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Images of Women: the Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East

Images Of Women; The Portrayal Of Women In Photography Of The Middle East 1860-1950
by Sarah Graham-Brown Columbia University Press, 1992, $22,00.

what is your mental picture of the Middle Eastern woman? A mute, veiled figure? A faded harem daguerrotype? It is these images and the realities behind them that Sarah Graham-Brown addresses in her study of the artistic myth-making that has etched certain images of Middle-Eastern women on the Western mind. Beginning with a brief introduction reminding the reader of the subjectivity inherent in any photograph, Graham-Brown launches into a dissection of the traditional photographic images of Middle-Eastern women. The book is a series of essays accompanied by captioned photographs; the captions, in many cases, rival the text in interest.

What is the connection between Middle Eastern photography and politics? “The invention of photography coincided with a period of European imperialism on a global scale,” says Graham-Brown. She goes on to reveal in startling captions the truths behind some of the Western world’s most popular photographic images of the Middle East. Turn-of-the-century photographs of “authentic” Middle Eastern women in “traditional” dress turn out to be posed studio shots created for European consumption. The “Egyptian peasant woman” of one photograph may appear in the studio’s next project as a member of a Turkish harem, and her “authentic” dress is in fact authentic — the only problem is, it’s the authentic dress of a Palestinian villager, not a native of Egypt or Turkey.

This book also provides us with authentic (truly authentic) shots of young Egyptian village women, of an aged Jordanian woman smoking a pipe, of a Lebanese actress, of the leader of the Egyptian Feminist Union.

If Graham-Brown falls short of objectivity at any point, it is in her summary recounting of Palestinian/Israeli history: her one-paragraph account of the events of 1948-9 is misleading at best, and may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some readers.

Along the way. Images of Women maps out the beginnings of a truer representation of Middle-Eastern women, using photographs to illuminate changes in dress, lifestyles, and work opportunities. Graham-Brown’s approach and her subject may be academic, but her writing is lively, and the question of who controls the images of women is a gripping one. The photographs in this book are not easily forgotten.