SUMMARY:This roundtable seeks to bring together scholars from anthropology, sociology, and history to discuss new and emerging uses of historical photographs from the Middle East and its diasporas. Whether through formal projects like the numerous digital archives that have emerged in recent years, or through more informal routes like nostalgia-driven social media accounts, it seems “vintage” photographs of Middle Eastern people and places suddenly are everywhere online. How has the greater access enabled through digital circulation impacted how these images are used and interpreted? What ethical considerations, challenges, and opportunities do these circulations prompt?
We seek to think through these questions together in a multidisciplinary roundtable addressing photographic representations of Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians, and Armenians, both in diaspora and in the Middle East, with particular attention to the nexus of memory, migration, and digital circulation. While much has been written about the need to creatively “activate” archives and archival material, important questions linger as to the ethical considerations of conservation and circulation in digital spaces. For example, as greater attention has recently been paid to histories of enslavement in the region and to the racialization of Middle Eastern individuals both in the region and in the diaspora, the dual roles of photographs as family mementos and historical documentation create new and pressing questions. Here we seek to investigate the ways such images leave the private family archive in a quest to tell a family’s story and through digital circulation can end up doing much more. How have scholars, artists, and archivists worked to create or re-imagine traditional photo archives, and how does the drive to find, preserve, circulate, publicize and promote these images sometimes unwittingly enact other violences?
Numerous artists have taken these questions as provocations in their methodologically rigorous and critically-informed archival practices. How have Middle Eastern artists remediated photographs and other visual material to query what has been lost and what has been found? How have librarians, archivists, and independent researchers pushed in new directions in an effort to indigenize or decolonize traditional and digital photographic archives? How can individuals “reclaim” family photographs, and what meaning does cultural patrimony or repatriation have for photographs newly deemed historical? What lessons and inspiration should academics learn from these interventions?
In this roundtable, we aim to think critically about these questions, and offer new dimensions of both the challenges and opportunities of these circulations of “vintage” photographs of the Middle East.