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Apollo Awards 2019

Digital Innovation of the Year

21 November 2019

Arab Image Foundation

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The Arab Image Foundation (AIF) began in Beirut in 1997 with an ambitious goal: to create an archive of the thousands, even millions, of photos lying in junk shops, family albums and old studios across the Arab world and diaspora. By 2009, it had amassed a collection of more than 600,000 images. Since the launch of the AIF – perhaps because of it – interest in the photographic history of the Middle East has exploded and several new archives have appeared. In 1998 the renowned Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo bequeathed his studio archive to the American University in Cairo; in 2014, Akkasah, the Center for Photography at NYU Abu Dhabi, was founded.

A celebration of Lebanon’s Independence Day in Mexico, 1948/50, gelatin silver print, Graciela Madrigal de Bulhosen Collection at the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.

A celebration of Lebanon’s Independence Day in Mexico (1948/50), Graciela Madrigal de Bulhosen Collection at the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

This year, the grande dame of Arab photo archives launched a new-look website featuring more than 10,000 images from the collection, released under a Creative Commons licence. This first batch includes a huge range of photos: from studios in Iran, Egypt, Algeria and the Arab diaspora as far away as Latin America and Senegal, as well as more than 1,000, sometimes blurry, snaps taken by a Lebanese family in the mid 20th century, and almost 100 images by the inimitable Van Leo.

The new online platform is not without its bugs or annoyances. As you browse, a good number of the photos show only their reverse, forcing you to click on each to reveal the image. The search function too is still in its infancy. The way to get the most out of it is probably to select a collection and scroll through it like a Twitter feed, waiting for the gems to appear (trust me, they will).

But the AIF has always tried to be more than a simple repository. As well as training people in photographic and preservation practices, it works actively with artists, writers, and performers. On its website, it has set up a ‘Lab’ as a ‘digital outpost for forays into uncharted spaces of photography’, where people are encouraged to send their ideas for activating the collections. If this new incarnation of the AIF has anywhere near as much effect as the first, Arabic photography has an exciting future.

Self-portrait (1942), Van Leo. Van Leo Collection at the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

Self-portrait (1942), Van Leo. Van Leo Collection at the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

Raphael Cormack is the editor of The Book of Cairo and The Book of Khartoum. Midnight in Cairo will be published by Saqi Books next year.

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