Photographs act both as a memory box and a time machine, opening doors into the past which can shape who we are in the present and direct our path in the future.
They visually document all aspects of life and unsurprisingly, during moments of deep connection, we turn to the camera to record the fleeting. The vernacular archives of family photo albums are particularly abundant with these kinds of images. When we look at these preserved expressions of love, the emotion can be rekindled.
One image that embodies this for me is of my father and his classmates carefully studying the rocks in their hands in geology class, in Iraq in the Sixties. I can vividly recall my father’s deep passion for his vocation, and how he always found an opportunity to tell me about how ‘we could see time in the layers of rock’, and how they spoke of where we stood in the timeline of this planet. This picture fills me with pride, love, and understanding.
I look beyond the photos I know intimately and consider the value they hold for those that shared them with the archive, and think they must provoke similar feelings. A photograph of someone’s mother being held by their uncle, her young smile beaming directly down the lens at us, as her older brother holds her aloft with one hand, his face a picture of pride. The fragility and preciousness of the original photograph etched into the scan; the creases and wrinkles that erode the analogue print now embalmed digitally.
The familial is the clearest commonality that emerges across the collection. A wedding reception in Al Mansour with Grandparents and an Aunt captured mid-dance, an image brimming with the energy of hands clapping and joyous smiles, the slight blur of the photo speaks of the vigour in the room and adds more movement to this already effervescent scene.
A woman on her honeymoon, sitting on the bank of the Euphrates gazing out at her husband's hometown of Rawa half submerged by the river, palm trees rising out of the water like fountains paused in flight. An image depicting a story I’d heard growing up, yet never seen; a shared history brought to the surface, not unlike palm trees rising above the water line. Unsurprisingly, the iconic palm recurs across the collection, like ever present guardians of time.
In a wonderfully tinted image from 1978, two friends cooly recline on the bonnet of their car, taking a moment to pause and record their weekend trip, the palms of Tarmiyah hosting another moment of friendship. In Kerbala, the palms observe two young cousins at Eid, locked in a moment of movie playacting, their faces a picture of pure delight.
When I was 8 years old, when my Baba gave me my first camera: a small Halina point-and-click 35mm, a gift that immediately instilled a love for photography which forged my vocation. I photographed my family as I grew up, capturing not only the special occasions, but perhaps more importantly, the candid moments of daily life that can be lost to the sands of time.
This love for photography was in the genes; both my Mum and Dad valued preserving memories in this way and as a result we have a wonderful record of family life to reflect on. During one of these moments of reflection, I aksed about all the photographs he took from before my time. This was when he revealed his cache of photo albums.
I was captivated by these images from a past I never knew but also of a country I had never visited. Through these photographs he told me stories about his childhood and about Iraq, and I started to learn not only about his personal history, but also my identity and the history of the country. Being half-Iraqi and raised in Ireland, my impressions of my family’s homeland had been affected by western media coverage, which was at odds with the narratives I knew from my father. So began a process of discovery, an ongoing search for more images which could give balance to this other visual landscape, to bring forth everyday narratives which define the history and culture of the people of Iraq.
I began to search for photographs of Iraq and found many online archives with collections from the early 20th century, such as The Gertrude Bell archive and holdings at the Library of Congress. They show Iraq at a moment in time, pre-modernity, pre-oil industry, with traditional ways of life depicted. Many of these images were of course taken with a colonial lens and come with their own politics, but they nonetheless represent an important visual ethnographic record of this period of Iraqi history. Latif Al-Ani’s collection of photographs from the 1950s-1970s provide an incredible reference point of this period of modern Iraqi history, however I longed to find more vernacular images of everyday life in Iraq from before 1980s, before the years of major conflict, taken by ordinary Iraqis. Concurrently, I was experimenting with reconstructing in 3D an archive image of the bitumen fires (often called “eternal flames”) at the Baba Gurgur oil field near Kirkuk. This 3D simulation allows a virtual exploration of a photographic moment, creating a virtual bond with the past.
That’s when I decided to create the Iraq Photo Archive as part of my practice-based PhD research at The Glasgow School of Art, in the first instance, as a means of curating a unique archive of vernacular photographs from Iraqi diaspora. This focus on the diaspora is as a result of my own frame of reference, as an Irish-Iraqi.
I began this project with photographs from my father’s photo albums and started spreading the word, unsure but excited about what I might see. I’ve been incredibly humbled by the love and support for this project from Iraqi’s across the world, and the images that flowed into the collection present an evocative record of everyday life across generations. Submissions have generally come from the second generation of diaspora, perhaps with a similar longing for identity and love for their culture, the same desire to see and hear Iraqi stories told by Iraqis. The archive gives agency to this.
The second phase of the project involves gathering narratives about the photographs, and where possible, from those who were either in the photo or took the photo. The aim is to record the stories behind these moments, those things unrepresentable in photographs, such as sounds, smells and feelings. Some of these will become voice-over narrations within virtual reconstructions of selected images from the archive. These simulations will be housed within a virtual reconstruction of a traditional Shanasheel house.
The private house seems like the perfect space to create a home for these personal memories; an environment that people can navigate and encounter objects, images and narratives that kindle conversations, as it would in real life. Of course there is a dual function here too, as by creating a virtual Shanasheel there is a process of digital reconstruction and preservation at play. The photographic archive in this instance serves to facilitate this act of recovery and preservation.
Something I was unprepared for with this project, was the sense of anticipation with every submission received, the excitement of another image to add to this collective visual history and in turn a door opening into a whole new set of narratives. Stories not immediately familiar yet which evoke a sense of affinity, of intimacy, of shared experience, of love. The archive itself is not only an act of recognition, remembrance and preservation; it is a site of excavation and reconstruction.
About the Artist
Basil Al-Rawi is a visual artist working with photography, moving images, and simulation, creating works concerned with the landscapes of memory, identity, politics, and socio-economic traumas. In 2019 he received a scholarship from the Glasgow School of Art and SGSAH to pursue PhD research at the School of Simulation and Visualisation. His practice-based research project is concerned with utilising archive photographs, audio-visual oral histories, and Virtual Reality to explore the creative reconstruction of vernacular photographic moments and associated memories from Iraqi diaspora.