain, protect a dead body. In post mortem traditions, a sarcophagus may have been ornamented in the most exquisite sculptural motives. Yet those motives were not intended for public appreciation. A sarcophagus was never supposed to see the light again after its burial, and mummified corpses neither! So, why do we build museums in which excavated sarcophagi are put on display for the general public? Despite the fact that I do not think that museums have spent enough time developing more creative ways to exhibit sarcophagi than having them lit behind glass, I do think that looking at sarcophagi and getting to appreciate them and learn from them is essential.

Displacing an artifact away from its original context is key to the understanding of its morphology and the culture that produced it. But it is also key in developing cultures and civilizations. Why did the art practices of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries study sculptural production in “funerary art” (with a slight reservation on the term)? What I am saying is that to exhibit sculptural motives on a sarcophagus is absolutely fine despite their displacement from mortuary chamber to the museum. But to exhibit them as art is to miss on the genealogy of that object.

A question that emerged during our Academy was whether we can develop archival strategies that rely on custodianship, rather than ownership. But perhaps this is a utopian idea…?

Many individuals and institutions are custodians of cultural artefacts originating from different places. Some are inherited, others acquired on the legal market, looted, confiscated as war trophies, trafficked or acquired on the black market. In principle, no one should be allowed to own heritage and deny access to it. “Heritage” is commons. It is the capital of future generations. Whoever owns heritage is a temporary custodian. Whoever owns it has a responsibility to pass it on (safely) to the next generation. But sometimes the labelling, or appellation, of “heritage” comes long after its acquisition or reception, which complicates objects’ ties to their original owners that now need to be convinced to let go of ownership, if that was at all possible.

The fact that a document or object turns into “heritage” does not change any of the copyright laws attached to it. Announcing a photograph as heritage does not give any right to break or contradict existing laws including copyright. For example, a photo studio is usually an entrepreneurial structure. Studios always made income from taking pictures or providing re-prints of them to a community of users. When the studio is 80 years old, and if its archive acquires value with the passage of time, like any studio, and when its collection turns into heritage, no one is in a position to oblige an entrepreneur to have its archive accessible for free, not even the state. There is a lot of confusion in the understanding and application of copyright laws when it comes to recent photographic and film material, more and more used by artists nowadays. Of course, that excludes photographs that turned into public domain because of the passage of time, like most of nineteenth-century photography. I am not trying to complicate usage, on the contrary. When providing access to historical material of all kinds considers its genealogy while offering it for fair use, we should be able to put out a wealth of photographic material that is in our custody. Of course we need to have equally clear take-down policies.

As for government archives, they are actually easier to manage than archives of private businesses because anything that belongs to the state, in theory belongs to people. Public archives are the people’s commons or cultural assets. The state is only a caretaker of commons, be it archaeological finds, land, water resources, etc. In photography, the laws are relatively clear, and recent, because photographic records are simply never as old as archaeological finds. It is why much of the photographic history is still owned by privates under unbreakable copyright laws. There is a margin to ownership that one needs to negotiate as photography copyright laws are clear and longstanding. However, following up on my answer to the previous question, ownership is a complicated issue. You may own a picture because you simply commissioned it. It might be a portrait of yourself, made by an important photographer. It is yours indeed, but you cannot sell it or sell copies of it, unless this was your agreement with the photographer. You may provide unlimited access to it, or publish it or lend it to an exhibition always mentioning the photographer’s name. Its copyright belongs legally to the photographer for a period of time. So technically you cannot sell it. Now when an artist collects this photograph from a family album, as a sample or trace of a certain social history, along with a selection or other photographs, that gesture in itself is an authored gesture, equally recognized by copyright law, and this is little known in the popular sphere. It is the copyright to an assemblage or order within a group of photos and the narrative given to them by an artist. It is exactly like making a film with a set of photographs, or making a music composition with samples of pre-existing music.

Akram Zaatari. On Photography Dispossession and Times of Struggle, 2017, video still showing Sami Khouri commenting of the photographs of his wife’s family in Nablus in the 1920s. Courtesy of the artist.

In other terms, the artist in that case has authored a selection of photographs, a bouquet let’s call it, and has published it. What does this do to the archive? Let’s say the artist solicited that selection from a private archive and brought it to an archive or a larger collection. What does this do to the archive or the larger collection? It adds layers to it for sure. It complicates its reading as well, but equally offers us a golden chance to expand our notion of photography, provenance, rights… It also provides us with multiple filters that can testify to future generations how complicated ownership is, while working within the laws of our times. I would have liked for the AIF to actively engage in this discourse because its collection situates it at the forefront of such debates, but the AIF was not ready to engage in that discussion, and maybe is still not ready.

For some, the digitization of archives offers new possibilities. Others claim that a material collection is still more durable than the digital one. Further, international digital archival strategies tend to neglect the materiality of photographs as they privilege photographic negatives over prints. The latter, however, often bear scribbles on their backs and marks of use, which reveal the routes an image has taken. What is your view on the potential and shortcomings of digitization?

There are no good and bad solutions. It all depends on what you want to communicate of the document. A digital file could represent a photograph and that is absolutely fine. A photograph has always been used to designate people, places, inscriptions… so why not have a digital file designate a photo. If what interests you is the image recorded on the photo – i.e. the description of a place, the features of a person, the shape of an item—then a digital file is more than you need. But for many historians, a simple scan of the image would not be enough. The back of a picture may be as important as its front. The marks that it carries could tell us about its life too, but this is indeed information that is pertinent to a minority of specialists. I tend to generalize that for most of the users, a digital file (a scan or a digital reproduction) would be sufficient. However, with that many digital files representing photographs, and with the so many versions of the same photograph, fewer and fewer of people would be exposed to a “real” photograph, so my fear is that we are witnessing a loss of an important part of photographic culture.

 


Akram Zaatari (born in Saida, 1966) is a Lebanese filmmaker and artist whose work is tied to the practice of collecting. He is deeply invested in researching photographic practices in the Middle East, examining how photography served to shape notions of aesthetics, postures and social codes. But at the same time he is interested in how photography helped complicate the notion of authorship and disturb the “original.” He is interested in looking at the present through a wealth of past photographic records. Since 1999, Zaatari has been focusing on the archive of Studio Shehrazade in Saida (Lebanon) studying, indexing, and presenting the work of photographer Hashem el Madani (1928–2017) as a register of social relationships and of photographic practices. Zaatari represented Lebanon at the Venice Biennial 2013 and was part of Documenta13 in 2012.

Katarzyna Falęcka is an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art from North Africa and the Middle East. She holds a PhD from University College London and is a CAORC/Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Humanities Fellow at the Centre d’Études Maghrébines à Tunis. Falęcka is curator of the exhibition Beyond Metaphor: Women and War at apexart, New York (27 May–31 July 2021) and author of several articles, including in “In Search of Archives,” eds. Sarah Dornholf and Nadia Sabri (Berlin: Archive Books, 2021), and “African Arts”. She lives in Berlin and was a participant of the Transregional Academy “Fragment – Power – Public: Narrative, Authority, and Circulation in Archival Work” in 2019.


Citation: “Whoever Owns Heritage is a Temporary Custodian”: An Interview with Akram Zaatari, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25746.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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2 Responses

  1. 30. November 2020

    […] This interview was first published on the TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. […]

  2. 26. July 2021

    […] estates. Although there has been a growing interest in archival practices amongst scholars,[8] artists and curators dealing with modern and contemporary art, this attention has not yet manifested into a […]

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