Sarah Graham-Brown, The Palestinians and Their Society, 1880-1946 (New York: Quartet Books, 1980).

Winners, as we know, write history, and since the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839, they have been photographing it as well. In fact, one of the very first places where European photographers exercised their recording skill was Palestine: Less than a year after Louis Daguerre’s photographic printing process was announced before the Academy of Sciences in Paris, the French painter Horace Vernet and two companions set out for the “Holy Land” and Egypt equipped with the new device and an instruction manual. By mid-century, the camera was also in the hands of explorers and scholars of religious and secular persuasion, studio photographers, and colonial officers (who received instruction in photography as part of their military training). With the availability of the snapshot camera in the 1880s, photography became general tourist fare as well.

From our photo-filled vantage point, it may be difficult to appreciate the initial impact of these developments. In one sense, of course, the early photographers and their various travel books, archeological studies, surveys, and mementos belong to a tradition of reportage that was, in the case of Palestine, carried on by pilgrims, scholars, diplomats, travelers, soldiers and spies of all eras. In another sense, the nineteenth-century photograph was unprecedented: Not only was it a mechanically recorded image, but it achieved an accuracy of detail that could outdo the human hand, and often the human eye as well. This impressive technical feature, which was a great deal more limited in the mid-19th century, when exposure times often minutes or more ruled out any spontaneity at all, compelled portrait subjects to stand motionless under bright lights and lost people altogether from unposed street scenes. It nevertheless invested the photograph with a unique authenticity. Writing to a friend in 1843, Elizabeth Barret-Browning described her first reaction to photography:

It is not merely the likeness which is precious, but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing…the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly love, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced! [1]

Vistas and Ventures

Endowed with these distinctive physical and metaphysical properties, the Western photographic medium found a particularly compatible field of vision in Palestine. There the underlying colonial impulse was spurred and ennobled by Christian attachment to the “Holy Land.” For the photographer, the subjects were at once exotic and sacred. The land was distant enough, but still fairly accessible, and the light was extraordinarily good. Tens of thousands of photographs were produced, not even counting the efforts of amateurs. They were made for sale at home as well as to tourists on the spot, for publication in books, and for distribution as stereographs. This “tele-vision” before television provided most Westerners with their images of Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [2]

One of the most distinguished studio photographers was Felix Bonfils, who originally came to Lebanon with the French expedition in 1860. Seven years later he returned with his family and set up the Maison Bonfils in Beirut, and by 1871 he was able to report to the Societe Francaise de Photographic that he had produced “15,000 prints and 9000 stereoscopic views…principally pictures of Jerusalem and various panoramas [of Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Greece].” [3] In 1898, the American Colony in Jerusalem, an emigrant Christian community, set up its own photography department to meet the anticipated demand for souvenirs on the occasion of Kaiser Wilhelm’s visit. The operation was subsequently taken over by G. Eric Matson, a young Swede whose family had joined the Colony in 1896; the Matson Photo Service collection, donated to the US Library of Congress in 1966, includes some 20,000 negatives for the period from 1898 to 1946. [4]

In addition to many foreign entrepreneurs like Bonfils and Matson, there were also some native studio photographers, especially among the Armenians. One of the very first resident photographers in Jerusalem was Yessayi Garabedian, the Armenian Patriarch. He went to Constantinople in 1859 to study with two Armenian brothers who had been appointed court photographers under Sultan Abdülaziz, converted to Islam, and took the collective name Abdullah Biraderler/Freres. Garabedian, who also pursued his studies in England and France, set up a photography studio on the roof of the Armenian Patriarchate; he wrote four technical manuals and trained a number of successful followers. La Maison Bonfils was bought out by an Armenian from Palestine, Abraham Guiragossian, after Bonfils’ widow and business partner, Lydie Bonfils, left Lebanon in 1916.

