Stephen Sheehi


On his book The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910

Cover Interview of May 23, 2017

In a nutshell

Arab Imago has a dual personality. It explores the undiscovered history of indigenista, or indigenous, photography of the Arab world. I am particularly interested in the earliest decades of photography, specifically, nineteenth and twentieth century studio portraiture in Arab, or, at least pre-1914, Ottoman photography.

Dedicated exclusively to native photography, the book offers new information about lesser known photographers from Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, such as Jurji Saboungi, the Kova Brothers, Garabed Krikorian, Khalil Raad, Muhammad Sadiq Bey, and Ibrahim Rif’at Pasha. The book also revisits and offers an original reading of well-known Ottoman photographers, who operated both in Istanbul and Cairo, such as Abdullah Frères and Pascal and Jean Sébah.

The book’s alternate personality is theoretical. It develops a theory of reading photography and shows how integral “non-Western” photography really is to the history of photography as a whole. A theory of reading portraiture, then, may be able to cross borders and boundaries and take into account the specificities of social, political, and visual histories of particular photographic practices.

Considering the mass of uncharted material, I chose to focus on photographic portraiture, mostly produced in the studies of Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. But the theoretical arc bridges a number of different genres of photography. While the book is dualistic, it is also integrated, and I would hope that readers see how the material and social history of photography in the Arab world can be read simultaneously as empirical and theoretical.