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Session R6407 (Picturing the Middle East and its Diasporas: Memory, Migration, and Archives in New Digital Landscapes), 2021
This presentation focuses on how state photography and family photography intersect. Currently I am researching state photographs of Armenian families taken 1896-1908 for the Ottoman state as part of their seeking permission to emigrate. These two categories have long been theorized very differently. Almost as if private family photography and public state photography are natural binaries. Yet in the Ottoman empire, partly because photography was a domain in which Armenians were the dominant group, such binaries quickly break down. Reflecting on the blurred boundaries between state and family photography is not only productive intellectually but also suggests new methodologies.

For several years now as part of a my work on Ottoman Armenian migration to the United States, I have researched the descendants of the subjects in these photographs and when possible have taken state photographs of their ancestors to them. Hence even if these photographs were not produced as standard commissioned family portraits originally, today, through this methodology, they become prompts for family narratives. Often these meeting lead to the sharing of many family photographs allowing me to contextualize state photography against a family’s own representations. As I observe the myriad ways in which historical photographs are interpreted by archivists, scholars, and a range of family members I’m reminded of the need to move from asking what an image shows to investigating what it does in the world.

What are the ethics of working on historical photographic material? Many artists work with found photographs and are happy to leave subjects anonymous. What ethical considerations might drive visual scholarship? What kinds of naming conventions should be used? How might debates on historical photographs and their circulation elsewhere int he world inform how we approach photographic archives in the Middle East? One reason why photographs are such powerful material for studying migration is their potential mobility compared to other objects. Yet how do we as scholars take into account the limitations of their mobility? Digital technologies have completely changed how we as scholars can work with photographs. Many new forms of analysis are available to many more scholars and yet what critical faculties do we also need to develop to stay true to the social and political lives of pre-digital objects. Serious scholarship involving historical photographs requires educating our eyes and fingers in addition to language skills and access to archives.