Image Evocations

استحضار الصورة

Joud Toamah

Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, sent by Basma Agha, 2019-2020

This is a recording taken from a long discussion Joud Toamah with artists and researchers Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and the duo Ghalia Elsrakbi and Lauren Alexander from Foundland Collective.

In this audio recording, we are talking about different approaches to photography and archives, whether working with existing archives and images found on the internet, or creating a new collection of images with a community of people. We share various experiences and understandings of these mediums from different positions and contexts.

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arabic char

Joud Toamah: Thank you Yasmine, Ghalia and Lauren for being here with us today, I'm interested to learn about how you engage with the complex narratives and contexts that you work within, whether politically, emotionally, and how you approach ethical questions as well of working together with other people, communities and collectives, and how you engage with matters of translation of presenting a photograph in different places, in different contexts, how you present it, or maybe not [present it].

To start, I can share about my own understanding of photography: I understand a photograph as a tool, for conversations, meetings, activations of memories, situations, histories. I see it as a tool to make talking about emotions, conflicts, or experiences possible. And there's always this question of how to do that. What kind of mediums to use, what are the visual techniques that I can use to express an idea or activate a memory, and also how to include different people and different voices in the work. People that I work with, people that I collaborate with, that I collect images with, so how to include different people as well in the process. I'm very curious to learn about how you approach all of these different questions in your works and your different practices.

Yasmine, can you begin telling us about how you relate to all of this and your work?

Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh: In nearly everything I've been doing, I've always been questioning the ‘how we are doing this’ and ‘how we try to work together’, versus doing things individually without taking into consideration the bigger frameworks in which we are acting. And so, Burj Al-Shmali, a Palestinian refugee camp in the South of Lebanon that was established in 1954 after Palestinians had fled from Palestine in 1948. They had waited behind the borders for quite some time, and it's only six years later that the refugee camps in Lebanon were officially established. So I initiated a project in 2001 in several refugee camps, but with time really focused and started living in Burj Al-Shmali, because I noticed if I really wanted to work in depth and in a way that was taking into consideration also my own privilege of being able to move out of the camp and back in, that it was necessary to work differently and to really create a base there, in order to establish a more on the same eye-height-conversation with the community there.

I happen to work with young women and men from Burj Al-Shmali, and I proposed photography as a tool for our conversation. With time, as we were interested in photography, we started looking at existing photographs in the camp, and this is how we started creating a digital depository of images that we were discussing. And this very process of gathering and looking at these images created or made many tensions and problematics visible. And actually it's these tensions, these conflicts, these very individual and diverse positions of everyone that was involved in the project that became the center of the reflection around this photographic archive. How can we take into consideration these very individual needs, appreciations emotions, traumas, silences, resistance, et cetera, by working on people's photographs. So it becomes a negotiation on different levels and dimensions. In the photographic, in part, this negotiation would happen a lot around [the questions] what do we show, how do we show, do we even show?

And then of course the methods of how we were working, how we were establishing exchanges and conversations in ways for everyone to have their own position, standing and existing and not being crushed by another position that would be more powerful and thus pushed the other way, is what is at the core of this project.

google maps image
Reconstruction of a no-longer accessible Google Maps satellite image, with the camp of Burj al-Shamali digitally blanked out ©Digital Globe 2007 and Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, 2017

Joud Toamah: Can you tell us more about how you approached this collective practice of collecting images with the people in the camp from an ethical point of view, because an image can bring a lot as you mentioned, and how did you approach doing that too in institutional contexts?

Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh: Maybe this is the occasion to speak a bit further about the Arab Image Foundation, where we are currently also trying to think of this archive or the collections that were gathered since 1997. Members were traveling to different areas of the Middle East, but also connecting with diasporic communities, from Lebanon, but also Palestine and other Arab countries in order to bring physical collections to the Arab Image Foundation. It's only after 2006, more or less, that the Foundation received images because it was already known, by donation or by deposit because people would approach the foundation knowing about it and asking if it would be interest in their archives.

