Photographer Akram Zaatari' s Work Captures The Subjective Histories Of The Middle East

BY Katrina Kufer / Feb 22 2020 / 09:57 AM

Lebanese artist and Arab Image Foundation (AIF) co-founder Akram Zaatari speaks to BAZAAR about his contributions to photography, archives and piecing together a visual history of the Middle East through the eyes of those who lived it

Photographer Akram Zaatari' s Work Captures The Subjective Histories Of The Middle East
Akram Zaatari, Map of All Collections, 2017. Map, vinyl stickers, vinyl stencils, white pen, paint; 3.44 x 611 m. Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019

Much of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s career has articulated the circulation of images at times of war, the excavation of narratives, archival practice, resistance and photography’s role in society in shaping identity and collective memory. Over the last 20 years, he has “contributed enormously to generating a visual history of the region from within which did not previously exist,” explains Hiuwai Chu, curator of Zaatari’s current exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) (until 10 January 2020), Akram Zaatari: Against Photography. An Annotated History of the Arab Image Foundation. “He is one of the pioneers of using archival material in contemporary art, which has become an important movement internationally.”

Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari, On Photography, Dispossession and Times of Struggle, 2017. HD video, colour, sound; 37 minutes. med), 12 intaglio prints (framed); 18 x 28 cm, 24 x 38 cm, 24 x 38 cm, 24 x 38 cm, 24 x 38 cm. Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019. Courtesy of the artist, kurimanzutto, Sfeir-Semler and Thomas Dane Galleries

Conflict marks Zaatari’s youth and Lebanon’s recent history and resonates through his motivations and creations. But while his complex photographic, film, video, installation and performance efforts are nuanced by the Lebanese postwar condition, he asserts that the locality is neither Arab nor Lebanese. “I belong to a specific economy and my work is perceived as part of a set of universal traditions: film, photography, documentary,” he remarks. “It is a matrix made of identity, cultural and economic traits all interpreted or elaborated on through universal models of production.” The rhizomatic nature of his resources indicate that despite regional relevance, the work cannot represent the place it comes from, rather, point merely towards it: “It contributes to the perception of that place without hijacking its image.”

Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari, various works. Mixed media installations; dimensions variable. Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019

Lebanon is a launch platform for the timeless, universal themes grounding Zaatari’s research-based practice. “I grew up before the end of the war. It was a cultural context that did not have art spaces, curators, film festivals…” he recounts. “Had I lived in Europe, I would not have developed the multi-faceted experience that I have now; I would not have needed to play the role of curator or producer.” While film and architecture provided his initial entry into the arts as a means to escape the dark realities of Lebanon in the 70s and 80s, they ultimately introduced values different to the ideological or religious beliefs used to recruit Zaatari’s generation, which led him towards media studies, film production and television, both in Lebanon and the US.

Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari, Men Posing While Crossing Ain el Helweh Bridge, 2007. 36 gelatin silver prints; 29 x 19 cm each (frame size). Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery. Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation

But by the late 90s, the diversity of his background culminated in a unique blend of critical thought and artistic practice, where the trifecta of being a historian, studying photography and existing records from private and family withholdings, and his interest in the photographic production of his environment resulted in the 1997 creation of AIF alongside Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad. “To be able to conduct my fieldwork, or ‘excavations’, I needed a framework, hence the creation of AIF,” he recounts, acknowledging that the legal framework for it to exist only fell into place following the solidification of Lebanese civil society and the flourishing of non-governmental organisations in the 90s. “I nurtured that rapport of curiosity that ties me to my immediate context, and I know that I would not have been able to conduct that research on photography had I not lived here.”

Describing himself as “some kind of archeologist of the photographic age, of modern times, or as an anthropologist in relation to the photographic medium,” Zaatari’s methodology involves being on the ground, meeting people, gathering stories and collecting data specifically from the Middle East. “Research allows people to see the same object differently. Research adds to the layers of understanding of an item, a record, a photograph, while providing knowledge of it and of its production. Research is a form of authoring,” he says, referencing Harun Farocki’s work on operational images, or his own Madani project and the history of Studio Shehrazade in Saida. “At our best, we, artists, researchers, collectors, re-author existing photographs without appropriating them. We re-author them by adding layers of new meanings onto them.” The ‘maker’ is of lesser importance than the records produced by pictures and film, and Zaatari’s documentary-cum-artworks prove of equal value in exhibitions at Sfeir Semler Gallery, Kunstverein Munich or the Lebanese National Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, or in substantiating the 500,000+ items in AIF.

Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari, various works. Mixed media installations; dimensions variable. Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019

The proactive approach to excavating the past to reframe the future while providing a boundary-pushing critique on the field of photography is a shared symptom of Lebanon’s challenging past. “Many individuals started collecting photographs during the war as a way to resist the destruction of cultural records,” says Zaatari, referencing Mohsen Yammine from North Lebanon and the exhibition and book The Walls of Shame by Maria Chakhtoura from 1978. The collective individual efforts have a home at AIF, a safe space for images to unfold their histories, and the foundation has been monumental in piecing together a visual history of the region. “Photography is undoubtedly one of the primary vehicles of knowledge, and one of the primary vehicles of promoting values, political views… This is why we sometimes talk about propaganda images, or images that force themselves onto others trying to change their opinions,” he notes. “You cannot write a recent history without understanding those phenomena and without being able to deconstruct images.”

Akram Zaatari

Akram Zaatari, various works. Mixed media installations; dimensions variable. Installation view: Akram Zaatari: Against Photography, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, 2019

It is this intersection that reinforces the poignancy of SAF’s exhibition. “The point of departure was AIF and its unique convergence of institutional and artistic practices. We wanted to address various topics that include collecting as an artistic practice, radical preservation, and photography beyond the image,” says Chu. “The rapid technological advances in photography over the last 20 years have changed our relationship to the medium since its invention nearly 200 years ago. Akram’s work pushes the pause button and implores the viewer to contemplate not only the captured moment, but also the accumulated history inscribed onto the photographic object.” The new commissions shift focus from the image to the photographic support, trace Zaatari’s career as he closes his chapter on AIF, and brings to light a subjective history of the region’s progression from a land of archeological ruins (Egypt) and the Bible (Palestine) towards independence and modernity, and now, diffusing values of citizenship and war. “Photographs are the strangest type of objects around us,” says Zaatari. “They make us laugh; they make us cry. They can be provocative sometimes and soothing other times. They are in our proximity. They describe us. We gave them away manually to friends, and now we publish them online or attach them to messages. We change while we stay the same in our past photos. And what’s astonishing is that we will die and they will outlive us.” sharjahart.org

Images courtesy of Sharjah Arts Foundation


From Harper's Bazaar Art's winter 2019 issue