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A woman posing wearing a short jumpsuit from the

Preserving Photographic Traditions in the Middle East and North Africa

The Akkasah Center for Photography at NYUAD focuses both on maintaining a record of photography in the region and promoting scholarly research on photography.

Mar 2, 2019

The Akkasah Center for Photography is largely unknown among students on campus, but its contributions to NYU Abu Dhabi and the Middle East are significant. Founded in the last five years, Akkasah has grown to become one of the few research-focused photography archives in the Middle East, and the second largest archive devoted to family photography in the region.
Associate Professor of Literature and Art History Shamoon Zamir is Akkasah’s founder and Director, working closely with Özge Calafato, who is Project Manager. They joined Akkasah together with hopes of contributing something different to the region.
“I think one of the most exciting things was to have this possibility to build something from scratch,” Calafato stated. “We still plan new things and come up with new ideas, and I think that is one of the good things about the UAE. You have all these possibilities that other places may not offer you.”
Both Calafato and Zamir agreed that preserving the rich photographic traditions of the Middle East is Akkasah’s priority, especially during recent periods of rapid transformation in this region.
Zamir elaborated on this imperative, focusing on maintaining a publicly available body of photographs. “There’s this sense of urgency either because many collections are disappearing into private collections, which makes them inaccessible generally to the public, or they are being destroyed.”
Preserving photographs from the Arab world is especially important as many of the photographic traditions from the region — while artistically and culturally rich — remain largely undocumented. Akkasah catalogues its collections on the item level, in that team members assign descriptive tags to each item within a collection. The team additionally stress complete accessibility to its collections, a goal not shared by many other individuals and institutions in the area.
“It is really important for [NYUAD] to try and make the case that we are not just a fly-by-night American institution, we are a local Abu Dhabi university and we want to be here for a long time,” Zamir explained stressing the importance of Akkasah’s interrelation with NYUAD.
“But in order to be here for a long time, doing research just on Shakespearean sonnets is not the right thing to do. I mean that’s fine to do, but it is important that we contribute to the culture of the region and of the UAE in particular.”
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Lifeboats, Al Jaddaf from The Edge Collection. Courtesy of the Akkasah: Center for Photography, AD _ MC _ 021 _ ref1.
Akkasah hopes to further integrate the student body into its progress as an institution.
“There is a lot to be done in terms of student involvement,” Calafato stated.
The archive offers five to six student assistantships each semester where students can help catalogue photographs from the Akkasah archive. Apart from working in Akkasah, students are encouraged to use the Akkasah collections to do research on the region in the Center.
Akkasah collects its photos from various flea markets, families, organizations and public figures in the region. Students can contribute relevant family photographs to the collection. In its early stages, Akkasah received a collection from an Emirati student’s family who allowed her family’s photographs to be catalogued. This was one of the first times a family collection of photography has gone public in the UAE, making it a significant accomplishment for the Center.
Recently, Akkasah published the Zaki Nusseibeh Collection composed of various photographs taken during Zaki Nusseibeh’s time working with Sheikh Zayed. The willingness of Emiratis to share their personal photographs with Akkasah is a symbol of the nation’s trust for the university. For Zamir, this is one of the most important things about the Center, and enrichment of Emirati culture remains a priority.
“Slowly, doors are opening. We hope in getting the trust of local people... I think we can show them what we do on the website and how respectfully we do it, and so on. I think that the website has made a huge difference,” Zamir stated.
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A Turkish barber shop in Constantinople from the Turkey Collection. Courtesy of the Akkasah: Center for Photography, AD _ MC _ 007 _ ref515.
Zamir and Calafato are currently in the process of reapplying for funding for the Center, and as they wait for an answer, they are reflecting on Akkasah’s contributions to the broader community. The two stressed the importance of the library as a large part of their success and support over the last several years. The pair expressed the importance of establishing Akkasah as a lasting NYUAD institution that will outlive each of them with a legacy of becoming nationally and internationally known.
Professor Zamir made some final comments on the future of Akkasah, “One of the things we want to do now, moving forward, is to take it beyond that to see if we can get more people from NYU involved in the Akkasah project, students as well. Now we have something to show. Four years ago we had nothing to show, just an idea. Then we’ve slowly built it up, and it’s working.”
Emily Broad is a Photography Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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