Skip to main content

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.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Ali Amro. 2012. Power, Rebirth, and Scandal: A Decade of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Jadaliyya. At: (accessed 20 Oct. 2012).
Appadurai Arjun. 1988. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Armbrust Walter, 1996. Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baron Beth. 2007. Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Batchen Geoffrey. 2004. Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press.
Burton Antoinette, ed. 2005. Archive Stories. Durham: Duke University Press.
Butler Beverly. 2007. Return to Alexandria: An Ethnography of Cultural Heritage Revivalism and Museum Memory. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.
Colla Elliott. 2007. Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cuno James. 2008. Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Davies Clare. 2011. All That's Fit: Research at the Dar al Hilal and Al Ahram Foundation Photographic Archives. Paper presented at Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History III, Institute of Fine Arts, New York City, March.
Davies Clare and Farid Heba. 2012. Egyptian Geographical Society Photograph Collection: Overview and Guide. Cairo: Centre for Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT) [unpublished internal document].
Denis Eric. 2006. Cairo as a Neo-Liberal Capital? In Singerman Diane and Amar Paul, eds., Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Di-Capua Yoav. 2009a. Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Di-Capua Yoav. 2009b. The Professional Worldview of the Effendi Historian. History Compass 7, 1: 306–28.
Edwards Elizabeth. 2001. Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford: Berg.
Edwards Elizabeth and Bhaumik Kaushik, eds. 2008. Visual Sense: A Cultural Reader. Oxford: Berg.
Edwards Elizabeth and Hart Janice, eds. 2004. Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge.
El Kady Galila and ElKerdany Dalila. 2006. Belle-epoque Cairo: The Politics of Refurbishing the Downtown Business District. In Singerman Diane and Amar Paul, eds., Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Frosh Paul. 2003. The Image Factory: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry. Oxford: Berg.
Gibbon Kate Fitz, ed. 2005. Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Golia Maria. 2009. Photography and Egypt. London: Reaktion Books.
al-Imam Muhammad Rif‘at. 2010. ‘Asr al-Sura fi Masr al-haditha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub.
Jay Martin. 1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kennedy Nora, Noris Debra Hess, Arida Zeina, and Sawaya Tamara. 2010. Preservation of the Photographic Heritage of the Eastern Mediterranean. At: (accessed Oct. 2012).
Merryman John Henry, ed. 2006. Imperialism, Art, and Restitution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mitchell Timothy. 2002. The Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Myers Fred R., ed. 2001. Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
Pinney Christopher. 1997. Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. London: Reaktion Books.
Pinney Christopher. 2003. Notes from the Surface of the Image. In Pinney Christopher and Peterson Nicolas, eds., Photography's other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pinney Christopher and Peterson Nicolas, eds. 2003. Photography's other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.
Reid Donald Malcolm. 2003. Whose Pharaohs? Egyptology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ryzova Lucie. 2012. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Collector, Dealer and Academic in the Informal Old-Paper Markets of Cairo. In Mejcher-Atassi Sonja and Schawrtz John-Pedro, eds., Archives, Museums, and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.
Ryzova Lucie. 2014. The Age of the Efendiyya: Passages to Modernity in National-Colonial Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ryzova Lucie. n.d. (forthcoming 2015). Unstable Icons, Contested Histories: Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt. In Sune Haugbolle and Daniella Kuzmanovic, eds., “Iconic Figures, Publics, and Politics in the Middle East.” Special issue of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 8, 2.
Sassoon Joanna. 2004. Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction. In Edwards Elizabeth and Hart Janice, eds., Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge.
Scafidi Susan. 2005. Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Schwartz Joan M. and Cook Terry. 2002. Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science 2: 119.
Sekula Allan, 1983. Photography between Labour and Capital. In Buchloh Benjamin H. D. and Wilkie Robert, eds., Mining Photographs and other Pictures 1948–1968: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton. Halifax, N.S.: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Singerman Diane and Amar Paul, eds. 2006, Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Stoler Ann Laura. 2002. Colonial Archives and Arts of Governance. Archival Science 2: 87109.
Strassler Karen. 2010. Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham: Duke University Press.
Winegar Jessica. 2006. Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Woodward Michelle. 2011. Profile of an Archive in Flux: The Arab Image Foundation at 13. At: (accessed Sept. 2013).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 3
Total number of PDF views: 56 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 193 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.