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Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1970s. Hashem el Madani

AKRAM ZAATARI

interviewed by Predrag Pajdic, Beirut, December 2006
via IN FOCUS

What are you working on at the moment? I would like to know about the ideas going through your head.

I normally work on several projects at the same time, but I’m still getting ready for the upcoming exhibition at Sfeir Semler Gallery in Hamburg entitled ‘Objects of Study’.

What is it about?

It is mainly footnotes to previous work, which is an idea that I like very much. Every work that I do now posits new ideas that communicate or show previous ideas, to enlighten the work. Those ideas can normally become independent works that originate from concepts or film rushes that one doesn’t use in a work due to editing. Now I am working on footnotes for the two chapters that I did within the Madani project. Currently I am working on a panoramic image of the Hashem El Madani studio. The footnotes include a photographic mapping of the Madani Studio (opened in 1953), including a large panoramic reconstruction of the studio’s reception space, showing the three walls decorated with hand-coloured pictures flattened out. Like many photographic studios from the region and that period, Madani’s studio used to have three spaces: reception, from where an interface with the public happens, next is a waiting area where people wait for their turn, and finally the studio space where the photographer takes images of his subjects. Photographic studios used to be very busy. Like a clinic where people would constantly come in and out, to make appointments, take photographs or pick up their prints. The reception area is usually decorated with what the studio photographer thinks is his best production, hand coloured and beautifully printed. At the Madani studio there are three clocks on the walls and also images of his children, and advertisements for film companies.
So part of studying the Madani collection is also a study of his working space and other components of his profession, and that comes under the title ‘Objects of Study’.

I will also be showing the photographs of the working tools that are always on Madani’s desk. They are always there, rather than arranged in drawers or closets. Isolating these objects contributes to the study of Madani’s images in the context of his working conventions and his ways of arranging things. In other words, what ends up on the desk is what is most used. However after ten years of being out of use because of the lack of customers, the presence of these tools on the photographer’s desk acquires more of an emotional value.

But the studio still exists? And it is captured in the time and space as it was in the peak times of the business.

Yes, except that things are more run down.

If Madani is not working any more, why is the studio still there?

Interestingly enough he still goes there every morning for about three hours per day, and he just sits there overlooking the street from his first floor, watching people and cars passing by. His wife may call him and ask to bring back home some groceries.
From time to time an old client may bring him a photo taken thirty years ago and ask for the negatives in order to reproduce it or make enlargements. He would spend probably the next three days looking for the negatives, and only charge one or two dollars for it.

How organised is his archive of negatives?

He is absolutely not organised in a systematic way. He would start opening boxes until he finds what he is looking for. All 35mm negatives are stored in metal tin boxes and he relies mostly on his memory to determine where the image in question may be located. He would sort of remember what year a picture was taken and start looking in a box numbered for example 36 or 37, which relates to that period. Every box would contain about 100 roles of film.

I am also working on a photographic series, which is a sequence of twenty-five images where one doesn’t really know what is going on because there is a lot of repetition, and because of the number of underexposed images. Besides, most of the images are of a floor, chairs and things like that. It looks as if Madani was in a café, as five of those images are of people sitting on tables, probably clients asking him to take pictures of them. But the rest are faded, very dark images, or ones of a floor or furniture. After looking at it several times I realised that he was having a problem with his flash so the images I was talking about are from him testing the camera flash by directing it to the floor.

Is the photographer happy for you to go to his studio and look through his archives?

Of course he is happy, for two reasons: financially and for recognition. The Arab Image Foundation pays him for the copyright of any of his images that have been used and this is a good way to provide him with an income. The Foundation also takes care of other things like the insurance, even the rent of his studio. On the other hand he already has two publications of his work under his name. Also, when I make exhibitions of his work, he travels with me. He was at the Photographers Gallery in London, also in the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in France, and recently at The Caixa Forum in Barcelona.

You’ve worked on the Madani’s collection since 1999. It seems to me to be a long-term project, a work in progress. Why are you attracted to that collection? Is there something very special that has kept you working on it for a long time?

What attracted me first to Madani’s work was the life on a beach. He has great documents of beach life from the ’50s, which is a mainly male dominated space. It is a fascinating document, which I would love to revisit in the future. Some of those images were published in ‘Mapping Sitting’, interpreted through the work of itinerant photographer, and through his assigning of posture. We (me and Walid) were fascinated with the photographs’ ability to raise notions of leisure and public space. I would love to approach these images from another angle in the future. I would love to approach them as performative images, as I did in ‘Studio Practices’. For example there are images of male nudity, which is quite strange for Saida. These images are only accepted in a conservative society because they claim to be performative. But anyway, they are extremely beautiful documents of people having fun in front of the photographer, almost challenging the photographer, which I haven’t encountered before in the Arab world.

Madani is a quiet and calm person who doesn’t react to what is happening in front of him; maybe this is a part of his commercial wisdom not to react to what he sees but only to take pictures because this is how he makes money.

Did Madani take any nudes in his studio?

Well, he always says no, but one day I brought him a book as a gift. He started looking through it, until he came across an image of a nude woman breast-feeding a goat or a dog, I can’t remember it exactly. He stood up and went into his darkroom space where he spent about five minutes, after which he walked out with two small images of a nude woman.
Although he has confirmed before that he never took any nudes, this was a great discovery.

In one of your previous projects with the Cairo photographer Van Leo, you asked him about taking pictures of nudes, which he describes as demanding a level of intimacy with clients. Those kinds of pictures were only for personal use. So maybe this is the case with Madani, who simply keeps this part of his work concealed?

This is possible. What’s very interesting about Madani’s collection is that it deserves to be called an archive. Every single image that he took in his life is still there, including his first photographs using his box camera. What interests me in all that is that his collection becomes about his life, his business, and the city. There is a completeness to such a collection. This is why I tend to call it an archive. It makes it amazing raw material, waiting to be articulated into thought about photography, about people’s attitudes toward the camera, and about the life of a photographer. Madani is the ‘hero’ of the stories I will tell through his collection.

There are innumerable threads, stories, ideas waiting to be linked, waiting to be delivered. Besides, the photographer is still alive to describe his collection, and to testify to his time. In this context, every image in the archive is a meaningful image because it has the potential of carrying information about Madani’s way of work, even his photographic mistakes become valuable.

(Pause as a very loud sound of a helicopter is in the background)

Take for example the story I just told of Madani’s flash failure, leaving multiple images that were underexposed of the floor. Such a series, tracing that incident, tells us a lot about the development of photography, technology, and inevitably aesthetics, as photography is about depicting but also inscribing, even though it’s not the intention of the photographer. Another example would be the story of scratched negatives of a woman who visited the photographer without telling her husband. Then, the very jealous husband went to Madani, asking for the negatives, accusing the photographer of taking the pictures without his consent. The only way to calm the husband was to scratch the negatives with a pin and to make it irreproducible in the future. Inevitably the scratched negative gave the print another aesthetic value (besides a social and political one), that Madani wasn’t aware of. So these kinds of stories inform us of a lot. While researching this collection further, I also found some images of a woman with her husband walking on a promenade with her mother, and her sister. So, for example, this one story could become a never-ending project, and there are many more to play with.

It is like playing a detective.

Absolutely. And also as an artist 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. There is a learning process that is taking place, and I like projects that I learn through making them.

What will happen with Madani’s studio after his death? How about his collection? Would it be preserved as an archive and be kept for the future generations?

Most of the collection is now with the Arab Image Foundation. But I am not sure what will happen to his studio. I don’t know if the idea of some sort of museum would be of any use either. Who would visit it?