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Session R6407 (Picturing the Middle East and its Diasporas: Memory, Migration, and Archives in New Digital Landscapes), 2021
In my larger project examining the contemporary digital circulation of 20th century photographs of Iranians, I have been especially interested in examining the "social lives" of remediated vintage photos shared online, for example by second generation diasporic Iranians of their older family members prior to migration (usually prior to the 1979 revolution). Whether they serve as nostalgic reminiscences, as new artistic work, or as social media shares, there is a growing circulation of images from this time-space online. How does the proliferation of these photos impact the meanings that Iranians and non-Iranians draw from these images? How do we as scholars approach the sharing of these private images in the public sphere?

For this roundtable, I'm interested in thinking about these circulations through the lens of diaspora politics. All visual materials in the public sphere are subject to interpretations that are beyond any individual's control, but I'm especially interested in how "vintage" images and videos of Iranians, and especially of women, get interpolated in this geopolitical moment through an attention economy that makes them ripe for political (ab)use. There are numerous examples in Middle Eastern contexts of photos and videos from the 1960s-1970s that have been digitized, circulated, and later used as fodder for memes, blogs, or photo essays in dozens of languages. Many of these images are accompanied by overtly political messages that their subjects have little to do with – for example, in an effort to legitimate the invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, or to call for regime change in Iran in the last decade. In these cases, the photos’ subjects and specific contexts become anonymized and are made to represent a time, place, and people as they move virally through digital platforms. In the case of Iran, such images are often made to represent an idyllic “time before” without proper historicization. This is the language used for these images not only by blogs or nostalgia Instagram accounts, but in January 2020 (in the midst of an intense military escalation between Iran and the US, memed as #WW3), even by the Twitter account of the US State Department. I’ll present two examples of these overtly political uses of vintage images – one by a state, and one by diaspora activists – as a starting point to discuss the ways vintage images of Middle Easterners have been presented problematically as “self-evident evidence” in increasingly polarized online political discourse.