Topics in Photographic Preservation 2009, Volume 13, Article 11 (pp. 42-56)

Photograph Preservation Institute in the Middle East: Lessons in Priorities

Nora W. Kennedy and Debra Hess Norris

Presented at the 2009 PMG Winter Meeting in Tucson, Arizona


The 2009 Middle East Photograph Preservation Institute was four years in planning, but achieved all goals laid out in the initial 2005 funding proposal to the Getty Foundation. This article addresses the workshop content and challenges in bringing this two-week educational initiative to fruition while providing guidance for the organization of professional workshops outside of the United States and especially in politically unstable regions of the world. This workshop serves as a model for other international initiatives primarily aimed at the preservation of our global photographic heritage.


In 2004 Debra Hess Norris proposed the idea of organizing a Middle East-wide workshop on the preservation of photographs to her long-time colleague and collaborator, Nora Kennedy. Despite a wealth of photographic heritage dating from the early nineteenth century to the present, there are no formally trained photograph conservators in the Middle East. Norris and Kennedy had organized over twenty workshops of various kinds during the previous decade, so this seemed like a natural progression. Kennedy was born and raised in Lebanon, and the notion of making even a small contribution in recognition of the richness of culture, depth of history, and generosity of spirit in the Middle East was immediately attractive. In addition, the world political situation dictated the need for and enormous value of some immediate, positive American interaction in this part of the world.

The Middle East Photograph Preservation Institute (MEPPI) was finally realized in January 2009, following four years of planning. The workshop took place in Beirut, Lebanon, fulfilling the goal to introduce and advance the practice of photograph preservation throughout the Middle East. The two-week institute strengthened photograph conservation in the Middle East by initiating new collaborations among related professionals and by disseminating and sharing the most current photograph preventive conservation knowledge, as well as making some information available in Arabic. An excerpt from the 2005 proposal to the Getty Foundation is included below:

“Following completion of this two-week institute, expected competencies for all participants will include:


Hisham Abdel Hadi (amateur photographer)

Not always on a camel also on the BMW, Jericho, Palestine, 1963 Collection: Abdel Hadi family, Copyright © Arab Image Foundation

This Institute could not have taken place without very generous support from the Getty Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the collaboration of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, the welcome and cooperation of the American University of Beirut, the commitment of the invited guest lecturers, and the enthusiasm and dedication of the wonderful participants.

An additional goal was to engage with caretakers of photograph collections across the Middle East. Working with the Arab Image Foundation staff, we identified potential participants from many countries representing significant collections. Generous funding was offered to cover transportation, housing and per diem expenses for collections care managers, curators, librarians, and caretakers of public collections. While interest in the goals and purposes of our proposed educational institute was clear, political unrest, the uncertainty of travel in this region, and other pressing professional and work-life demands presented organizational challenges. In the end, we were enormously pleased by those professionals who did participate, representing Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iranian and Egyptian collections.

The Middle East is a region of the world where preservation activities to date have been focused on the considerable archaeological heritage. At present, only some institutions—primarily universities—have recognized the importance of the photograph in recording the history and culture of what is a rapidly vanishing way of life. Preservation professionals and conservators are rare in many of these countries. Those who are active tend to focus on architecture and archaeological artifacts, making the availability of information on the preservation and care of photographs difficult to access. Prior to the Getty-funded Institute, no literature existed in Arabic on this topic. One of the great achievements of the workshop, in addition to forming a close network of like-minded individuals, is the availability of an on-line publication in Arabic on the preservation of photographs. This Institute is the first, but substantial step in many steps toward the awakening of awareness and the building of infrastructure to preserve the important photographic heritage in the region.

First Steps

The start of the planning included locating a partner in the Middle East to help coordinate and plan, and then obtaining funding to support the venture. Contact was made with the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), a not-for-profit organization based in Beirut, Lebanon, and responsible for the collection and preservation of the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa from the early nineteenth century to the present. Through its diverse set of activities – exhibitions, publications and videos – the AIF aims to encourage critical approaches to reading and interpreting photographs and therefore seemed ideal partners in this endeavor. Zeina Arida, AIF Director, and Akram Zaatari, Lebanese video artist and curator, met with Norris and Kennedy in New York in late 2004 while there to open an exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University. Arida and Zaatari were immediately enthusiastic about and supportive of the joint venture.


