Can Photography Archives Shape Our Heritage and Future Narratives?

Feature Essay

Can Photography Archives Shape Our Heritage and Future Narratives?

Photographic archives are an invaluable repository of memories and history, with each image serving as a portal to emotions, understanding, and knowledge from eras we never personally witnessed. These vaults of the past offer a deep connection for those who long to link with their ancestral roots. Through these visual time capsules, we glimpse the world we missed out on but can now embrace – a collective heritage accessible not only to researchers and historians but to all of us.

Whether you hunt down archival imagery in museums or dig through boxes hidden behind forgotten cupboards at home, discovering these photographic archives can help unite us with a shared past, preserving cultural heritage and creating connections within diaspora communities. More so, they can facilitate historical research and counter problematic stereotypes.

Basil Al-Rawi, the visionary behind the Iraq Photo Archive, embarked on a mission to create a platform for the Iraqi diaspora to share photos and narratives from their homeland. His passion for reviving the past and his dedication to passing it on to future generations mark a pivotal step in helping Iraqi youth connect with their heritage and identity. 

Al-Rawi’s journey into the world of archives and cultural preservation began with a single photograph, one that captured his father in Donegall in the late 1960s, in the northwest of Ireland.

This image, to Al-Rawi, symbolized adventure, an insight into stories of his father’s exploration of Ireland during his academic pursuits. It also catalyzed conversations about Iraq, which triggered his interest in personal archival photo collections and their significant role in safeguarding cultural heritage. Al-Rawi observed how these images prompted his father to reminisce, bridging the gap between a post-war Iraq and the Iraq of today. 

Motivated by this transformative experience, Al-Rawi began to collect his family’s photographs, accompanied by detailed descriptions. He urged the Iraqi diaspora to contribute their own photographs. 

Al-Rawi explains, “When we engage in conversations and document these personal recollections, they contribute not only to individual memory but also to the construction of collective memory, especially when shared.”

Al-Rawi firmly believes that these images should be activated. By activation, he means they should be shared, discussed, and put to use to initiate conversations. These conversations can have a healing effect and inspire people. On a personal level, he feels the family archives within homes can mirror what happens on a societal scale through various crowd-sourced exhibitions and collaborative initiatives.

He explains, “The idea behind the archive platform is to take an individual and personal practice within homes and expand it into a broader movement. It involves others engaging in similar conversations and sharing images – ultimately making a more profound impact within the community.”

Photographic archives can help unite us with a shared past, preserving cultural heritage and creating connections within diaspora communities

Assyrian colorectal surgeon, stroke comedian, and founder of the game-changing Middle Eastern Comedy Night “Weapons of Mass Hilarity”, Jenan Younis says looking through her family’s photographs impacted both her personal life and her comedy.

“Something that often irritates me about comedy from our region especially within the diaspora is to feed into Western audiences’ expectations of us. I’m not totally innocent of this, particularly my early days of comedy, but the approach is often to dwell on the negative connotations,” she says. 

Pictures, however, can tell a different story. “There is joy in the photographs: from the picnics in Babel celebrating Akitu (Assyrian New Year), to summer holiday trips in Hamadan. They serve as important reminders to me to ensure to incorporate the positive that is so often omitted, but also disbelieved,” she adds. 

An avenue Younis has noticed when posting old family photographs on Instagram is how important it is to share what you have, since you never know who might see it. “Sometimes sharing a photo means someone from the other side of the world in Chicago will reply with, ‘Hey, that woman is my aunt,’ and before you know it, you’ve found a distant cousin.”

History is kept safe and celebrated when archived – Younis knows this first hand as her uncle was a famed theater actor in Iraq named Romeo Yousif.  “I have an array of photographs from rehearsals and stage productions. These photographs aren’t just records of his achievements but they’re part of the history of contemporary Iraqi theater that has much wider relevance.”

Younis’s mission through comedy is to recalibrate people’s perceptions of the region, not just in the West, but even the wider diaspora communities. “The diversity in peoples and cultures is poorly known, and we have more to offer than just another comedy skit on overbearing parents, or the dodgy looks we get from wearing a rucksack on a train.”

“Archival photography is a powerful reminder to me of that aim, wherever I may be faced with a challenging audience where the easy route out to spark laughter is to resort to a stereotype. I do think it is possible to talk about (almost) anything on stage in a comedy routine if it comes from an authentic, personal, lived experience, but it certainly is easier said than done,” she explains. 

Personal photo archives and vernacular collections are instrumental in shaping collective memory and preserving diverse aspects of history and culture. Longing to see the historic beauty of now war-torn countries, Iraqi-Armenian photography enthusiast Mazin Al-Warith feels privileged to hear the tales of Iraq’s “Golden Era,’ but also feels the sadness of never being able to experience it first-hand, a sort of mixed emotion that archival photography can help alleviate.

“The stories came alive through photographs taken during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, offering me a precious look into a world that has long since vanished. In many ways, these photographs resembled pages from an ancient civilization’s history book, with one distinction — they preserved a unique moment in time that would not be forgotten. This is the magical power of photography,” he says.

In Al-Warith’s younger years, he “enjoyed flicking through our family photo albums, uncovering the stories of the people and places immortalized by a camera’s lens. A striking example was a photograph of my paternal grandfather, a man I never had the privilege to meet as he had died before my birth. Yet, there he stood, proudly, in the heart of Rome, at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier and the Colosseum.”

On his maternal lineage, he delved into photographs featuring his grandmother, an embodiment of elegance and glamor, both in her attire and her surroundings. As Al-Warith immersed himself in this visual narrative, he felt the shock from the boundless freedom and creativity that once thrived in Iraq. 

For many in our region, memories of a brighter past contrast with the complexities of today. The utilization of photographic archives emerges as a superpower available to all, whether it’s helping the diaspora connect to their roots or a healing mechanism for those who find it challenging to confront the past when it is so different today. Embracing and sharing these photographic archives can be a transformative emblem of change and connection.

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