A woman, glamorous in her sunglasses and fur-trimmed coat, stands at the side of the road, her heels touching the tarmac. In front of her, a shepherd leads his flock off the highway and out of frame. Behind them, electricity pylons recede into the distance. They smile down the lens of the camera. The year is 1961 and the country, Iraq, is on the cusp of a new age.
Regarded as the father of Iraqi photography, Latif al-Ani (1932-2021) was the great chronicler of his country’s transition to modernity. He worked from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, a period when the discovery of oil in Iraq led to unprecedented development and prosperity.
Al-Ani’s first employer was the Iraq Petroleum Company, where he worked as the photographer for its in-house magazine, Ahl al-Naft (People of Oil). After the coup of 1958, which established the Iraqi Republic, he founded the photography department of the Ministry of Information and, after that, the photography department of the Iraq News Agency.
He travelled all over the country, documenting everything from daily life in the countryside and construction projects in Baghdad, to ancient archaeological sites and expansive palm groves. But working as a propagandist for the new republic didn’t sit entirely comfortably with him.
“I wanted to show our heritage against our present, the contrast between past and present,” al-Ani said in an interview in 2015. He was apprehensive about the speed with which his country was modernising at the expense of its rich and varied traditions. During the period in which he was working, Iraq was a place of relative ethnic and religious harmony, and al-Ani made tender images of Yazidis, Kurds and Mandaeans.
“The fear that I had is what we are living today,” he continued. “It started with the revolution of 1958. This past is being deleted; it has been deleted . . . Pandora’s box was opened and ignorant people came to rule who had no culture or understanding of the power they held. Fear was a major motive to document everything as it was. I did all that I could to document, to safeguard that time.”
Whilst at the ministry, al-Ani developed an optimistic, progressive aesthetic. He made images of women at work, girls in gym classes, mechanical engineering students and modern architecture. Many of these images, especially the aerials, have echoes of the Soviet constructivist artists, whose mission was to create a new aesthetic language for a new socialist reality.
“Over the course of my work for the state . . . the country underwent several ideological changes that were often contradictory,” al-Ani said. “For example, after the 1958 revolution, the state was ideologically socialist and wanted to promote the working classes, so I took a lot of images of the existing industries, workers, farmers and so on. After 1963, the government was nationalist and they cared more about different forms of political life, so my focus was more on the personalities, on rallies and speeches, veering more toward the journalistic.”
But beauty was always at the heart of his work. When asked in 2018 if he believed that, in his pictures, formal impact took precedence over documentary content, he answered: “It did as far as wanting to ensure that each image was beautiful, in addition to being documentary. I was always preoccupied with beauty.”
Al-Ani had some international success in the 1960s and 1970s, with exhibitions in the Middle East, Europe and North America. However, his career ended abruptly in 1979 when Saddam Hussein came to power and made it illegal to take photographs in public. “I was revulsed by the fact that holding a camera became a dangerous act, and I didn’t want to be a photographer any more,” he said. “I left Iraq briefly, but came back because it is my home.”
Looking at his images now, 20 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam, they seem unreal, magical even. Knowing the decades of destruction that were to follow, such scenes of optimism make for painful, necessary viewing.
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