Abdullah Freres carried out one of the more interesting and unusual projects: a photographic survey throughout the Ottoman Empire commissioned by Abdülhamid II. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were also a number of Arab photographers. These were predominantly Christian until the 1920s — the best known were members of the Raad family, who operated a studio in Jerusalem from the 1890s on. Early Jewish photographers came from Europe (and one from India). They tended to be converts to Christianity, but they were still singled out as Jews by their Christian colleagues and seem to have been able to photograph more freely in the Jewish communities. Somewhat later, the Bezalel School of the Arts, founded in 1906, became a training ground for Jewish photographers. [5]

Apart from portrait photography and Abdulhamid’s survey, most of the photographic ventures in Palestine had a distinctly Christian cast to them. Bonfils, for example, published a four-volume collection in 1877-1878 under the title, Souvenires d’Orient: Album pittoresque des sites, villes, et ruines les plus remarkables de la Terre Sainte. Photos taken by Lydie Bonfils were used for engraved illustrations (a common practice) in Those Holy Fields: Palestine Illustrated by Pen and Pencil, published by Rev. Samuel Manning in 1874. Adrien Bonfils, who was apparently quite religious, reissued his father’s photographs with new titles that were explicitly biblical: “Druze peasants from Mt. Carmel at Mealtime” became “Actual types who resemble the Twelve eating at the Last Supper with the Savior.” [6] The “Holy Land” was also one of the most popular subjects for stereographs. Before 1900, there were more than 75 photographers producing them. In the heyday of marketing, when boxed sets were issued with instructional materials, Sears and Roebuck sold a 200-card “Holy Land” collection. [7]


In recent years, largely severed from their original purposes, this wealth of photographs has been published in a number of books. Eclipsed for a time by modern media, they have now regained attention as documents of art and history alike. In Travelers in Ancient Lands: A Portrait of the Middle East, 1839-1919, for example, Louis Vaczek and Gail Buckland combine a survey of Middle East history and culture with some 265 old photographs, including about 25 from Palestine. While the main text is fairly sweeping and uninspired, Buckland has provided nine short but informative inserts on the various photographic enterprises in the Middle East: the earliest daguerreotypes, the military and archeological surveys, “Arabists with cameras,” stenographers, studio photographers, and the advent of the Brownie camera (1900). [8] Another brief but useful survey along these lines is Paul E. Chevedden’s exhibition catalogue, The Photographic Heritage of the Middle East. [9] The most thorough and interesting treatment of photographers specifically working in Palestine can be found in another exhibition catalogue, The Photographic Heritage of the Holy Land 1835-1914. Here Eyal Onne documents the entire cast of characters, attempts to situate them in a larger historical context, clearly explains the evolving technology and provides an extensive bibliography on the original publications in which the photographs appeared. [10]

The works of some individual photographers have been published, including Egypt and the Holy Land in Historical Photographs: 77 Views by Francis Frith [11] and The Middle East in Pictures, A Photographic History, 1898-1934, which reproduces about 5,000 slide prints from the Eric Matson collection. [12] The Image of the Middle East: The Photographs of the Maison Bonfils, including some 815 reproductions on microfiche, has been announced as forthcoming for some time. [13]

Along a somewhat different line, the Israeli scholar Jacob Landau has assembled a selection of photographs from the collection of Abdülhamid, under the title, Abdul Hamid’s Palestine. [14] Abdülhamid apparently used photography as a means of keeping tabs on the empire while secluding himself in his palace for fear of assassination. His patronage — in addition to the survey — contributed to the training of native photographers, and they frequently presented him with their work. Landau has organized the photographs around eight geographical areas, with two small groups of “Holy Places” and “People and Professions” at the end. An historical preface and individual chapter introductions touch on various aspects of Palestinian society, but from the top-down perspective of the sultan and with a stress on the backwardness of life that recalls nineteenth-century orientalists. (“The isolation of the village and the unchanging rhythm of its life hardly seemed to bother the villagers, whose almost universal illiteracy was not conducive to higher expectations.”) [14] Finally, there is even a new serial publication issued in Jerusalem, The Heritage of the Holy Land: An Illustrated Periodical for the Landscapes of the Holy Land. This is more or less a portfolio of reproductions, some previously unpublished and others of the Bonfils-Matson variety, accompanied by a minimal descriptive text in Hebrew and English. [15]

Photoessay as History

Among all these publications, the approaches to photography on the one hand and to history on the other are quite diverse, ranging literally from surveys to sales catalogues. One thing they all have in common is the lack of any sympathetic interest in what is actually the visual subject of the photographs they present: namely, historical Palestinian society. The titles of these books and catalogues are indicative of the paradox, focusing as they do on the travelers, the photographers, the “Holy Land” and, perhaps most curiously, “Abdul Hamid’s Palestine,” rather than on the Palestinian people. For this reason alone, Sarah Graham-Brown’s book, Palestinians and their Society 1880-1946, is unique. She has mined the same vast collections of early photographs not to illustrate received history, not to chronicle photographic output per se, not to make a coffee table picture book, but to reconstruct a visual history.

