Seeing Like an Oil Company: Photographic Archives of Modern Iraq

By Mona Damluji
Submitted to Session P4776 (Iraq's Many Pasts, Iraq's Many Presents: Memory, Archive, and Representation, 2017 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Development; Energy Studies; History of Architecture; Modern; Modernization; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The British-controlled oil company in Iraq played a powerful role in shaping a dominant aesthetic approach to visually documenting modern Iraq, beginning in 1950. For example, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) provided its staff photographers and filmmakers unmitigated access to a bird’s (or more precisely an oil company’s) eye view. IPC’s British and Arab photographers used the aerial vantage point of aircraft to capture the impressive scale and vast extent of new infrastructural, urban, and architectural projects underway in Baghdad and beyond. As a result, whether shot from the air or an elevated vantage point, the photos reproduce a top-down perspective, echoing the hegemonic oversight that the company and government exercised over Iraq’s land, labor and built environments. In other words, seeing Iraq through the lens of this photographic practice meant seeing like the oil company, or more precisely how the oil company would like us to see. Iraq, as an oil state, derived capital for development projects directly from IPC revenue through the Iraq Development Board (IDB). Beyond this, as I will show, the Hashemite regime and IDB assumed the company’s image making infrastructure, approach and expertise for its own public relations efforts. Through a close reading of key photographic archives, I will critically examine how these collections work to construct an image world of modern Iraq “from above,” and argue for increased efforts to foreground untapped collections that can expose experiences of Iraq from the grounded vantage point of everyday life.