Akram Zataari: "Collecting is an art form"

March 2009 -

An old, battered black-and-white photograph. Judging by his uniform, the man is a soldier; the woman is probably a prostitute. That is all we know. Except that one day he smiled while lifting her dress, and she submissively looked towards the camera. It is one of the photographs from the archives of Lebanese artist Akram Zataari, who was in Amsterdam on 12 February 2009 as a guest at Felix Meritis in The Human Body Special edition of the programme Café Mediterranée. The old portraits and snapshots he showed differ significantly from the images we normally see from the Middle East. Prostitutes, scantily dressed young men in body-builder poses, and seductively dressed women in Western clothing.

Artist's model, early 20th century. Photo from the collection of Akram Zaatari

In addition to being a video artist, curator and photographer, Zataari is an 'archive artist'; he claims that collecting is an art form. He and a number of other individuals started the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), in which photographs from the Middle East are collected and archived, in 1996. Personally Zataari works to collect photographs made by photographer Hashem el Madani (1928), who claims to have taken pictures of ninety percent of the inhabitants of his home town Saida in his photography studio Shehrazade. Zataari collected Madani's photographs in a book, made videos of his work and reconstructed his studio down to the smallest details for expositions.

Madani receives part of the royalties because one of the objectives of the project is to improve his situation. Zataari's working method is like that of an archaeologist, he claims. His objective is not to distribute Madani's work. His aim is to study Madani's profession, his work environment and his clients. These are the aspects that give witness to the modern traditions and complicated social relationships in today's Lebanon.

Madani's photographs are actually his town's private archives. Before, during and after the civil war. Zataari: "I want to uncover and explore the entire context. And then show it from my own perspective. It would be silly to think that a collection is objective. The collector determines what is shown, and how it is shown."

In order to do that you need a key, according to Zataari. A perspective from which you approach a collection. He has successfully done so with Madani's photographs, but he is still looking for the 'key' to photographs by other photographers on display at Café Mediterranee. For the time being, these will remain fragments of lives, of an era, of a culture. In search of a context.