This was a shift in the way how the collection of their image foundation was built, because what is specific about the first collections is that they were brought based on the interest of members. In the same way, the interest of my work in Burj Al-Shmali made that I contributed more questions and reflections that were emerging from my work to the general reflection on the Foundation, but no collection. Before, artists were really the ones, not only selecting which collection they would bring, but even selecting images inside of material they would see. This is how they would compose this archive, if you want to call it an archive. Now, the Foundation itself is an association and the form of an association is that you have a general assembly, and then you have a board of directors and everyone is accountable. The board is accountable to the general assembly, the director is accountable to the board, so there is an idea of collectively administrating this archive. Here, there have been many discussions and conversations about how things have been done until today and how we can imagine questioning what is being done and how we would like to do things specifically thinking about questions of rights or privacy as you call it.

Thursday 8 June, 2017
Inside a Camera Obscura
This intervention sets in place of the ambivalences and paradoxes of the Burj al-Shamali collection by looking at studio practices in the camp.

Wedensday 14 June, 2017
The Ones Who Walk Away...
The seventh intervention looks at seven plots/scenarios projecting possible futures for the Burj al-Shamali camp and its collection of ditigal photographs.

So in fact, we would need to review, and where the process of doing this, all contracts that were signed and agreed on with photographers or with depositors or with researchers and so on. For me, I think this is a question in this case of care, in the same way as like in Burj Al-Shmali, I was giving more attention to the individual's position of the persons I was exchanging with than saying ‘this is an important photograph we absolutely need this’. It was more about really creating a space where everything that was triggered by this photograph also had a place which was a form of care and respect — trying to establish an ethical position towards this process of gathering photographs, which actually came from private contexts, all of them. Because as you can maybe imagine, in Burj Al-Shmali, almost everyone, probably everyone lived through several Israeli invasions, so several times their houses were destroyed completely, and so many really had only very few photographs, so who are we, who am I, or who would anyone be to ask, to have direct access to these images and do with them whatever they want. This would be highly problematic. The entire question of privacy and care was always at the foreground in Burj Al-Shmali. Tis is something that has also, with time, affected the Arab image foundation and where this very practice actually has led to a re-questioning of how things were done and how they're being done, and how they can be eventually changed. Or simply questioned in order to see if this functions for all the collections we have at the Arab Image Foundation, because there are studio collections, but there's also family collections that are very private albums, et cetera.

portrait of sabiha majid agha A group photo of Abu Yasser and his friends, sent by Basma Agha, 2019-2020

Portrait of Sabiha Majid Agha, sent by Basma Agha, 2019-2020
A group photo of Abu Yasser and his friends, sent by Basma Agha, 2019-2020


Joud Toamah: That’s amazing, thank you so much. Ghalia and Lauren, through your project Foundland Collective, you work with images you find on the internet and also existing archives like in your project ‘THE NEW WORLD’. Can you also share with us how you approach photography and archives? How do you experience this process?

Ghalia Elsrakbi: It is a very intimate experience. It's very intimate in the sense that you become very close to those people in the archives, it's their lives. It is really thrilling, but I understand that this is too private sometimes. We were also aware that our understanding or interpretation of it was really subjective, because you are seeing what those people choose to give to Alixa Naff, the lady in the picture. She's a historian from Lebanese descent. She was, I think, three years old when she moved with her parents and migrated to the United States. During her PhD studies in the 1960s, she decided that this shift about representation of Arabs in general, in the West and custody, of course, with the Palestinian conflict and how the Arab identity or a person has been portrayed in media use and in society. As a personal project, she traveled around the United States and visited many families and collected as much as she could: photographs, she conducted interviews with them, group interviews, individual interviews, stuff they had, diaries, papers… She just filled her car and drove back and she donated this archive to the Smithsonian, I think, in the late 1980s-1990s. For her it was very important to archive the contribution of Arab communities in American society and that they exist, that they played a role in different fields and we shouldn't allow this to be forgotten. So it was an overwhelming experience for us, and also new, what to do with this photographic material, how to tell those stories, who is actually visiting the archive? No one, maybe we are the 10th researchers who requested to look at it. What can we do? What is our role and how can we activate this archive again? We decided, after two years of research and trying to grasp what exists in that archive to use some pieces to create a new work that tells those stories.

three imgs
Wedensday 14 June, 2017
The Ones Who Walk Away...
The seventh intervention looks at seven plots/scenarios projecting possible futures for the Burj al-Shamali camp and its collection of ditigal photographs.

