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Studio Metropole 
Qom, Iran, 2004
Copyright © Negar Azimi
About us > Programs Photographic research and acquisition

The AIF’s collection has grown over the years thanks to the efforts of its members, who initiate research projects with an eye towards acquisition, the creation of exhibitions and the production of publications, artistic projects and scholarly research. More recently, the foundation has also been entrusted with significant collections, bringing the total number of photographs to more than 600,000.


The AIF’s approach to assembling a collection differs from that of more traditional historians, conservators or curators as the process is primarily led by the critical, creative work of artists. Since 1997, artists, writers, filmmakers and historians affiliated with the AIF have initiated research projects in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Mexico, Argentina and Senegal. Some projects focus on a single studio, such as Studio Shehrazade in Saida, Lebanon or Studio Safieddine in Dakar, Senegal. Others explore an everyday, vernacular style or a particular photographic phenomenon. Others still delve into a specific subject or body of work, such as the cache of passport photos pasted into a notebook that sparked Mapping Sitting, a long-term study on portraiture and photography.


Photographs acquired for the collection and selected for further study meet several criteria, such as artistic value, social significance, rarity or idiosyncrasy. Authored by professionals, amateurs and anonymous photographers alike, the images encompass a range of genres and styles – including documentary, reportage, industrial photography, fashion photography, architecture, advertising, family albums, fine art, landscapes, studio portraits, still life and nudes. Whilst the AIF’s collection is mainly comprised of photographs, the scope of certain research projects extends beyond photography to include film, video, text, objects and ephemera from the same collection or studio. 


Our research projects make valuable contributions to the study of photography in the region by gathering biographical information about photographers and investigating the conditions informing their practice. Inevitably, the research projects raise questions about how images are used and their relationship to notions of identity, history and memory. In addition to building the AIF’s collection, the research projects make valuable contributions to the study of photography in the region by generating knowledge about photographers, their biographies and the conditions informing their practice. Inevitably, the research projects raise questions about how images are used or their relationship to notions such as identity, history and memory. The AIF’s approach to assembling a collection differs from that of more traditional historians, conservators or curators in that the process is primarily led by the critical, creative work of artists.

Selected research projects

A photographic conversation from Burj al-Shamali camp
An ongoing project by Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh
Burj al-Shamali camp, southern Lebanon, 2005 – ongoing

Studying the relationship between photography and visual memory, this is a long-term, two-part research project in Burj al Shamali, a refugee camp southeast of Sur whose residents come primarily from northern Palestine. The first part involves running a workspace where young people make, edit and discuss photography.
The second part involves gathering material from family albums and commercial studios. In this case, photographs are borrowed, digitized, annotated and returned. The work of an artist concerned with the effects of her own practice, this research project has led to an exhibition that doubles as a public installation. A video work is currently underway, as is a database for education and research, linking Burj al Shamali to other camps.

Hashem El Madani Collection
An ongoing project by Akram Zaatari
Saida, Lebanon, 2002 - ongoing

This is a long-term, multifaceted research project on Hashem el Madani’s Studio Shehrazade. One of the most prolific photographers in Lebanon, Madani has been working in the port city of Saida for more than 50 years. His archive sheds light on the life of a city during half a century of dramatic sociopolitical change. Part of the artist Akram Zaatari’s “Objects of Study/Studio Shehrazade,” this project explores the relationships between a photographer, his clients, his city and his society at large. To date, work on Madani’s archive, which is managed by the AIF, has produced two books, three exhibitions and two videos. It is the AIF’s longest running research project to date.

Collections from Iran

A project by Negar Azimi
various cities, Iran, 2004

Major studies of photography in Iran tend to focus on the Qajar Dynasty (1796-1925). They also tend to be purely historical, with little attention paid to the aesthetic or sociopolitical aspects of the reproducible image. This research project privileges the peculiar, focusing on twentieth-century studio and vernacular photography, with an emphasis on images memorializing religious pilgrimage to shrine cities such as Qom and Masshad. Among the 1,900 photographs acquired for the AIF’s collection are studio portraits, wedding photos and “convict cards” used to identify criminals. These images lend themselves to comparative work on photographic traditions across the region.

Van Leo Collection
A project by Lara Baladi and Negar Azimi
American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt, 2003

Van Leo, né Leon Boyadjian, was among the most prominent studio photographers of his time, and one of the few to consider himself an artist. In 1998, he gave 150 original prints to the AIF. Before his death in 2002, Van Leo donated his archive to the American University in Cairo (AUC). This research project, one of several concerning Van Leo, negotiated an agreement between the AIF and the AUC, placing more than 5,000 of Van Leo’s negatives in the AIF’s care. Those images, including a series of 500 self-portraits in disguise, are the subject of a forthcoming book by Negar Azimi and Karl Bassil, which is being published in partnership with the Prince Claus Fund.

Collections from the Diaspora: Mexico
A project by Fouad El Koury
Mexico City, Mexico, 2003

This research project concerns photographers of Lebanese origin in Mexico. For decades, Edmundo Feres Yazbek ran a number of well-known studios in Mexico City with his uncles Tufic and Alfredo. Their work from the early 1930s through the late 1970s, in color as well as in black-and-white, includes fashion photography, advertising imagery and portraiture devoted to film stars, orchestras, ballet companies and theater troupes. Among the 1,100 photographs acquired for the AIF is a substantial selection from the Studio Yazbek collection, along with images drawn from the albums of twelve family collections, which shed light on the lives of the diaspora community.

Collections from the Diaspora: Senegal
A project by Lara Baladi
Dakar, Senegal, 2002

Families of Lebanese and Syrian origin have been emigrating to the Senegalese capital Dakar since the early twentieth century, escaping endemic famine and strife at the end of the Ottoman Empire. This research project focuses on Studio Safieddine, the oldest, largest and most famous photography studio in Dakar, which the charismatic Lebanese photographer Youssef Safieddine opened in 1956. In addition to seven family collections, this project, which placed a total of around 350 images in the AIF’s collection, acquired a portion of Studio Safieddine’s archive. Many of these photographs are vivacious portraits of Safieddine himself, alone, among friends and with his wife Fatmeh.

Collections from Iraq
A project by Yto Barada
Various cities, Iraq, 2000

Born in Karbala in 1932, Latif el Ani learned photography as an employee of the Iraq Petroleum Company. In 1960, he established the photography department in Iraq’s Ministry of Information, where he also ran the official news agency. This research project caught up with Ani in the year 2000, when he was joining his former colleagues every day for tea, always carrying a 6x6 camera with him. After a few weeks of hearing about the AIF at teatime, he agreed to bring his negatives one day. They are now a part of the AIF’s collections from Iraq, which include a total of around 700 works by Ani, Emri Selim and Murad Dagestani, among others.

Asmahan Collection
A project by Akram Zaatari
Cairo, Egypt, 1998

Asmahan was a legendary singer born to a Druze family in Syria. In the 1920s, her mother took her and her brothers to Egypt, where she began her career and became a rival of Oum Koulthoum’s. In 1933, she returned to Damascus and married her cousin, Prince Hassan el Atrash, on the condition (his) that she quit singing. She couldn’t do it. The couple divorced in 1939. Asmahan returned to Cairo, where she was killed five years later in a car crash. In 1998, this research project led Akram Zaatari to Asmahan’s nephew, Faysal el Atrash. The result is a remarkable and precious collection of photographs, by various photographers in various styles, depicting the singer throughout her life.