Stephen Sheehi


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

Cover Interview of May 24, 2017


I believe the implications of Arab Imago are potentially far-reaching, but depend on the field in which it is read. Within Middle East Studies, the book explores the uncharted history of indigenous “Arab” photography, solidly engaging particular photographers as representative of certain practices and certain formalistic features and expressive of important social conditions, realities, and transformations. It locates photography as a social and commercial practice, with political, economic, and cultural effects within the late Ottoman Empire.

Within the larger field of photography studies and visual culture, I do believe that reading the “manifest” and “latent” content of indigenista photography reaches across a number of geographies, traditions, and temporalities. I would like to think that the Arab Imago interrogates the Eurocentric nature of the history of photography, projecting all forms of “non-Western” photography as derivative tributaries to the main source in France and England. Without discounting the power and violence of Orientalist and colonial photography, I hope to show that local photographic practices in the Middle East operated within their own particular contexts even though these contexts are always caught in imperialism’s gravitational pull.

My hope for the Arab Imago is that it will inspire explorations into indigenista photography of the Arab world, and that it will encourage a conversation not only with European and American scholars of photography, but also with scholars of Asian, African, and South American photography. It is only through this truly collective discussion that we can really understand the true nature, hues, and complexities of the history of photography.