This is one story we worked on. It’s the story of a couple, Amer and Adlah Khadash. They were singers and performers, they were singing Zajal. It's a well-known form of music in the Middle East, especially in mount Lebanon and also North West coast of Syria. It's a way to improvise texts on music, but also they performed other kinds of songs. They were moving or traveling artists. They had a band and they moved through different States, different cities to perform for Arab and American audiences.

So what we did, we were allowed to take copies of things we found in the archive, and we started to organise gatherings with friends and artists we knew to tell them about it, straightforward meetings (we call ‘Haflah’) with food and print out, and we just tell them about what we found and tell the stories and answering their questions, just sharing. That was very important for us to also try to take the archive from its static boxes, from the museum into our living rooms and try to share it with other people. This is where it started, until we decided to make a video focusing on Amer and Adlah.

amer and sana
Amer and Sana Khaddaj moved to the USA from Palestine in the 1940’s. They worked as a singing and performing duo, writting lyrics and performing for Middle Eastern Arabic speaking audiences.
amer and sana
Hafla meeting group, Cairo, 2017

Joud Toamah: I find the position of taking materials outside of the institutional archive and return it to intimate settings really strong. Lauren, can you tell us how you decided to engage with all the different materials you found at the archive?

Lauren Alexander: When we were working in the archive, just to pick up also on some of the things Yasmine was mentioning regarding which material actually enters the archive and under which conditions, the archives that we were working with was, as Ghalia explained, was curated and also organised and categorised strictly by Alixa Naff, as an individual. In fact, when she passed away, it was really difficult for this archive to not only continue the work that she had been doing, but also to categorise and understand what in total was in this archive. So to explain that our challenge in working with this material was that we literally had a box of photographs, there was no narrative as to why these people's story was particularly important or how those photographs connected and told one overarching story about these people.

So a lot of what we were doing is speculating as to what actually happened to these people and in which order it happened, because that was not completely clear. Later in our process, we did get in touch with their family members and we were also in touch with a number of other people who could verify and could also resonate with this exact same story of Amer and Adlah, these two individuals.

Some of the work that we were trying to do along the speculative lines, was trying to reconstruct the material that we were finding. There were a lot of song sheets of the lyrics of the songs that they had been working with, what you see here on the right. There's no indication of how those songs exactly were performed, but they are poems and of course, we can all understand that to translate a poem is almost a ridiculous undertaking. We tried to some extent to unravel what kind of narratives would be in poems or lyrics that this couple were thinking about and writing at this moment in time. Which also led us to explore some of the record shops in Cairo.

three imgs
Timestack IV, Sons, 2018

This was a really satisfying and also very touching process to involve a lot of people along the way, and also an example of taking a story of two people, a story of a couple and their migration. We wanted to incorporate how they were thinking about their own position within the United States. They were mainly singing for an Arab American audience in the United States at the same moment, as, for example, Elvis Presley would be moving around and also performing. I think it was a simple starting point for us, from the archive to just focus on this couple, but opened up many other questions about intergenerational migration and displacement.

three imgs
Timestack III, Chicago to Hollywood, 2018
three imgs
Timestack IV, Sons, 2018

Joud Toamah: Yes exactly, how one anecdote or story can lead to so many layered experiences. You all work within complex contents and relations, and you channel telling stories or making spaces for these stories to exist through photography. Photographs that you take outside of institutional archives or that you collect with a community of people, and still finding different ways to activate them in intimate settings and relationships. Keeping agency over them, keeping them close to home and communities you engage with. That was really interesting. Thank you all for sharing you experiences and insights with us.