Studio Bella, Kasr El Nil street, Cairo. Photo by Paul Ayoub-Geday.

Working within the Egyptian state system as well as the independent art scene, Heba Farid is an artist and researcher actively engaged in the development and preservation of Egypt’s photographic tradition. In my extensive interview with her, Heba reflects on institutional structures and material challenges while struggling to preserve Egypt’s national photographic archives.

Shuruq: Based on our previous encounters, I wanted to talk to you about institutional structures in Egypt, and how you have been able to negotiate state- run institutions in relation to your concerns with national image archives as well as your active engagement with setting up independent run spaces that deal with various modes of image production and exhibition.

Take me back to 2004- could you give me a reading of the Egyptian artistic, photographic scenes in relation to the political and state structures that exited at that time? How did that impact or dictate the way Contemporary Image Collective (CiC) was initially set up?

Heba: In 2004, there was an absence of services, venues and a general lack of appreciation for the medium and practices of photography. The arts scene was clearly divided between a static governmental presence (and monopoly) and budding independent actors.

Our goal in creating CiC was to improve the conditions for image based work by creating a place/space for ideas and for production by supporting producers through education, production facilities, opportunities for exhibition, projects, workshops and critical discourse.

Working collectively as a board, and coming to decisions by consensus, made for many marathon meetings and email debates where all could contribute their opinions. Needless to say, much personal effort went into supporting the CiC project and moving it forward.

We had to think about and re-evaluate the kind of institutional structure that would work in our context. The idea was to establish an institution run by a board of practitioners, along the lines of a community activity, where various people would be involved on a political level with the creation of the institution and contribute directly to the development of its activities and programs as well as the capacity building of the staff that would run it. We would first set up the vision and then infuse the institution and staff with our broad range of knowledge and experience in the medium from several vantage points.

CiC’s board of trustees steers the institution – it is not a signature space run by an individual. This makes us unique in Egypt and also presents specific challenges, which has direct parallels to the nature of the context in which we live – the struggle to build consensus.

Sawrat el LOL, workshop at CiC. 2012

Shuruq: So then why not call the board a ‘collective’? Did the law restrict the operation of a space through a collective?

We briefly entertained the idea that CIC could be created as an NGO, with a general membership. We seriously considered and researched this possibility, creating it as a community set up, but NGO laws, and again, the nature of the context and idealistic collective activities would have put us at risk of ‘other forces’ taking it over. We wanted to safeguard the critical and international identity so that the institution would survive long after the founding board.

Shuruq: Who are you referring to when you say ‘other forces’?

Heba: Contextually, individuals were not used to working together, nor as a collective. What we are witnessing right now in the political scene in Egypt is an example of this phenomenon. Being democratic sometimes forces you to compromise in ways that change the end result of your work. The board has always been mindful of this. As a group made up of diverse practitioners we may not agree on everything together, but at least we speak a similar language, a contemporary one, and we are not willing to negotiate down from there.

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Darkroom workshop at CiC, 2011.

Shuruq: Why do you think foreign funders were eager to support CiC, even though it was a young initiative?

Heba: At the moment of its creation, it was an interesting time both within the scene and the way funders were working. Creating CiC was a deliberate act as the opportunity for support arose.

Foreign funders historically supported private individuals who had good ideas, projects, and initiatives. The independent scene was not very developed then; there were a few personalities producing good work. A few years later, there was a switch in the motives of the funding bodies that began to fund and support the creation of spaces, centers, and institutions.

With regards to the effects of NGO structures, funding, and the cultural policies of foreign donors, the question always arose “why are they interested in funding outside their region?” As funding towards Egyptian art and cultural spaces usually comes out of their foreign offices. These politics played out in the structure of the initiatives they supported. So it always had something to do with how the “West views the East”. With the financial crisis came another set of challenges, and we owe a lot to cultural representatives who fought hard to maintain their governments’ support for our local initiatives.