Camille el Kareh: [Self-Portrait] Zghorta, North Lebanon, 1920 Collection: AIF / Mohsen Yammine, Copyright © Arab Image Foundation

A proposal was drafted with the input of AIF staff and submitted to the Getty Foundation for review. This proposal included funding for eight international experts to provide lectures and demonstrations; travel expenses for an estimated twelve participants from throughout the Middle East; funding for notebooks of articles, some literature and other supplies; and the rental of a facility for two weeks. Beirut, Lebanon, was chosen as the workshop site due to its central location within the region, the ready availability of facilities and amenities, the large number of local collections and, most important, the presence of the AIF headquarters there. We were fortunate that the Getty Foundation understood the importance and far-reaching impact of this endeavor and generously provided full funding for the project.

The Arab Image Foundation

The close collaboration of the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) was vital to the success of the Institute. As part of its mission, AIF identifies and makes contact with organizations and individuals with collections of photographs from the Middle East. These established networks formed the basis from which we were able to identify potential participants for the workshop from the region. The Foundation translated and distributed questionnaires designed to better understand photograph collections’ size, type, and preservation challenges. This survey provided information critical to the planning of the Institute curriculum.

In addition, the Arab Image Foundation made all on-site arrangements flawlessly, from the hotel reservations to the meeting rooms at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The AIF also organized and administered daily ground transportation for participants and speakers as well as catered coffee breaks and the opening dinner. Two public lectures – offered by Norris and Kennedy and designed to engage the broader community in the conversation surrounding the value and importance of photograph preservation -were planned and promoted by the AIF. They printed and compiled the notebooks of articles provided to them in PDF format. These became essential resources for the participants. Toolkits were also provided complete with Hake brushes and a watercolor brush, vinyl erasers, cotton gloves, nitrile powder-free exam gloves, a Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Graphite Pencil 6B, a University Products Humidity Indicator card, a bone folder, a #2 Caselli spatula, some tweezers, a fiberglass retractable tape measure and a Radio Shack 30x pocket magnifier with light.

Preservation workshops organized outside the United States mandate an on-site host. Our situation was most fortunate in that the Arab Image Foundation has strong organization and active networks in place, and that the implementation of such workshops—though never before on this scale—is fundamental to their mission.

American University of Beirut

We had two offers for hosting sites in Beirut, the American University of Beirut and the Université Saint-Joseph. We deeply appreciate the proposed collaboration of both these institutions. We ultimately chose the American University (AUB), which proved to be extremely accommodating in providing a spacious classroom fully equipped with all necessary equipment and materials, a lecture hall for the public presentation, and a wonderfully landscaped campus to experience during sunny January lunch breaks. Beautifully situated in “Ras Beirut” (the “head” of Beirut—a tip of land projecting into the Mediterranean), the AUB is located on a hillside with striking plantings and frequent vistas over the ocean. The busy streets outside the campus are alive with eateries that provide quick and nutritious lunches and snacks for students and our participants alike. The meetings were held in West Hall, named after Robert Haldane West, a professor at AUB from to 1883-1906 and the grandfather of conservation scientist Liz West Fitzhugh. Coffee breaks were held on an upper floor with a large stone balcony, surrounded by huge banyan trees — a lovely place to refresh and network.

The Participants

We were extremely fortunate in the selection of participants for the Institute. The group chosen was energetic and dedicated, and immediately interacted positively and enthusiastically with one another. We had fourteen full-time participants and eight visitors. We were pleased that five countries were represented, including Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Among the colleagues from Lebanon we had representation from the Palestinian and Armenian communities as well. There had been some interest from colleagues in Turkey, but in the end the two potential candidates were unable to attend.

