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On Photography People and Modern Times

July 15, 2013

Akram Zaatari’s two channel installation On Photography People and Modern Times presents a “subjective story of the Arab Image Foundation” in Beirut. Co-founded by Zaatari, the foundation is a non-profit organization established in Beirut in 1997 with the mission “to collect, preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora.” The foundation is an expanding archive with over 600,000 photographs.

A lo-fi version of the piece is available at:

http://vimeo.com/19680810

On Photography… features a two-channel installation of interviews with a number of image donors to the AIF, conducted by Zaatari. One screen shows a plot image of a table that includes tapes of interviews, a video camera with the display facing up, a fraction of a monitor display, and images of the photographs donated to AIF by the interviewee. The screen on the right features an eye level image of the same table, where we can now see the monitor, the interviewee, the video camera from the side (but not the display) and the torso of the archivist, whose gloved hands we can also see in the left side image.

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

On Photography People and Modern Times, still frame

The image in the monitor and the display unit of the video camera is a moving image, a video of the interview. The archivist however is rendered as a time-lapse video, where the archivist presents photographs in split frames, a different temporal logic that the image that occupies the same surface. At times we can even see the interviewee sitting behind the archive table. A subtitle appears above the image, overlapping the two split screens. The end result is a video, that includes three different temporal logic of the photograph, video and time-lapse video. The piece further includes the linguistic dimension, both oral and textual—in form of subtitles.

The piece analyzes a combination of visual and archival temporalities simultaneously and within a single split screen. It examines the archival apparatus of conservation (note the gloved hands of the archivist), presentation, narration and also the desire of the archivist him/herself. Why to collect, “we lived in a country in which everything was being destroyed and falling apart, and photographed presented a totally different reality,” an interviewee notes and says how in the face of destruction, by collecting photographs “he could reconstruct the past and the present.

The piece concerns how we respond to different modes of engagement with archival material—splinters of historical time’s inscription on technologies of representation and narration. At the heart of the work lies the photograph, and the institution (AIF), the story (the donor’s account), the work (On Photography People and Modern Times), all present various modes of approaching and interpreting  the photographic image, which itself points to a particular moment in time. Zaatari points to the slit between these various modes of engagement, starting from splitting the work itself into two screens. The split between the image—both moving and still—and word, the photograph and video, the still frame and natural frame rate (which itself now varies depending on the technology). The slit between the camera and the display, between the narrator and the narrated. The construction of memory via, archival modes of conservation and presentation, by technologies of memory and recollection. This presents the then of now, the recognition of the past in the present moment, as Benjamin suggests. The image, in Nancy’s formulation, gives presence to an absence. The archive in turn, makes the absence visible.

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