Shuruq: You have been dedicated to the question of archives in Egypt through your work with The Photographic Memory of Egypt (PME) program, which falls under the umbrella of the Center for Documentation of Culture and Natural Heritage’s (CULTNAT 2000 Library). As I understand it, The Photographic Memory of Egypt program works on digitizing private and institutional archives, as well organize public exhibitions.

Just so that I have a better understanding of the context- is there a national Egyptian photographic archive located in CULTNAT or is it dispersed across different institutions?

Heba: The status of photography archives in Egypt presents a lot of unknowns. A museum for photography does not exist and there is no dedicated gallery (even CiC for that matter) except the Sony Gallery at AUC that shows historic works. Yet many different photographic treasures spread all over the country have been discovered through a number of individuals who have a specific interest in, or historical knowledge of, the field.

Within the private sector, there is a significant market in heritage objects, including flee markets for historic photography. Sources of materials come from the leftovers of families through their heirs who discard what has been left behind. Other sources on the market are from institutions, sadly, that have been looted systematically over the years. The heritage traders often come across “finds” and frequent auctions to stock materials.

Aside from researchers constantly on the look out for source materials, there are a handful of people whom I would consider serious local collectors of photography. Distressingly, the local market for photograph collections is quite limited, and so much is bought by foreign collectors and is sent outside of the country. Business is business, and traders always need to make money, so they sell to unnamed Arab Gulf country collectors. This leaves us in a position where we do not know much about what we have, and even less about what we have lost.

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Reading History , exhibition detail. Co-curated by Heba Farid and Paul Ayoub-Geday, CULTNAT, 2010.

Shuruq: What kind of photographic materials are we talking about here?

Heba: The material is made up of documentary and commissioned images, studio portraits, postcards, group portraits of schools or professional associations, some collections are in relation to a specific family or political presence, and others act as documents of a particular industry like agriculture, medicine, or physical or human geography.

Shuruq: Are there any specialized collectors?

Heba: Very few people collect photographers’ work. The state, and by extension the educational system, does not recognize this at all. This is why there is no university level course on the history of photography in Egypt. Aside from a few general 20th century history books, some foreign researchers such as Lucie Ryzova have focused their research on specific photographers. The only book, Maria Golia’s “Photography and Egypt” published in 2011, is the first attempt to document Egypt’s relationship to the medium holistically. Otherwise, there is very limited focused research being done locally on the subject. This is where CULTNAT’s Photographic Memory of Egypt comes in.

Shuruq: How was CULTNAT established?

Heba: CULTNAT, was a private project that was started by the former cultural diplomat Dr Fathi Saleh. He realized the potential for the application of information technology in the documentation of the cultural heritage of Egypt, in all its forms. Coming from an IT perspective rather than research, and applying this to the cultural world, CULTNAT was hailed as cutting edge. Due to affiliations with the government, CULTNAT was able to pull financial resources from different ministries banking on the IT idea, which continues until this day through support from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT). It is not about culture, it’s about how a country can demonstrate its IT skills and provide a badly needed service for its national heritage. By attaching itself to the Library of Alexandria in 2003, CULTNAT further formalized and secured its annual funding and administration.

Shuruq: How did you develop the vision for the Photographic Memory of Egypt program?

Heba: The vision for the Photographic Memory program at CULTNAT was developed from the need to document Egypt’s photography history formally, and coming from an academic approach, to promote the photograph as a material artifact, not just a document for the time, place and subject of the image, but also for the awareness of the photographer’s agency, the author of the work; basically, an analysis of photography as a medium and as a profession – the construction and dissemination of the image.

A structural vision for the program also had to be developed to secure an institutional mechanism to ensure the survival of this kind of work. So we first had to ask basic questions — what are our institutional interests, which archives are we interested in collecting? How do we manage a digital archive and provide access to it? What are our criteria for the documentation of these collections and amassing historical research in conjunction with it?

