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Palestinian Photographers before 1948

Highlight
Palestinian Photographers before 1948
Documenting Life in a Time of Change

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Photography is a very recent art form and profession. In addition to offering artists a new tool for creativity, it also provided a way of preserving scenes from life, by using a “mirror with a memory”—a camera lens—to document people, places, and events. From the moment it was invented, photography opened up new possibilities for archaeologists, natural and social scientists, and journalists. As a result, it was quickly adopted across the globe, including through Palestine, the Ottoman Levant, and Egypt. Palestine was one of the first places outside Europe to which photography spread: it arrived in 1839, the same year that French artist Louis Daguerre announced its invention.

Several hundred photographers visited Palestine during the nineteenth century, mostly Europeans interested in photographing holy sites connected to events in the Old and New Testament. It was not long before photography was picked up locally. Around 1860, a school for teaching photography was established in Jerusalem, in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. The founder was an Armenian amateur photographer named Yessai Garabedian, a priest who had moved to the city from Anatolia to become the archivist at St. James Armenian Church. He was soon elected Patriarch of the Holy City, which prevented him from continuing to pursue his hobby, so he decided to teach photography to sons of the city’s Armenian community. Over the following two decades, this school produced many of the first local photographers in Palestine and the Levant, including Toumayan and Haladjian. The atelier’s most important student was likely Garabed Krikorian, who opened a studio in Jerusalem in 1885; it was the first photography studio in Palestine. Krikorian then trained Khalil Raad, who opened a rival studio in the 1890s and became the first Arab photographer in Palestine to gain renown across the country.

Alongside Raad and Krikorian, Swedish photographer Lewis Larsson (1881– 1958) also founded a photography atelier in Jerusalem in 1898. Larsson’s atelier was within a utopian society called the American Colony, and it produced several famous photographers, including Palestinian-born American photographer John Whiting (1882–1951) and Swedish photographer Eric Matson (1888–1971). Many individuals who worked at the atelier would go on to become some of Palestine’s most important photographers. These included the Albina brothers, Najib (1901–83) and Jamil, who later became archaeological site photographers for the Palestine Archaeological Museum, which was founded by the British Mandate authorities in Jerusalem. Jerusalem photographer Hanna Safieh (1910–79) had his beginning at the American Colony’s atelier as well, before he moved on to open his own studio and become one of the most important photographers in Palestine and Jordan. Militad Savides also opened his own studio in the city in the late nineteenth century, as did Zionist photographer Yehoshua Rafalovich in 1895. Although Rafalovich’s studio did not exist for long, by the first decade of the twentieth century other Jewish immigrants had begun to take up the profession, too.

Photography as a profession spread widely throughout Jerusalem during the first half of the twentieth century, and several Armenian and Arab photographers gained prominence. One of these was Hanna Toumayan, who worked in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century and specialized in portraiture. His photographs show clients wearing a variety of different attires, including Bedouin garb and traditional clothing of the Ramallah and Bethlehem areas.

In addition to those mentioned above, Anton Mikhail Karmi and his brother Joseph also worked as professional photographers in Jerusalem. They were official photographers for the Russian Church but ceased working in the city after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Armenian photographer Elia Kahwajian also began working in Jerusalem in 1924, fleeing to the city from Turkey after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Kahwajian apprenticed with Krikorian and Toumayan and then worked in the Hanania brothers’ studio—they owned a shop on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem that sold photography materials—until 1940, when he opened his own studio. Kahwajian became known for his photographs of rural and urban daily life in Palestine during that period. He photographed men playing backgammon or standing next to a well, the Jaffa Port and the Friday market there, and the citrus harvest eason. Ali Za'rur , a Jerusalem photographer who apprenticed with the Hanania brothers, may have been the first Muslim professional photographer in the city. Za'rur worked as a documentary photographer for the British Mandate authorities and as a photojournalist for the Associated Press from the occupation of the Old City in 1967 until his death several years later.

Other Arab photographers also worked in Jerusalem during the Mandate period. Among them was David Abdu, who excelled in artistic studio photography by manipulating the printing process so that a subject appeared in multiple positions in the same photograph. After the Nakba, he moved his photography practice to Beirut. His sister worked with him in the studio; she hand-colored the photographs and may have also taken some of them. Samaan Sahhar was another photographer from Jerusalem. He worked in the city during the Mandate period and then moved to Bethlehem after the Nakba, because his studio was in the no-man’s land between the two parts of the divided city. Armenian photographer Krikor Ishkhanian also opened a photography studio on Jaffa Street in the city, before moving to a location on al-Khanqah Street in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem when the city was divided after the Nakba.

