Lebanese photographer and filmmaker Akram Zaatari stages his first solo show at London gallery, Thomas Dane, in Mayfair/Piccadilly from 27 Nov 2013 through 1 Feb 2014.
The role of photography in personal identities
Much of Akram Zaatari’s work around the photography studio is about “…how these studios become theatres in which people act.” In front of a camera, the subjects would try to establish their role (in their community, for themselves, and so on) as they attempted to define personal and collective identity.
“I think you perform for the image, because the camera does not describe you as you really are,” says Zaatari, “There’s an amalgamation of description and performance at the moment the photograph is taken.”
Since 1997, as co-founder of Arab Image Foundation (AIF), Zaatari has been on “…a mission to preserve and study vernacular and studio photography…” from Lebanon as well as other regions in the Middle East including North Africa.
Comprising of two installations in neighbouring Thomas Dane sites, Zaatari’s current exhibition of photography and short films, the artist mines the archival material held by the AIF in order to “…forensically examine [how these images] … bridge geographic and temporal boundaries and probe the nature of representation.”
In 2010, Zaatari decided to revisit footage from the late 90s, of interviews he conducted as he was building the archive for the AIF. In the film clips, Zaatari speaks with Hashem Al-Madani, the owner of Studio Shehrezade in Saida, Lebanon, as well as with former employees and photographers who worked there in the mid-20th century.
The interview footage was the starting point for a work “… about how documents are viewed differently depending on their contexts – for example, when photographs come into the custody of an institution that takes care of them in a different, very clinical way.
After [pictures] are separated from their owners, the people who loved them and the people with whom they have lived, they become different.
Zaatari’s aim with the film On Photography, was to narrate the “double life that pictures go through”, showing their first years at home, then the second life as a precious object under study, handled by an archivalist wearing latex gloves.
He says that when he first captured the interviews in Al-Madani’s studio, he felt that he was merely saving the photographs,“…because I was totally convinced that saving pictures is more important than saving emotions and connections with the past.” He’s changed his thinking now; with his film On Photography he is more concerned with safe-guarding emotions in and around the images, rather than just preserving the photo itself.
Zaatari goes on, “The film is a critique, because I started thinking again about the initial motivations for setting up the Arab Image Foundation, and even about the personal beliefs I held that photographs should be saved from people and brought into this archive. Today, I don’t think in the same way, but I do acknowledge that I’ve done it … it was a learning experience, and a challenge…I’m not like that anymore”
Today, I think that saving emotions is more important…
Of all the galleries I visited that day (I think we saw 8 or 9), I was most smitten with this exhibition of Zaatari’s work. I can really feel his passion for photography and his sensitive handling of the images in the archive as more than just somebody’s old pictures. He managed to translate a stack of old photos and some video footage into something nostalgic, but not kitsch… catalogue people’s memories through images, but without making it a documentary film.
When asked by FAD magazine, “What defines something as a work of art?“, Zaatari replied,
The author determines that this is a work of art. The work becomes art when people believe the artist.
More Links and information
- Akram Zaatari at Thomas Dane gallery in Mayfair, London
- Akram Zaatari on Vimeo (10 videos)
- Interview by Ashitha Nagesh in ArtInfo magazine, “Reflection in Water: Interview with Akram Zaatari” – 26 November 2013
- “Akram Zaatari answers FAD’s Questions” (interview) – FAD – 26 November 2013
- Akram Zaatari represents Lebanon at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013 with his video and installation work, “Letter to a Refusing Pilot”
- Learn more about Arab Image Foundation, based in Beirut, Lebanon – conducting work that is “led by the critical, creative work of artists.”
Reviews of Akram Zaatari’s work
- Charlotte Abrams at Financial Times: “Akram Zaatari at Thomas Dane” – 18 November 2013
- Akram Zaatari: On Photography People at Modern Times – Art Daily – 4 December 2013
Exhibition details: Akram Zaatari: On Photography People and Modern Times is at Thomas Dane gallery, 3 & 11 Duke Street St James’s, London, SW1Y 6BN, from 27 Nov 2013 through 1 Feb 2014. Free admission.