By extension, the work became a two-way task. On the one hand, it consisted in research and archive building for CULTNAT, and on the other, it became an opportunity to help archive holders (institutions) take care of their own material collections and potentially open them up to the public. The potential was for them to learn how to take care of their holdings, to preserve them better, and for us to have the opportunity to obtain digital copies for our archive and develop the associated historical data.

Shuruq: What is the public impact that you hope to achieve through your vision and practice?

Heba: A large part of the public impact of what we do, potentially, lies in helping people to read their collections. Questions like who created this image? Who paid for it? How was it being disseminated, what was its end purpose and what is its impact now?

For example, the Lehnert and Landrock collection has been the most accessed, circulated and consumable images of Egypt. Pirated copies have clearly been taken from digital images; most are pixilated, unsanctioned copies, which now are available in the touristic market. Society, Egyptians and foreigners alike, consume these images nostalgically, without understanding them. Many interesting problems emerged around this collection due to its proliferation and subsequent use and misuse. Various collections, once they were publically viewable, would provide a more holistic view of Egypt’s past – its society, its geography, its industries, as a nation, which would help counter the self-stereotyping Egyptians generally fall into time and again. It would help support the hypothesis that Egypt is in fact a pluralistic and diverse country, which in turn can improve the understanding of our present, which is especially critical now.

On Photography…at Studio Viennoise, exhibition detail.Wedding portraits from 1978 color negatives, Studio Antro, Cairo. Co-curated by Heba Farid and Paul Ayoub-Geday, photo by CULTNAT, 2012.

Shuruq: How does the practice of PME navigate private collections in relation to the bigger questions of the national archive? What have been some of the challenges?

Heba: Private collections are a particular challenge, in that collectors are anxious when dealing with the government. Because of a lack of transparency regarding the current applicable heritage laws, most collectors guard their collections from confiscation. Collectors are also not accustomed to collaboration, meaning the access to, and use of, their collections for scholarly or commercial applications. They hold their collections tightly, hoping to commercially exploit them without knowing how, or to enhance their social status by becoming the “keepers of knowledge”.

In order to cultivate trust and provide the grounds for collaboration with a governmental institution, like CULTNAT, the PME program had to do the research and develop the rules for such engagements, hence, the development of policies in regards to intellectual property and copyrights for the exploitation of materials.

This process currently in the works is something we are spearheading. It’s just a matter of time before we will have the tools, the structural mechanisms, to be able to work with private collectors officially and professionally, hopefully for the betterment of both parties and the public at large.

Shuruq: Would you be able to outline some of the institutional/structural problems that faced CULTNAT during the Mubarak regime? Have some of these problems been addressed or are you facing totally new challenges under the new government?

Heba: Formerly, the GOE (Government of Egypt) was not as interfering as it is now, i.e. before 25th January 2011. Ironically, we have been under tighter scrutiny in the last two years or so. An immediate reaction to the Jan 25 revolution in relation to my work at CULTNAT, was the recognition that the country’s photographic resources could be employed in showing the “plurality and diversity” of the Egyptian society, as I stated before. It seems that this is most crucial now. Over the past two years, however, governmental interference has taken the form of increased financial auditing and monitoring past exploitation of financial and photographic resources. Rules are tighter, more bureaucratic and tend to restrict the normal fluidity of our workflow, which reduces our efficiency. So things take a really long time to happen and much justification has to be made in front of administrators who do not understand our research aims. Since June 2012, there have been serious questions about the vision of the MB regime as it pertains to culture, history and society. The situation up until now has been very frustrating and disappointing. There was a lot more leniency in the past, perhaps for the wrong reasons. What is needed now is real reform, but within the current political situation, priorities are on financial survival, not structural change. Rules that were ignored in the past are resurfacing and their implementation is stricter.

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On Photography…at Studio Viennoise, exhibition detail. Works by Studio Antro, Cairo, and vitrine showing works from various studios in Egypt. Co-curated by Paul Ayoub-Geday and Heba Farid, CULTNAT, 2012. Photo by Medrar.TV.

