• Leo Van ©

Nazar - A look back

The exhibition in the Museum Het Princessehof is entirely devoted to historic photography. The photographs shown here, made chiefly in the first half of the 20th century and coming from both Arab and Western archives and museums, show a society which appears closer to Western norms than many would expect.

For a long time in the Arab world, photography was something done by Westerners. From the beginning of the medium, European adventurers produced exotic and romantic images of the region, which found ready sales in the West. Photographers such as the Austrian/Swiss pair Lehnert & Landrock - active in the first half of the 20th century - further developed the work of these pioneers. They too pictured the Arab world as a paradise that was not yet contaminated with modernism.

After the Second World War Western photography continued to define the image. For instance, under instructions of the French colonial authorities Marc Garanger produced identification photos of Algerian women, who were forced to remove their veils for them. Kryn Taconis focused on the other side of the story. The only Dutch Magnum photographer ever travelled secretly to Algeria to record the guerrilla war against the occupying French troops.

In all that time, it appeared that there was nothing that could be called Arab photography. The Egyptian studio photographer Van Leo gained considerable renown for his Hollywood- inspired portraits, but for decades was an exception. Only in the mid-1990s, with the founding of the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), did this begin to change. This organisation seeks to fill the gap in Arab history by collecting photographs that Arabs made of their own situation.

The collection of the AIF, assembled from the whole Arab region, consists to a large extent of family albums. Exhibitions are constructed from these, which are to be a counterweight to the image that was painted by the West for almost a century. In this way the AIF - still an unique Arab initiative - seeks to recover its own photographic history for the Arab world.