Beyond the initial significance of her subject — which would, after all, be routine were she not talking about the Palestinians — Graham-Brown has put together a study that is meticulously conceived and creatively executed. The photoessay is divided into seven chapters: the first five unfold the basic aspects of Palestinian social structure — the peasants, the bedouins, the city dwellers, and the networks of government, transport, and communication that linked them together; the last two chapters set this synchronic picture in motion with a brief survey of social and political change from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. In her introduction, Graham-Brown indicates that the book “does not pretend to be a scholarly or comprehensive socioeconomic history of the Palestinians. The aim is rather to give an impressionistic view of the relation between a particular nation’s social and political history and some of the images that were made of that history.”

Given this framework, the book is not encyclopedic, and every reader can probably take issue with some exclusion or inclusion. This reader, for example, would have liked to see a better integration of what Graham-Brown calls the Jewish community — in fact, communities — in Palestine, which she chooses not to deal with on somewhat oversimplified grounds that socially each group “lived more or less separately, with its own preoccupations and forms of organization.” But overall, there is a great deal more to be gained from examining what this study has to offer, in terms of content and form alike, then from seeking out its flaws.

The written text presents its information in a precise but lively prose style that manages to avoid the extremes of simplistic narration and academic jargon. The photographs are both interesting and visually informative. They present a wide range of subjects and reflect, as far as possible, a variety of sources. In addition to studio portraits and views, Graham-Brown has come up with anonymous tourist snapshots, school photos, a whole series of family portraits and memorabilia, aerial surveys, and later wire service photos. The images seem so appropriate that it is easy to overlook the frustrations of photo research: Long exposure times in the early days of photography favored landscapes and architecture over human subjects and Western demand created a supply of biblical scenes from particular, religiously significant places. Furthermore, regardless of historical interest, after a hundred years technical quality and physical preservation may leave a great deal to be desired.

Likewise the clear and compelling match of photos and text diverts attention from the skill with which Graham-Brown has composed her narrative, weaving in and out of past history and present consciousness with fact, descriptions and, most important, explanation. In her introduction, she lays out some of the difficulties of interpreting photographic evidence. There is the tension between its perceived authenticity and its actual fragmentary nature. Technical distortions and the absence of reliable dating impose ambiguities. Above all, there are the intangible intentions and attitudes of the photographers, who were basically using their cameras to confirm colonial notions of the native society — in this case, largely the “unchanging Holy Land.” Graham-Brown confronts these limitations throughout her survey by reminding the reader that the images are photographs, not chunks of absolute truth, and offering information on their context and the circumstances of their making.

In addition to photographs and text, there is a third distinctive element at work in Graham-Brown’s presentation. By signaling and elaborating on the relevant visual content, it is the captions that most effectively transform disparate photographs into coherent historical documents. Consider, for example, the comments under a Matson photograph of a woman drawing water at a well with a town in the background:

‘Woman at the well,’ a favorite subject for photographers in search of New Testament themes. Here a carefully posed shot is perhaps suggestive of the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, the town in the background is Bethlehem. The woman’s bared arms seem an unusual feature, but in fact dresses worn by women in this area had wide, pointed sleeves which were often tied up out of the way while working. Carrying water from the nearest well or spring was a daily task, normally performed by women and children.

This photo and caption are juxtaposed with a text section on “Working the Land,” which begins by pointing out that European photographs of Palestinian rural life tended to stress its “unchanging nature” and then discusses the implications of the Western attitude on the one hand and the actual state of peasant farming on the other.

Here is another caption, accompanying a photo of about a dozen children in the countryside who pause for the photographer with large straw baskets on their heads:

Bonfils photograph of Druze children in Ottoman times carrying stones for a road on Mount Carmel. Roadmaking was then a form of compulsory labor. The British introduced a law in 1927 which, though not abolishing the labor requirement, stipulated that a rate or tax could be paid in lieu.