The participants varied greatly in their familiarity with photography, its history and technology. The majority had little to no information about preservation of photographic materials. Most are in some way responsible for photographic collections, though the majority shoulder many other responsibilities as well. Included among the participants, for example, were librarians, catalogers, archivists and curators. Ola Seif from the American University of Cairo (AUC) cares exclusively for a photograph archive, but the majority is responsible for mixed collections containing photographs, books, manuscripts, and maps. Rana Andari from the National Museum of Lebanon is an archaeologist by training, but has been responsible for the organization, cataloging, and scanning of the substantial collection of negatives housed at the Beirut Museum. These collections bear important documentation of the many archaeological excavations carried out in the region. The photographers tended to turn their cameras on the peoples, landscapes, and architecture surrounding the archeological sites, so the record of the Middle East at that time period is quite complete, if undiscovered. Andari has many responsibilities at the Museum; her time focused on photograph conservation is limited. Levon Nordiguian is an archaeologist with a passion for and commitment to the wonderful collection of negatives and prints he informally oversees at the Université Saint-Joseph. Nordiguian creates exhibitions and has published a number of books featuring the images made or collected by the Jesuits from the University over many decades. When the group visited this collection, Levon impressed us with incredible images of local customs and dress, building styles, and aerial photography, as well as some absolutely pristine nineteenth-century Bonfils images of Egyptian monuments.


Levon Nordiguian showing negatives from the Université Saint-Joseph collection. Image © Nora Kennedy

Yasmine Eid El-Sabbagh and her assistant Fadi Soleiman came to the MEPPI with laudable qualifications and goals. El-Sabbagh was raised and educated in Europe, but has family in the Middle East. While in photography school in France, she called photography companies for donations of disposable cameras and started a children’s photography program in one of the many Palestinian refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. El-Sabbagh now lives in the Borj al-Shamali refugee camp where she continues to work with children and photography and to assist in finding funding to provide higher education for many young people in the camps. She has extended her photography project to encompass one of archiving the few family photographs rescued by families fleeing armed conflict. El-Sabbagh and Soleiman speak with people in the camp about the proper care of their treasured photographs. These images are scanned to form an archived record of life in the Palestine -a living memory of much that is now lost. The MEPPI was critical for Fadi and Yasmine in providing preservation information for them to share with the Palestinians and in helping to ensure the preservation of the digital scans they are carefully creating and maintaining.


Participants examine negatives during an identification session. Image © Nora Kennedy

The task of locating institutions with collections of photographs and the individuals with responsibility for them was greatly facilitated by the Arab Image Foundation and the many contacts they had made since their establishment in 1996. Nevertheless, there were gaps such as Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, where we started without any leads on collections or individuals to contact. Additional connections were sometimes established through conservation networks or Middle Eastern friends and organizations. Our Jordanian representative for example, Dr. Atef Shiyab, Director of the Museum of Jordanian Heritage, Yarmouk University, Jordan, was suggested by a Jordanian student completing his studies in Australia. He was referred by one of his professors who we happened to meet at the September 2008 ICOM-CC meeting in New Delhi, India. This was one of the more circuitous and exotic, but nevertheless fortuitous connections.

Contacts made with the Director of the National Library and Archives in Baghdad, Iraq, revealed that this institution lost all of its photographic materials to bombings, fire, and/or theft during the American invasion of the country and subsequent chaotic conditions. In spite of this, we would like to involve Iraq in future initiatives as we hope that their photographic collections will be built anew with international contributions. Two participants from Turkey—one a private collector who was to pay his own way and one an assistant professor at Marmara University, were not able to participate. We broke our stipulation of full attendance during all nine days of the Institute for our Syrian representative, Martine Gillet from the Institut Français du Proche-Orient in Damascus, who at the last moment was able to attend for only two days. This proved to be a wise decision as during this brief time period Ms. Gillet managed to speak in-depth with each of the other participants, to establish connections, and eagerly took in information from lectures which was clearly of great import to her and her collections. She will be a valuable asset moving forward into future initiatives and collaborations.

The Program

The program was designed in part based upon the results of the collections questionnaire collected from all potential participants at the start of the planning phase. A draft of the program was made and circulated among the primary speakers as well as Arida and Sawaya from the AIF well in advance of the Institute, and refinements made. Care was taken to tailor the topics, commencing with the fundamental concepts and building to more sophisticated applications. The emphasis was always on the practical as we knew that budgets and staffing for the preservation of photographic collections tended to be minimal or non-existent.


Tamara Sawaya shows works from the Arab Image Foundation Collection. Image © Nora Kennedy

A final copy of the Photograph Preservation Institute schedule is included at the conclusion of this article. The printed schedule served as the backbone of presentation order, but we did make adjustments in times and programs to accommodate needs as we went along. Goals of the curriculum included an introduction to the technical history of photography, image formation and deterioration, degradation mechanisms and causes. Emphasis was placed on hands-on workshops for the identification of photographic processes, examination of examples of different forms of deterioration, and diagnosis of their likely causes. Practical preventive strategies were emphasized in ameliorating conditions for the damaged photographs using low cost solutions. Disaster planning and response came alive through the recovery of a variety of photographs from a staged “water incident”.

