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With or without a camera: Latif Al-Ani’s Iraq

Considering how the unusual, eventful history of Al-Ani’s archive and photographic practice bears an essential and yet paradoxical witness to the recent history of Iraq.
By Catherine David | Feb 2016

For the readers of newspapers and magazines who have sadly become accustomed to images of checkpoints, barricades, soldiers and the burnt out remains of car bombs, and for the visitors and young Iraqis who knew nothing of pre-war Iraq (neither Iranian nor Gulf conflicts), Latif Al-Ani’s images recreate another world, one that has since disappeared - violently erased from the map - but one that is still fresh in his memory, and one to which at times, it seems that he has chosen to retire.

Whether sitting at a table in Haywar, the café-gallery of Qasim Sebti, or in the nearby offices of the Society of Photographers (that he helped to establish), Latif Al-Ani scrolls through the scans that remain from his archive (now held at the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut), on a computer screen. Revisiting them, he tirelessly recounts tales to his audiences, from what appears - to today’s collective conscience - as Iraq’s belle-époque: the years from the end of the 1950s, until 1979, when Saddam Hussein seized power.

Through his work in the petrol industry with the Iraqi Petroleum Magazine in the 50s, and then later across the rest of the country, he accompanied, and very systematically documented the planned modernisation of Iraq’s economy and society - in schools and offices, and in fields and factories. He also witnessed the changes that took place in Baghdad, as it was transformed by the projects of great architects such as Kahtan al Madfai and Rifaat Chadirji, or of artists like Jawad Selim.

His images form part of a defence and an illustration of Iraqi culture - in all its diversity and complexity - that resonate cruelly today: the Mesopotamian antiquities and traditional dwellings, the hubbub of marketplaces and urban pastimes - picnics and mazgouf on the banks of the Tigris, maqam concerts, or even the little boutiques and cafes of Muntanabi and Rachid Street.

However, his coverage of the political sphere (official voyages, inaugurations, parades and speeches), for the Iraqi News Agency offers another perspective on those very same years, depicting the forms and figures of political power, but also the early glimpses of the shadows lurking in the decor of these golden years…

Whilst it is always difficult to believe a photographer who assures you he is not going to take any more pictures, Latif Al-Ani officially broke away from his work in 1979. Such a radical decision has no real equivalent in the history of photography, and thus stands out as a personal response to the lived dramas of his country and its citizens, but also as a metaphor of their shared tragedy. Consequently, Latif Al-Ani lived through Iraq’s terrible years of war and destruction with his eyes open, but his lens closed.

In this way, we are left to consider how the unusual, eventful history of Al-Ani’s archive and photographic practice bears an essential and yet paradoxical witness to the recent history of Iraq.

Catherine David

Curator, art historian. Deputy Director and Head of Global Outreach for the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. David was Artistic Director of Documenta X, 1997.

© Text: Catherine David and the Prince Claus Fund
Published in the 2015 Prince Claus Awards Book, an annual publication on the year’s laureates.

© Photos: Courtesy the artist, the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) and Ruya Foundation

In 2015, the Prince Claus Fund honoured Latif Al-Ani and 10 more artists for their pioneering work in culture and development.

Prince Claus Awards Committee:
Latif Al-Ani was awarded for creating an extraordinarily rich and multi-layered archive of unique historical images of Iraqi society; for providing Iraqis and the world with an essential memory bank that bears witness to the modern, prosperous and forward-looking country Iraq was before the devastation of the Gulf War; and for his leadership in the development of documentary photography in Iraq.

Prince Claus Fund

Herengracht 603
1017 CE Amsterdam

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