Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

A kiss, a Rolls, a snake dancer: The Middle East through its own lens

  • Arab Image Foundation has collected more than 300,000 photographs
  • Aim is to preserve archive of images of Middle East by local photographers
  • Foundation funded mainly from U.S. and Europe but is seeking regional backers

(CNN) -- A woman in outrageous flared trousers kisses the cheek of a young girl. A snake slithers around another woman wearing a two-piece bathing suit. And elsewhere, a camel crosses ponderously in front of a gleaming Rolls Royce.

To Western eyes more used to the region portrayed through images of religion, conflict or conservative societies, it may come as a surprise to learn these photographs represent a snapshot of life in the Middle East.

But these and 300,000 more gathered in an archive in Beirut tell a different story: One of a long-forgotten belle epoque of glamour and innocence.

This sprawling photographic collection is the work of the Arab Image Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated safeguarding a local perspective often overshadowed by the works of Western photographers.

"We were interested in showing the Arab world as we know it; as we see it in our photographic album," foundation director Zeina Arida told CNN.

Video: Preserving a culture through photos

This lovingly-curated collection boasts many gems, not least the noir-ish work of Van Leo, an Armenian-Egyptian portrait photographer who attracted the rich and famous to his Cairo studio.

Active during the 1940s and 50s, Van Leo also pursued his own artistic vision, posing for fantasy self-portraits, re-imagining himself as a heroic pilot, prisoner -- or even a chiffon-robed young woman.

Says Arida, Van Leo, whose work predates similar projects by celebrated American photographer Cindy Sherman by almost 40 years, is among several "enthusiastic" supporters of the 13-year-old foundation.

The main interest in these images were what the images can tell us about the relationship between the photographer and his clients.
--Zeina Arida, foundation director

But, with most of its funding coming from Europe and the United States, she says more Middle Eastern donors, who tend to back charitable rather than cultural organizations, need to step up to help preserve their own past.

The foundation's new research center in Beirut, where white-gloved curators carefully handle the slides, plates, prints and negatives that make up the collection, should help, she says.

It is hoped the research will offer new insight, not only into a golden era for the region, but also into the techniques of those who strove to capture it.

Adds Arida: "We do have important historical documents, but the main interest in these images were what the images can tell us about the relationship between the photographer and his clients."

CNN's Rima Maktabi contributed to this story