Guest speakers included colleagues from conservation, conservation science, and art history. Issam Nassar provided an illuminating talk on the evolution of photography in the Middle East, wonderfully illustrated with many historic images. Nassar is assistant professor of Middle East history at Bradley University in the United States as well the Assistant Director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies in Palestine and has published numerous articles on the history of photography in the region. Bertrand Lavédrine joined us from the Centre de Recherches sur la Conservation des Collections in France where he serves as Director. Lavédrine covered image formation and deterioration mechanisms, aspects of preventive conservation, environmental assessment and control, all in a very lively fashion, where possible illustrating concepts with entertaining examples. Lavédrine, Norris and Kennedy worked collaboratively with the participants on hands-on practica for process identification. When Franziska Frey, Professor at the School of Print Media at Rochester Institute, was unable to travel to Beirut at the last minute, Martin Jürgens, in private practice in Germany, valiantly stepped and presented the lectures Frey had sent as well as incorporating his own excellent lectures and practica on the preservation of digital media and digital prints. It is clear that future workshops will have to emphasize this area as the scanning of collections is a technology that is being eagerly embraced. Akram Zaatari, a video artist and curator in Beirut and one of the founders of AIF, brought us into the world of contemporary art, with a special focus on the use of historic and contemporary images in a variety of art projects.


Kennedy discusses housing materials and designs with participants. Image © Debra Hess Norris

A session on fundraising addressed strategies and approaches. This was let by Arida and Norris, but participants contributed enormously to a comprehensive list of promising agencies and individuals in the Middle East and beyond that may support photograph preservation initiatives. Advocacy for the collections was emphasized as a first step in raising awareness of the richness and importance of visual cultural heritage. Professional networks were fostered at the onset of the Institute – a primary and vital goal. Middle Eastern culture is very sociable and friendly, so the friendships and professional relationships that emerged during the two weeks of study flourished rapidly.


There were numerous challenges to the realization of the Institute. Not the least of these is the notable political instability in the region. Kennedy’s first research trip to the Lebanon was interrupted by the Israeli bombardment of the country. This planning trip was made successfully the following summer (July 2007), but there followed a period of political instability within Lebanon itself. Just the week prior to the January 2009 program, war began between Gaza and Israel, causing some uncertainty in our minds --but none in those of our hosts --about the wisdom of proceeding. The fact is that in this part of the world this type of uncertainty is a reality that simply exists. Flexibility must be a part of any plan made. And indeed we all felt strongly that proceeding with cultural events in a time of conflict is a form of resistance to war.

While the MEPPI participants are among those select individuals in the Middle East who clearly recognize the importance of photography in the preservation of cultural heritage, photography is a very recent phenomenon and generally not a cultural heritage preservation priority. Collections in the Middle East tend more often than not to be in private hands. There is not the same tradition of collecting photographs in national institutions that exists in other parts of the world.

There is an acute lack of trained and educated conservators and preservation professionals in the area of libraries and archives; most conservation practitioners are focused on the care of archaeological records and historic monuments. Training of conservators is generally achieved through apprenticeship or internships in Italy and other European countries. This lack of paper and photograph conservation education and training must be addressed by the Arab Image Foundation and other cultural and higher education institutions in this region and globally.

Identifying collections of photographs and those responsible for their care was another challenge. The Arab Image Foundation had a great many contacts from the outset and worked hard to expand and strengthen these. Our list grew as a result of these efforts. Unfortunately, some on our approved list of participants were ultimately unable to come due to difficulty in travel and the inability to leave work for a prolonged period. The MEPPI has been an exceptional first step and we are confident that from this small group of individuals, more will be inspired to join the collaboration.


