Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 27, 2022
Karène Sanchez Summerer and Sary Zananiri, eds. Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens, 1918–1948 Open Jerusalem 3. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2021. 480 pp. Cloth $191.00 (9789004437937)
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The edited volume Imaging and Imagining Palestine: Photography, Modernity and the Biblical Lens, 1918–1948 is an ambitious, complex book that makes significant contributions to the history of photography on a number of fronts, going well beyond the specific context of Palestinian photo history, compelling as that subject is. The book is part of a current research project funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), “Crossroads: European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine (1920–1950); A Connecting History.” Other components of the research project have included an international scholarly workshop and a 2020 exhibition of the work of the Dutch photographer Frank Scholten in Leiden. Ongoing and innovative archival projects outside of the NWO funding bring additional bodies of images into the volume, providing a diverse and multivocal range of photography from the period of the British Mandate (1920–48). The history of photography in the Eastern Mediterranean beyond the Ottoman context has only recently begun to be explored in any depth, and the photo history of Palestine is also just beginning to be written, so this outstanding volume is doubly welcome.

One of the strengths of the book is the international, multidisciplinary group of contributors. The fourteen authors identify themselves as artists, writers, archivists, curators, and professors. Their disciplinary affiliations include cultural studies, history, architecture, sociology, Middle Eastern history, and photo history. Based at institutions in seven different countries in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, the contributors bring their disciplinary training, personal histories, and professional expertise to the work of explicating the photo archives and collections imaging Palestine now scattered in Palestine, Israel, Europe, and the United States.

The book is divided into three sections that focus on case studies of specific archives, individual photographers, and new approaches to working with this complex body of images. The eleven chapters that make up the bulk of the book are preceded by an introduction by Sary Zananiri laying out some of the main concerns of the work and concepts which many of the authors address: indigeneity, “biblification,” and Orientalism. The organization of the remaining chapters into the book’s sections works well, with a number of threads running through the entire volume and linking different chapters together. These include issues around the formation, organization, and accessibility of photographic archives, missionary archives in particular, image circulation, photo albums, restoring image subjectivity, audiences for the photographs, and the gender and class of photographer, subject, and viewer.

Part 1, “In and Out of the Archives: Photographic Collections and Historic Case Studies,” presents four chapters, each concerned with a specific archival collection, or in one case, with linked sets of historic photographs. The American Colony, a missionary group founded in 1881 with nineteen American and British members, grew to comprise an international group of 150 and operated a range of business, philanthropic, and cultural enterprises in Jerusalem for nearly seventy years, compiling a vast archive over this time. In her essay, Abigail Jacobson examines the “Record Book and Photo Album of the American Colony’s Christian Herald Orphanage” to understand the role of photographs in advancing the philanthropic goals of the orphanage and its parent organizations. Photographs from the period 1925–39 of a school run by the Swedish Jerusalem Society are the subject of the next essay, by Inger Marie Okkenhaug, who investigates the role of the photographs in visualizing the extent and impact of the Swedish presence. In a thoughtful, insightful overview of a highly significant archive, Norig Neveu and Karène Sanchez Summerer present the extensive collection of the Dominican Friars and other Catholic organizations in Palestine, held at the École Biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, which is currently being digitized. Issam Nassar, a towering figure in the field of Palestinian photo history, uses his essay concerning three photo albums—produced by a Jerusalem historian, an upper-class woman living in Jerusalem, and an athlete who attended the 1836 Olympics, each with a different purpose in compiling their album—as a way of bringing together his thoughts on the photo production of Palestinians, the study of photo albums more generally, and the importance of vernacular photography in photo history. This is a great deal to tackle in one essay, and given Nassar’s exquisite familiarity with the photo history of Palestine, I wished for a longer treatment of his subjects.

“Points of Perspective: Photographers and Their Lens,” part 2, comprises three chapters, each focusing on a single photographer. Rona Sela’s essay, “Resilient Resistance: Colonial Biblical, Archaeological and Ethnographical Imaginaries in the Work of Chalil Raad (Khalil Ra‘d), 1891–1948” considers the multifaceted practices of a prominent photographer in the history of photography in Palestine. The photo diaries of John D. Whiting (1882–1951), a member of the American Colony of Jerusalem, are the subject of a essay by Rachel Lev. Whiting’s deep familiarity with the region and his fluid relationships with multiple actors (British Mandate officials, visiting businessmen, the British Secret Intelligence Service, high-ranking Palestinian officials, to name a few) in Mandate Palestine present significant interpretive challenges in reading his five-volume Diary in Photos (1934–39); Lev does a masterful job in her essay. Sary Zananiri writes about the Dutch photographer Frank Scholten (1881–42), who was in Palestine for two years (1921–23) and left behind an important photographic record, which has been overlooked until now.

