The Arab Image Foundation (AIF)—a private archiving initiative founded by a group of artists and collectors in 1997, and run through foreign and local grants—appears on the surface like the very antithesis of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (discussed in Part I of this article). While based in Beirut, the AIF holds a substantial collection of photographs from Egypt and represents an important model of archive and heritage-making in the region.
The AIF’s approach to preserving and curating its extensive photographic collection is highly professional. Its online database is well presented, described, and sourced. The author and source (provenance) of every image is acknowledged on the main website. Additional information about the technique and size of each photograph appears through the advanced search option once the viewer has registered on the website (registration is free). However, this online database is not entirely immune from criticism, most notably in how its search categories are constructed. Many of the categories are poorly chosen and seem to reflect the database-maker’s own research interests: categories such as “old woman,” “smiling,” or “frowning” are subjective. While information about photographic technique and artifact size is given, there is no indication of medium (e.g., carte postale, carte de visite, part of an album, loose mounted or unmounted print). Such information remains crucial to the social and cultural historian in order to understand the circulation and usage of any given photographic object. Photographs should, ideally, also be scanned with their edges visible. Cropping the edges of a photographic object strengthens its reading as a dematerialised “image,” as it denies a key feature of its “objectness.” In this particular context, cropping the photograph’s edges is one way the AIF translates a three-dimensional social object into a two-dimensional aesthetic text. Compared to the Library of Alexandria, however, and compared to the very poor archiving record of the region in general, the AIF database appears as a breath of fresh air. Despite its shortcomings, it was clearly conceived by archivists (or by artists and photographers who share the archivist and historian’s respect for the artifact) as well as for researchers.