Alkarssifi and the lost archive of Baalbek
BEIRUT: Sometimes passionate photographers are forced to become unofficial archivists. Take the case of Diab Alkarssifi. Born in 1951, he became a professional photographer who also shot obsessively in his spare time.
Lacking any institutional support, Alkarssifi looked after his own images, as well as those family members, friends and neighbors gave him for safekeeping. Before he left Lebanon with his family in 1993, en route to a job in London, the Baalbek native amassed a staggering collection of what he estimates to be close to 27,000 images.
The London job never materialized, and Alkarssifi wound up living in Arlington House, a hostel for the homeless. It was here that he met Polish artist Ania Dabrowska in 2010.
Dabrowska was at Arlington doing a residency when Alkarssifi wandered into her studio.
“Part of my residency job was to create some work that challenges stigmas about homelessness,” she recalls, “but also to engage the residents in some kind of workshop. … I invited all the residents to take part and Diab was actually one of the first people who turned up to my studio, really keen to engage with the project and start photographing again.
“He told me that he used to be a photojournalist in Lebanon and he came up to my studio with these two bags of photographs and prints and negatives and slides – two bags filled with part of the archive that he has collected over the years. That was an amazing surprise for me.”
Although Alkarssifi’s English was minimal, the two managed to communicate and slowly Dawbrowska uncovered his story.
“For two years we were seeing each other on a weekly basis and we started going through this archive slowly together,” she says. “I was recording his story and his memories of these images and we started digitizing some of his work.
“That time gave me an opportunity to wrap my head about the work and the scale of this archive, and how I could possibly work with it in two capacities: As a person who helps him to preserve it and conserve it, but also … as an artist, in some way.”
The collection the photographer presented to Dabrowska comprises some 5,000 prints, slides and negatives – a few dating from 1890. Some were shot by Alkarssiffi himself, others donated from studios in Damascus and Cairo.
He told Dabrowska that over 20,000 images were locked in a room at his family home in Baalbek. In October 2013, the two traveled to Lebanon in search of the rest of the archive. Arriving at the house, however, he unlocked the door to reveal an empty room. A single photograph lay in the middle of the floor. Alkarssifi was unable to say what had become of the remainder of the archive.
“It was very perplexing for me,” Dabrowska sighs. “At first I didn’t know what to make of it. I wondered if it was ever there. But at the end of the day, I also spoke to a lot of people at the Arab Image Foundation and others, and it does happen that collections like this get destroyed or stolen.
“I’m 95 percent certain that they existed. [Since] we had this horrendous discovery of the empty room, [Alkarssifi] has been going to lengths of trying to find newspaper cuttings that used his pictures.
“His brother, who still lives in Baalbek, apparently has collected various folders where he’s got examples of this material printed, so when we go back and start processing the archive properly, at least we’ll be able to get our hands on those.”
Because of Alkarssifi’s close connections with people in his hometown, the archive is continuing to grow despite the missing photographs. Since hearing about his work with Dabrowska, people have begun scanning their photos and emailing him digital copies.
The core of the archive, however, remains the 5,000 hard copies Alkarssifi had with him in London. Dabrowska worked to convince Alkarsiffi to collaborate with the Arab Image Foundation and they plan to transfer the photos to their premises for safekeeping.
“We’ve quite a complex relationship really,” Dabrowska admits. “There’s been almost two different dynamics. I recognize that on one level our interests might be the same, but on another level I have to be aware that he might have different plans or ambitions for what might happen with it.
“Even though he’s Lebanese and he used to a photographer … he had never heard of the AIF. When we went back together to Lebanon … the other main purpose was to introduce him to the AIF in person.
“Now he’s really happy about it … Our agreement is that he will be depositing the collection with them [but] he’ll keep the rights to all the images and the ownership of the collection is still absolutely his.”
Many of the photographs in the collection are taken in and around Baalbek. These hold special significance for the AIF’s collection, which director Rima Mokaiesh says currently contains very few sets of images from the Bekaa region.
While many of the photographs capture the minutiae of daily life, Dabrowska says they paint a fascinating picture of a vanished era. “Diab photographed on any old cameras that he had,” she says. “Sometimes they were half broken or sometimes the photographic stock was already out of date so it’s got this pattern of scratches. There’s a lot of texture but you can almost see people moving and laughing. You could make them into little animated films.
“There’s a lot of mundane [moments], which for me are this immaculate, amazing textures of Lebanon that you don’t see in other places … There are echoes of these assignments that he did during the war as well. You see some of the military camps and militias camped in the mountains. You see a lot of demonstrations. You see some death.
“For me the fascinating thing is I know that I am a stranger discovering a very complex history and uncovering things that might be really uncomfortable for people to deal with. … I think it’s really interesting how I’m looking at this material as a photographer with an interest in learning about Lebanon but also with naivety about what it actually represents.”
Dabrowska has just successfully met a 20,000 pound ($32,500) target on Kickstarter to fund the publication of an artist’s book, based on Alkarssifi’s archive and her own relationship with it as a fellow immigrant artist living in the U.K.
A collaboration between Dabrowska and the AIF, the book is due to be published in March 2015 by British publisher Book Works.
“It’s absolutely inspired by Diab’s collection,” Dabrowska explains, “and it is going to include selected stories, curated choices from the archive … I have in the studio thousands of images, so it’s enough to make a few artist’s books and keep me going in terms of creative and preservation work for years.
“Obviously in the first book we can’t put all the different ideas … so I see it as an introduction to the whole project and the collection.”
Alongside original photographs, the book will also contain Dabrowska’s contemporary reflections on the archive. Photographs of the duo’s trip to Lebanon will also be included, she says, along with written reflections on their relationship as artist and informal archivist.
An introductory essay, penned by a local artist, will help to place the whole collection in context.
Alkarssifi’s photos provide windows into the past, but holding them together is the moving story of his own labor of love.
“The archive really came out of a passion for people and a passion for photography,” Dabrowska says. “He is a humanist before anything. He told me, ‘I really didn’t understand why. I just knew that I wanted and needed to collect and preserve these pictures.’
“For me that part of the story is really incredible. It is the story of an ordinary man who loves photography, loves his culture, loves his country. He sees it all disappearing, metaphorically and physically, and sees a way of doing his bit to preserve it by collecting these photographs and collecting these stories.”
To learn more about the Diab Alkarssifi archive, please visit Dabrowska’s website at www.lebanesearchive.co.uk.