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Lost and Found: The Yasser Alwan Photography Collection at Akkasah

[Courtesy The Yasser Alwan Collection/Akkasah, Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi.] [Courtesy The Yasser Alwan Collection/Akkasah, Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi.]

[In this two-part essay we present a selection of captivating photographs from roughly the first half of the 20th century in Egypt, collected by Yasser Alwan and held by the photography center Akkasah at NYUAD. The essays by Akkasah director Shamoon Zamir and Alwan provide valuable context and insights into how to understand this particular collection. The first selection of photographs, with Zamir's essay, highlights the collection's poignant snapshot photographs, while the second group with Alwan's essay showcases a range of studio portraits. - Editor]

How, and why, did the Yasser Alwan Collection of old studio and family photographs, gathered from around Cairo, come to Akkasah, the center for photography at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD)? The more I have lived with and thought about some of the several thousand photographs that make up the Alwan collection, the more I have come to see that the sequence of causes and motivations that brought these pictures to Akkasah is not entirely straightforward. Akkasah came to these photographs as much as they came to Akkasah.

It was a chance encounter with Alwan’s own photographs, not the photographs he had collected but his own photographic portraits of the poorest workers, and other Cairenes and Egyptians in 1994, that set in motion for me a meandering series of intellectual and visual engagements that came to a kind of rest or conclusion two decades later in the idea for a center dedicated to the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa. More than any history or sociology of Arab, Iranian, or Turkish photography, it is Alwan’s portraits, created during the 1980s and 1990s, almost exactly twenty years before Akkasah was established, that have made it possible for me to see most clearly the life and beauty of the photographs he has collected—or rather, of the kinds of photographs he has collected. When Akkasah was established I had not yet actually seen the photographs in the Alwan collection, only others like them in archives, or in books and magazines. And in turn, the pictures of individuals, families, groups of friends, or co-workers that make up most of the Alwan collection have helped me better understand the unique and arresting regard that distinguishes Alwan’s own portraits of contemporary Egyptians.

I established Akkasah in 2014 with generous assistance from the University. I had joined NYUAD in 2010, the year the University opened its doors to students. My academic background is in literature and intellectual history but by the time I came to Abu Dhabi my research and teaching had extended into photography and visual arts. Although my own work focused primarily on the United States, I shared the University’s commitment to creating a local institution capable of making a sustained and meaningful contribution to the educational and intellectual landscape of the region.

As I continued to write on photography and to teach it, I became increasingly aware that although there was growing international interest in the histories of photography from outside of Europe and North America, not enough was being done to preserve the diverse and rich photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa. Even less had been accomplished in making institutional and private collections accessible to the scholarly community and the wider public. Additionally, research into the histories of photography from the region was, and remains, a relatively modest academic enterprise. The motivation behind Akkasah was, then, fairly simple and straightforward: to help address some of these shortcomings by building an archive of old photographs from around the region (especially the sort of pictures often referred to as “vernacular” photographs), and around this archive to develop a center that promoted research through conferences, seminars, fellowships, and publications, and that also commissioned new documentary projects recording contemporary realities.

It was through an accident of friendship that the Alwan collection proved to be the first collection to arrive at Akkasah. As far as I can recall, I first began to look at and to think about photographs with more than a passing interest after seeing an exhibition of Helen Levitt’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. The following year, while visiting Cairo, I saw on the walls of a friend’s apartment a set of portraits of workers in the city from a variety of occupations. These were portraits made by Alwan, a small sampling from what is in fact a very substantial body of work, and I was immediately struck by a quality in them which I could then articulate only as “surprising” or “unusual” but which I have been trying to explain to myself more satisfactorily ever since. I met Alwan a day or two later, and since then my engagement with photography has been inextricable from an ongoing dialogue with Alwan, and equally with his own photographs, which have continued to live with me in unpredictable ways. It was some time later that I learned that Alwan had also collected thousands of photographs over many years and from many locations all over Cairo. In the years that followed, Alwan and I continued to meet, sometimes in London and sometimes in New York, but I never managed to return to Cairo, and I never saw Alwan’s collection of discarded photographs. When Akkasah was established, Alwan proposed that the photographs be deposited there, and it was then that I saw the pictures for the first time.

