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Mourning the Archive: Middle Eastern Photographic Heritage between Neoliberalism and Digital Reproduction

  • Lucie Ryzova (a1)

The past decade and a half have seen the founding of new archival initiatives in the Middle East devoted to collecting and preserving photographs. This article examines critically the constitution of photographic heritage in the region ethnographically and historically. I look first at how historical photographs are understood in Egypt by their custodians old and new. Publics and institutions overwhelmingly see photographs as “images of something,” and appreciate them for their visual content rather than as social and cultural objects. This facilitates their transfer from public collections into private hands in Egypt and abroad. I examine in detail key actors currently involved in shaping photographic heritage: the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, and private collectors in Egypt. I look at how these actors assign value to historical photographs in their custody and their strategies for collecting and curating them. They often define their actions negatively, “against others,” historically against a state that they believe has failed to care for national heritage. Yet these very actors, and their rivals, often perpetuate such narratives and associated fears. Two models of photographic heritage-making are currently emerging in the region: a “digital” model that destroys artifacts in order to produce data, and a model of private cultural institutions that provide unclear and selective access to their collections.

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Elliott Colla . 2007. Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Yoav Di-Capua . 2009b. The Professional Worldview of the Effendi Historian. History Compass 7, 1: 306–28.

Christopher Pinney . 2003. Notes from the Surface of the Image. In Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson , eds., Photography's other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lucie Ryzova . 2014. The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook . 2002. Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science 2: 119.

Ann Laura Stoler . 2002. Colonial Archives and Arts of Governance. Archival Science 2: 87109.

Karen Strassler . 2010. Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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