Samar Mikati Kaissi and Debra Hess Norris discuss with participants photographs from the Jafet Library special collections at the American University of Beirut. Image © Nora Kennedy

We had thought that language would be a challenge, however, in the end we did not require a professional translator. Most participants were comfortable with or at least had adequate comprehension of English. Occasionally, our Jordanian colleague and some of our Lebanese-Palestinian participants required translation during more technical lectures. Two individuals had excellent comprehension of English, but would ask questions or request occasional clarification in French. A future workshop in Egypt or Jordan may require simultaneous translation, something that will add to the expense of the workshop, but also will transform the timing of scheduled topics as well as interpersonal exchange between invited speakers and participants.

Future Directions

On the final day of the Institute the group gathered to create a list of future directions. This included small and large initiatives, as well as immediate and long-term goals within individual institutions and the region at-large. We are all eager to take advantage of the considerable energy and momentum generated by this lively meeting of like-minded professionals.

While a detailed discussion on future directions may be found in the upcoming preprints of the International Institute for Conservation meeting to be held in Istanbul in September 2010, some of the immediate institutional goals include efforts to review and amend existing preservation policies and procedures, establish priorities for preservation based on new-found knowledge from the Institute, monitor storage environments, prepare and institute basic disaster plans, and to promote the importance and value of collections within and outside the institutions. Basic disaster preparedness is not established in many collections. Some institutions, like the National Museum of Beirut, are well versed in war-time emergency preparation and have clearly established guidelines for various danger levels. During the workshop, the National Museum instituted their first level of alert after hearing that rockets had been shot from southern Lebanon into Israel. Unfortunately these emergency “drills” take place all too frequently.


Antonio: Fez, Morocco, (dates unknown) Collection: AIF / A. Tazi Copyright © Arab Image Foundation

Participants suggested offering regular informal meetings to share preservation challenges and activities, strengthen professional networks, and build capacity and expertise. MEPPI participants were equally encouraged to share their preservation knowledge with affiliated groups such as photography clubs, students, and other community organizations. Participants were eager to work together on exhibitions and to pursue opportunities for collaborative fund-raising for this and other initiatives, including the testing of storage materials, ordering bulk supplies, and sharing environmental monitoring expertise. All of these, and the many other possible future directions proposed, involve an implicit promotion of the value and importance of photography in the Middle East.

Finally, over the long term it is essential to hold similar institutes in other regions of the Middle East. During MEPPI, offers of future host training sites were made for Jordan, Occupied Palestine, and Egypt. These are being pursued with hopes of holding the next workshop in Egypt in 2011.

Lessons learned from this endeavor include the necessity of flexibility in planning and scheduling due to inevitable political uncertainties in a part of the world that tends to be a good deal less stable than one would like. Collaboration and partnership with a local institution or organizations is absolutely essential to the success of any workshop or meeting. MEPPI was successful in meeting the needs of the individuals and collections in good part due to the collections survey distributed early on in the process. Preliminary visits to many institutions also helped to form a clearer picture of the collection preservation needs. The practical focus of the two weeks held the participants’ interest and clearly directed the contact to tangible day-to-day applications. And finally, the greatest outcome may be the establishment of friendships and professional collaborations between all the participants.


Participants and organizers of the Middle East Photograph Preservation Institute, Beirut, Lebanon, January 2009.

We are enormously grateful to the Getty Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Arab Image Foundation, and the American University at Beirut for their support of this transformative initiative that has generated considerable good will and new-found knowledge, expertise, and confidence surrounding the preservation of photograph collections in the Middle East.

Nora W. Kennedy

Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Debra Hess Norris

Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education & Chairperson, Art Conservation Department

University of Delaware

Schedule for the Photograph Preservation Institute

Organized by Photograph Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Artand the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware in Partnership with the Arab Image Foundation

Hosted by the American University of Beirut

Supported by Grants from the Getty and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundations

DAY ONE: Tuesday, January 6th, 2009


DAY TWO: Wednesday, January 7th, 2009



DAY THREE: Thursday, January 8th, 2009


DAY FOUR: Friday, January 9th, 2009



Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Optional Tour to Baalbek, Anjar

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Optional half day tour to other historic sites in Lebanon

DAY FIVE: Monday, January 12th, 2009


DAY SIX: Tuesday, January 13th, 2009



DAY SEVEN: Wednesday, January 14th, 2009


DAY EIGHT: Thursday, January 15th, 2009


DAY NINE: Friday, January 16th, 2009


Papers presented in Topics in Photographic Preservation, Volume Thirteen have not undergone a formal process of peer review.