Akram Zaatari

Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1960. Hashem el Madani


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Akram Zaatari born 1966
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 290 × 190 mm
Presented by Tate International Council 2008


This work is one of a series of black and white silver gelatin photographs of varying sizes that are collectively titled Objects of study/The archive of studio Shehrazade/Hashem el Madani/Studio Practices. All of the photographs were taken by the Lebanese commercial photographer Hashem el Madani between 1948 and 1982 and compiled into the present group, 117 of which are in Tate’s collection, by the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. All of the photographs include people, either alone, in pairs or in small groups, and most were taken in Madani’s studio, although some were shot outside and in his subjects’ homes. The series features men and women and covers a wide age range from babies to elderly people. Almost all of the sitters assume poses deliberately for the camera, sometimes accompanied by props or costumes, and most gaze directly towards the lens. Many of the pictures show subjects interacting in various ways, including embracing, kissing and acting out scenes, such as a mock wrestling match. The photographs are mostly tightly cropped, with the sitter or sitters filling most of the frame, although in some cases the figures are positioned further away from the camera, for instance when shown sitting at a table or standing behind a chair. The photographs tend to have sparse backgrounds, often dominated by a blank posterior wall. They are mounted on white paper, displayed in plain white frames and signed on the back by Madani. Many of them have been organised into categories by Zaatari – such as a group featuring men dressed as Syrian resistance fighters and a collection depicting newly married couples – while the rest are presented individually. Zaatari has stated that although he prefers these groups to be displayed together, this is not a requirement (Akram Zaatari, email to Rachel Taylor, 24 April 2008, Tate Acquisition file).

All of the photographs in this series were taken in Zaatari’s hometown of Saida in Lebanon, where Madani first established his photographic studio in 1948. The images were commissioned by the subjects and their families, who sometimes allowed Madani to select poses and settings for them and sometimes chose these themselves. To assist in this process, Madani had a book containing images of people posing in different ways that his clients could select from, and he also provided them with props and costumes when required. In a 2004 interview Madani stated that he ‘photographed 90% of the people in Saida. They used to come from all social backgrounds and classes’ (Madani in The Photographers’ Gallery 2004, p.16). Zaatari began to work with Madani’s archive in 1999 as part of a project run by the non-profit Arab Image Foundation that Zaatari co-founded in 1997, which works to collect and study photographs from the Arab world. Zaatari selected the pictures from the many thousands in Madani’s collection and had them all mounted and framed in a specific way, and Madani was not involved in this process.

The title of each photograph includes a standard set of elements: the names or descriptions of any individuals shown, the location and date of the photograph and the photographer’s name. The title of the series makes reference to Madani and the name of his studio (‘studio Shehrazade’), and combines the phrases ‘objects of study’ and ‘studio practices’, emphasising the dual nature of these images as both examples of Madani’s photographic practice and the subjects of Zaatari’s ongoing research at the Arab Image Foundation.

Zaatari has discussed the unusual status of authorship in this series, noting that each image has ‘two authors’ and ‘two dates’ (Downey 2014, accessed 24 October 2014) and suggesting that this shows that photographs take on different meanings when they are removed from their original context and ‘displaced ... into another time, another tradition, another economy’ (quoted in Eva Respini and Ana Janevski, ‘Interview with the Artist’, April 2013, www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/projects/akram-zaatari/interview-with-the-artist, accessed 27 November 2014). This reflects Zaatari’s broader concern with the way that photography can become part of a social fabric, rather than just a set of isolated pictures. As he explained in 2006: ‘I see this project and my involvement in it as an almost archaeological approach to the understanding of what the studio means, what the collection means in relation to the city.’ (Zaatari in Predrag Pajdic, ‘Akram Zaatari’, In Focus, December 2006, www.infocusdialogue.com/interview/akram-zaatari, accessed 17 April 2008.)

These images were originally intended as objects with a personal or domestic purpose, rather than artworks to be shown in galleries. Zaatari has explained that he is interested in studio photographs for their theatrical and aspirational qualities, stating in 2013 that

Most of my work regarding studio photography is about this – how these studios become theatres in which people act. Many times they act out things that they miss or don’t have in life – particularly social status.
(Zaatari in Ashitha Nagesh, ‘Reflection in Water: Interview with Akram Zaatari’, Artinfo, 26 November 2013, http://uk.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/989423/reflection-in-water-interview-with-akram-zaatari, accessed 24 October 2014.)

In addition, because most poses that feature in the series are repeated in several images, the group offers a reflection on the ways in which stock motifs and characters in a given culture might influence the way that people choose to represent themselves.

Further reading
Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices, exhibition catalogue, The Photographers’ Gallery, London 2004.
Akram Zaatari: The Uneasy Subject, exhibition catalogue, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León 2011.
Anthony Downey, ‘Photography as Apparatus: Akram Zaatari in conversation with Anthony Downey’, Ibraaz, 28 January 2014, http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/113/, accessed 24 October 2014.

David Hodge
November 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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