In addition to Jerusalem, photographers worked in other cities across Palestine. Jaffa-born Issa Sawabini (b. 1875) opened a studio there near the end of the nineteenth century, after learning photography in Russia while studying dentistry there. Photographer Daoud Sabonji also worked in Jaffa; he opened his own studio there in the same decade. Photography flourished in Haifa, Nazareth, and Bethlehem too, before spreading across the rest of the country.

Karimeh Abbud is worth particular mention; she was the first female professional photographer in the region and opened her own photography studio in her home in Bethlehem. Abbud was born in 1894, the daughter of Reverend Said Abbud, and moved with him to Bethlehem when he became the Lutheran priest of the city. It is believed that she learned photography from an Armenian photographer from Jerusalem whose name is unknown. Abbud started working as a photographer in 1913; she started off coloring photographs and then began taking them herself. Being a woman allowed her to photograph women from Bethlehem in her studio freely and enabled them to have their pictures taken in a way that seemed appropriate to the city’s conservative standards. Abbud became so well known that women from Gaza, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa started coming to her to have their photographs taken. It is clear from Abbud’s work that she worked in several cities in Palestine, including Tiberias, Haifa, and Qisarya. Abbud died in 1940, and for a long time her name was forgotten. She is not mentioned in any research about photography in Palestine and the Levant until her work was rediscovered in 2006.

Several other photographers also worked in Bethlehem. Prominent among them were Zakariya Abu Fheileh (1885–1951); Yousef Shamieh, who founded a studio called Middle Eastern Photographers Company in 1942; and Samaan Sahhar, who moved to Bethlehem from Jerusalem in 1948 when his studio was included in what became no-man’s land in the divided city. Some of them had learned photography from Armenian photographers in Jerusalem or at other studios in the city. Youssef Kaddoura opened the first photography studio in Ramallah in 1935, naming it Studio Mai, after his daughter. Kaddoura had also apprenticed with an Armenian photographer in Jerusalem. Photography spread widely in Gaza after the Nakba, because many photographers fled there from Jaffa and other areas Israel occupied at the time. Armenian photographer Hrant Nakashian was one of them.

Early local photography is notable for its reliance on demand for photographs and because photographers specialized in different fields. Some produced photographs to meet tourists’ and pilgrims’ rising demand for pictures of the holy land, and focused on photographing sites connected to the country’s biblical history. Others specialized in studio photography, to meet the demand for photographs of subjects wearing traditional clothing of the holy land, and later for photographs of bridal couples and of people needing them for official applications. After the call to arms was sounded for World War I, many photographers specialized in taking pictures of soldiers before they went to war. Others specialized in family portraits, taken in the studio. Still others photographed the dead, to keep their memory alive, especially for relatives who had no photographs of the person while he or she was alive. By the time British rule in Palestine drew to a close in 1948, the profession of photography had spread extensively across the country.

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Selected Bibliography

Albina, Iris. “Souvenir from Gethsemane: Portrait of the Albina Brothers.Jerusalem Quarterly, no.60 (Autumn 2014): 60–79.

al-Hajj, Badr. “Khalil Raad—Jerusalem Photographer.Jerusalem Quarterly File. no.11-12 (Winter 2001): 34–39.

Khalidi, Walid. Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876–1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984.

Nassar, Issam. Laqatat Mughayira: al-Taswir al-Mahalli al-mubakkir fi Filastin (18501948) [Different Snapshots: Early Local Photography in Palestine (1850-1948)]. Beirut and Ramallah: Qattan Foundation, 2005.

Nassar, Issam. “A Jerusalem Photographer: The Life and Work of Hanna Safieh.Jerusalem Quarterly File no.7 (Winter 2000): 24–28.

Palestine Before 1948: Not Just Memory (Khalil Raad, 1854–1957). Exhibition brochure. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2013.

al-Raheb, Mitri, Issam Nassar, and Ahmad Marwat, eds. Karimeh Abbud: Ra’idat al-Tasweer al-Nassawi fi Filastin [Karimeh Abbud: Pioneering Woman Photographer in Palestine]. Bethlehem: Diyar Publications, 2013.

Sheehi, Stephen. The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 18601910. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.