Shuruq: While touring the exhibition “On Photography, at Studio Viennoise” in November of 2012, it was quite clear that there was an emphasis on the diversity and multi-ethnicity of the Egyptian cultural heritage — there were portraits of Moslems, Christians, Armenians amongst others. The exhibition also highlighted the openness and multiculturalism of Egyptian society in the past. One could read the exhibition as a response to the increased factional discourse and cultural insularism. Would you like to comment on this?

Heba: Exactly. Egypt’s photographic resources could be employed in showing the “plurality and diversity” of Egyptian society, something we, the curators, Paul Ayoub-Geday and myself, received so much support for from our audience during the exhibition. It was perhaps the first time that such as exhibition has been viewed by the public. “On Photography” represented roughly two years worth of research. Initially, the exhibition was constructed around the themes of producers and consumers of photography. However, due to various institutional reasons, some of which I highlighted previously, we decided that the end result featured only the producer’s portion of the material. Regardless, it was a great start. At first, the producers, basically studio photographers from 1910 to the present in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, were cautiously enthusiastic to participate, but once they saw the end result, I believe they were more supportive. It’s rare that anyone has taken interest in their work, or their stories for that matter, and has presented their work in a professional context. From the point of view of the audience, visitors were positively surprised by the richness of the content. The entire exhibition provided many layers of information about both social history and photographic practice.

A significant concept we employed was that of the “living museum/exhibition”, whereby the exhibition continuously developed by adding new material. A performative aspect was at the center of it – namely a working photographic studio. Not only did visitors see displays of work, they also participated in the making of portraiture by sitting for one of ten photographers we had working in the “portrait studio by appointment” that was set up in the heart of the exhibition. Actually, the whole exhibition was choreographed to somehow address the act of photography by re-creating parallels to a functioning belle-époque photo studio.

On Photography…at Studio Viennoise, exhibition detail. Works by Selim Yousef, Cairo. Co-curated by Paul Ayoub-Geday and Heba Farid, CULTNAT, 2012.

Shuruq: To end our conversation, I would like to quickly touch on the digital archives of the January 25 revolution. Various archival initiatives have emerged in Egypt to preserve the revolution images since they mostly exist online, and thus are at risk of being lost. I know that you are not directly involved in these projects but I am wondering in what ways the material and digital archival practices inform one another especially in light of the current political situation?

Heba: There always seems to be an “urgency” to preserve, and yet, there still exists the unconscious policy of disregard (interesting that the word is dis-‘regard’ [from French, meaning ‘not’ to look]).

There was indeed a ‘mad rush’ after the January 25th revolution for building such archives, and many institutions and individuals rushed forward to proclaim their “comprehensiveness” of the subject, the authoritative source on the revolution. Of course, I am sure, that as time passed, those engaged in that activity have quickly learned that comprehensiveness is an impossible goal, as they faced basic structural questions like how to manage their material. I am only slightly aware of how these initiatives continue to develop themselves. Most are IT related projects, concerned with the technical aspects of engaging politically with society. They are meant to be informative tools, interactive in some cases. As in all archive projects, there will be periods of activity and then quiet times, technical obstacles and tests concerning relevancy and re-readings and re-designing protocols.

If I compare the historical material archive and its frame of reference and protocols with contemporary archives such as these archives about the revolution, both have similar end results – they are collections of materials and data that need to be exploited in the good sense of the word. They need to be understood thus researched, studied, contextualized and decontextualized, published and thus widely accessed and viewed. This suggests a curatorial or academic activity that would make the archives useful and produce something else in return. So the main challenge for all of us remains, how to activate the archive in a way that allows the material to have other lives. This seems even more urgent during such critical times. In the end, archives are memory projects that reflect, and even safeguard our identity. And naturally with time, we will need to be reminded loudly.

Many of the revolution archive initiatives began as activism projects, but archiving is hard work. So I look forward to see what comes out of all of this collected data, images and testimonials, and the potential engagement they open up in the future.

Published October 7, 2013.