Unstable Icons, Contested Histories

Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt

in Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
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This essay discusses the contemporary circulation of digitized historical photographs in the Egyptian online world. On countless Facebook pages and blogs, vintage photographs of multiple genres—including “orientalist” photographs sold in late 19th century to western tourists, early 20th century postcards of the colonial metropolis, advertising shots published in mid-20th century Egyptian magazines, and private family photographs—are being unearthed, reactivated, and assigned with new meanings that are acutely contemporary. “Freed” from the confines of old dusty archives that once constrained their circulation, such “old” (or “vintage”) photographs become iconic en masse: they no longer stand simply for the thing, person or event depicted, but instead signify larger social values and relationships to the past. Their indexicality and iconicity goes hand in hand: it is precisely because they are photographs—images widely believed to have been created as mechanical, and thus objective, imprints of things that once undoubtedly “were there”—that they can perform the cultural work currently demanded of them as proofs of past truths. This ongoing re-deployment and re-signification of digitized old photographs (facilitated by digital technologies and social media) has two recent genealogies. First is the neoliberal rereading of modern Egyptian history in which colonialism becomes recast as a period of once-had-and-then-lost modernity; second is the difficult and confusing post-revolutionary present in which such “liberated,” but also inherently unstable icons serve to prove at once the necessity of a revolution as well as the reason why it has apparently failed.

Unstable Icons, Contested Histories

Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt

in Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication

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    Figure 1

    King Faruq, colorized photograph, mid-1940s. Posted on al-Safha al-rasmiyya li mawqiʿ al-malik Faruq al-awwal—Faruq Misr, 17 December 2013, retrieved 1 July 2014.

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    Figure 2

    Screenshot from Suwar Misr zaman wa-l-an timeline album, retrieved 8 August 2014

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    Figure 3

    Late nineteenth-century photograph of an Egyptian village, produced as a souvenir for the tourist market. Posted on Misr al-an, 3 April 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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    Figure 4

    Early twentieth-century photograph of an Arab café. Posted on Fotoghrafiya Misr page 4 June 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

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    Figure 5

    Vegetable street seller at the ʿAtaba square in Cairo, early twentieth-century postcard. Posted on Misr al-an page, 31 March 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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    Figure 6

    Egyptian actress Miriam Fakhreddin posing on an advertising for Vespa motorbikes in a popular magazine (title not provided, but likely Akhir Saʿa). Colorized photograph, late 1950s or early 1960s. Published on Egyptian Streets Facebook page on 5 April 2014. Retrieved 5 April 2014.

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    Figure 7

    Photograph of three ladies walking down a boulevard, 1960s. It could have been a high-quality private snapshot, or an advertising photograph. Some Facebook pages identified the location as downtown Cairo, others claimed that it represented French ladies in Casablanca. Posted on Suwar Misr al-qadima 8 January 2014. Retrieved 9 July 2014.

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    Figure 8

    View of Cairo’s Opera Square and the Continental Hotel, 1930s (?) postcard. Posted on Misr al-an, 4 April 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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    Figure 9

    Photograph of the Raml station in Alexandria, 1940s. Posted on Misr al-an, 11 March 2014. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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    Figure 10

    Royal carriage on a downtown Cairo boulevard, circa 1940s. Posted on Tahrir Lounge Facebook page 9 January 2014 (note the watermark mentions the “ownership” of another page, Misr ayyam zaman). Retrieved 5 March 2014.

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    Figure 11

    Qasr al-Nil bridge and British army barracks, late nineteenth-century photograph. Posted on Fotografia Misr, 23 March 2014. Retrieved 23 March 2014.

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    Figure 12

    Meme circulating on Facebook. Retrieved 10 February 2014.

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    Figure 13

    Gamal Abdel Nasser and his wife (original in color). Posted on Misr al-an wa-zaman, 31 March 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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    Figure 14

    Photograph of Sayyid Qutb being led to his execution, 1966. Posted on Misr al-an wa-zaman, 6 April 2012. Retrieved 17 March 2014.

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    Figure 15

    King Faruq on a hunting trip in Fayyum, posted on Misr al-an, 6 April 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2014.

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