Each print in the Alwan collection is housed in a clear polypropelene sleeve, the sleeved images grouped in envelopes of off-white, unbuffered, acid-free and lingen-free cardstock. The envelopes are placed inside letter-size, black document boxes, and the boxes stored in a cold storage room designed for archival special collections. Before the photographs have reached the shelves of the storage room, each print has been scanned, with the digital copies checked and stored both in Abu Dhabi and New York. By this stage we have also recorded, with Archivist Toolkit, a software program designed especially for archive collections, as much data as possible: the date of the image, even if approximate; the identity of the subjects or of the location, if known; the name of the studios where the photograph was made, if this is printed on the image; any other writing on the print’s surface or back; and a brief description of the content of the image. A reference identification, written delicately in pencil on the back of each print, as well as identification numbers on the paper envelopes and boxes, key each image to the information gathered about it and allow the archivists to retrieve the image whenever needed. Though it is not yet the case, very soon the entire collection will be available via a dedicated website.

To encounter the photographs in such contexts—within the quiet space of a special collections room in a university library, or on an academic website—is to encounter a sense of order and system. The photographs have become institutionalized objects; they have been framed by processes that embody models of knowledge and dissemination particular to a certain kind of scholarly endeavor. It therefore requires quite an effort of the imagination to return these pictures to the din and debris of urban life in which they were found, and from which they were gathered up. As he himself explains, Alwan came upon these photographs in flea markets, at the stalls of street vendors, or in dusty secondhand bookshops piled high with cobwebbed volumes, old magazines, and crumbling newspapers. And as soon as we ask, “How did these pictures come to be in these places?,” we should find ourselves brought to a stop by the realization that these photographs are tragic, in the most commonplace and truly moving sense of that word. The journey that brought the photographs in the Alwan collection from the studios in which they were made, or from the family albums in which they were safely and carefully kept, to Cairo’s economy of trade in detritus is a journey through the many intersections of interrupted or broken lives and the dislocations of social change and cultural upheaval. As I look at these images, I inevitably wonder if this is what will happen to my own family photographs when my child or grandchild has forgotten the names of my friends, or can no longer trace the lines of kinship that connect her to her distant relatives. Will the pictures of my travels with my wife or of my child’s own theatrical performances at school end up on e-Bay, and then in some private collection or public archive?  And would such an alienated survival of valued and dear photographs be a fate to be preferred over their destruction? What does it mean for the lives, for which the pictures in the Alwan collection were only mnemonics, to have disappeared and for only their mute visual traces to remain?

The couple who had themselves photographed at their wedding in the 1930s did not imagine that, many decades later, they would become the objects of scrutiny for researchers interested in the social rituals of the Egyptian middle class in the first half of the twentieth century, or in histories of dress. The man who took the picture of the old mosque could not have known that one day the cart wheel maker and his tools caught inadvertently close to the left edge of the picture would be valuable sources of information for histories of labor and industry. And the woman who sat for a portrait in an Alexandria studio for her husband or her parents would no doubt be taken aback to find that strangers from around the world have held her picture in their hands, or stared at her face on a computer screen. These are imagined photographs and imagined scenarios but very many photographs like these can be found in the Alwan collection.

But if we experience the sense of loss and distance keenly when looking at these pictures, we do so precisely because the people in them seem to continue to claim our attention as very much alive and present within the disintegrating paper enclosures of their photographs. As intruders into these private lives and spaces, it is our obligation to allow these pictures to make us vulnerable, and not to retreat into the protections that the detachment of scholarly analysis, or the visual regime of the archive can offer. 

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