While I found all of the contributions to the book thought-provoking and learned a great deal from them, for me the four chapters in part 3, “After Effects: Methodologies, Approaches and Reconceptualising Photography,” were the most exciting. Yazan Kopty’s essay, “Edward Keith-Roachs’s Favourite Things: Indigenising National Geographic’s Images of Mandatory Palestine,” is a brilliant exploration of an archive that has had a central role in shaping the understanding of Palestine for its readers from 1909 onward. The final pages of Kopty’s essay describe his project, “Imagining the Holy,” an ongoing community-based project of indigenization taking advantage of current technology and social media to connect historic images with a wide and diverse audience in order to reframe the archive’s photographs as encounters between photographer and subject. In “Decolonising the Photography of Palestine: Searching for a Method in a Plate of Hummus,” Stephen Sheehi focuses on a single image to demonstrate an organizing method for decolonizing a photograph, using a well-informed and thoughtful analysis of the image to demonstrate the importance of latent analysis in this effort and drawing a crucial distinction for photo historians between latent analysis and speculation. Nadi Abusaada explores images of the urban built environment in what she describes as three different attitudes, focusing on the critically important issue of their circulation and deployment in the service of different political agendas. The epilogue by Özge Calafato and Aude Aylin de Tapia does an outstanding job of drawing together the book’s various concerns around the use of archival collections, the significance of textuality in photo captions, and the role of vernacular photography in constructing social and political histories of the region, for example, and pointing the way forward to continuing work in Palestinian history.

In this consideration of the complex and varied material that makes up the history of photography in Palestine as we currently understand it, I missed a focused investigation of gender, of the photographers, the subjects in the images, and the consumers of these images. Gender is touched on briefly throughout the book, in the most sustained way by Neveu and Sanchez Summerer, Nassar, and Zananiri. The various stereotypical ways that women were presented in most photography from the Middle East generally has been thoroughly discussed in numerous valuable publications, women as consumers of photographs much less so, and women as photographers even less frequently. Yet important work has been emerging around the relationship between Arab women and photography in this period, as for example in Yasmine Nachabe Taan’s recent book, Reading Marie al-Khazen’s Photographs: Gender, Photography, Mandate Lebanon (Bloomsbury, 2020), which suggests that seeking out the Palestinian women who were surely using the camera for their own purposes would have been a fruitful exercise.

The strengths of the book also present some of its challenges. Given the diversity of authors, the writing is a little uneven and in places could have benefited from careful copy editing. The fact that the contributions were workshopped at a conference in advance of the book’s publication contributes to the strong connections in theme and focus among the chapters, but also occasionally makes the reader feel as if she wandered into the middle of a conversation where the antecedents are missing. The production value of the printed volume is generally high, with illustrations (many of which are in color) placed throughout the book. Additionally, when albums are discussed, their full pages—showing mounting style and text commentary—are included, a design decision that is surprisingly rare in photo history publications. At the same time, some of the album reproductions are too small to be truly legible, an issue compounded by the uncoated paper used in the book. A number of chapters are missing call-outs for the figures in the text, causing the reader to miss the connection between the author’s text and the image to which it refers. The issue of image legibility in the printed volume is somewhat mitigated by the fact that full-size versions of the book’s illustrations are available (and can be downloaded) in the digital version of the book. However, considering the steep price of the printed volume, the image quality is disappointing.

Imaging Palestine is completely available via Open Access, and given that the inaccessibility of the archive is a thread running through many of the chapters of this book and a key issue in illuminating images of Palestine, the decision to make the book available free of charge seems particularly fitting. All things considered, this is an impressive publication that should be essential reading for anyone interested in reclaiming lost photo histories, rethinking how to use archives, and new approaches to the history of photography in Palestine.

Nancy Micklewright
Research Associate, Smithsonian