This image appears in the chapter on “Moving Around” and accompanies a discussion of how people traveled and the effects of increased mobility on their lives.

The point is, Graham-Brown has taken a body of photographs out of their respective “albums” to create a new album of her own, one in which the text and captions work together with the images to stimulate a multidimensional appreciation of the past. Her words and her juxtapositions of images transform the original context of the photographs and the original consciousness of the photographers. In her album, the Palestinians are subjects, rather than objects. Their society includes women and children as well as men. History is conceived in terms of change, and change in terms of identifiable cause and effect. In short, Graham-Brown provides a rare and valuable opportunity — especially for Western audiences — to review a past that has otherwise been disrupted, distorted, and denied.

In addition to examining Palestinian society and the images through which it has been recorded, Graham-Brown has given other Middle East researchers a model for a new kind of social history. In the first place, Palestinians and Their Society, 1880-1946 draws attention to the vast but largely unused resources of visual documentation — resources which, incidentally, are becoming more accessible through the efforts of the Harvard Semitic Museum’s FOCUS project to locate and catalogue all the known historical photographs of the Middle East. [16] More important, the book suggests how these sources can be critically analyzed and interpreted in the process of historical research. Finally, it demonstrates how they can be integrated with a written text, not as illustrations to relieve the boredom of the printed page, but as powerful transmitters of fact and idea. Words and pictures are not interchangeable; the immediacy, simultaneity, concreteness, detail and basic unselectivity of the photograph complement, and are enhanced by, the powers of narration, summary, generalization, analysis and specification that lie in the written word. Nearly 150 years ago, Auguste Salzmann wrote in the preface to his book on photographic views of Jerusalem, “Photographs are more than tales; they are facts endowed with brute force.” [17] In the present age of home video and CNN, Middle East studies cannot close its collective eyes to these facts.


[1] Quoted in Jack Maning, “Photography Has Long Been Part of History,” New York Times, October 31, 1976.
[2] Louis Vaczek and Gail Buckland, Travelers in Ancient Lands: A Portrait of the Middle East, 1839-1919 (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981), p. 116.
[3] Quoted in Robert A. Sobieszek and Carney E. S. Gavin, Remembrances of the Near East: The Photographs of Bonfils, 1867-1907, exhibition catalogue (Rochester: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1980), n.p.
[4] George S. Hobart, “The Matson Collection: A Half-Century of Photography in the Middle East,” in Renata V. Shaw, comp., A Century of Photographs, 1846-1946 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1980), pp. 110-111.
[5] Eyal Onne, Photographic Heritage of the Holy Land 1839-1914, exhibition catalogue (Manchester, England: Institute of Advanced Studies, Manchester Polytechnic, 1980), pp. 14-16; Vaczek and Buckland, p. 190.
[6] Carney E. S. Gavin, Elizabeth Carella and Ingeborg O’Reilly, “The Photographers Bonfils of Beirut and Ales, 1867-1916,” Camera 3 (1981), p. 13.
[7] Vaczek and Buckland, p. 116.
[8] See note 2. Bibliography and photographers’ biographies are useful.
[9] Paul E. Chevedden, The Photographic Heritage of the Middle East: An Exhibition of Early Photographs of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Iran, 1849-1943 (Malibu, CA: Udena Publications, 1981).
[10] See note 5.
[11] Egypt and the Holy Land in Historical Photographs: 77 Views by Francis Frith, introd. Julia van Haafjen, selection and commentary by J. M. White (New York: Dover, 1980).
[12] The Middle East in Pictures: A Photographic History 1898-1934, 4 vols. (New York: Arno Press, 1980). The title is misleading because these are simply sales catalogues with 2×3 reproductions and no historical interpretation.
[13] Carney E. S. Gavin, The Image of the Middle East: The Photographs of the Maison Bonfils (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
[14] Jacob Landau, Abdul Hamid’s Palestine (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979).
[15] Ely Schiller, ed., The Heritage of the Holy Land: An Illustrated Periodical for the Landscapes of the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Ariel Publishing House, vol. 1, December 1982).
[16] On FOCUS (an acronym for the aims of Finding, Organizing, Copying, Utilizing and Sharing [the photographs], see Carney E. S. Gavin, “Time-Machine Magic,” MESA Bulletin 15/2 (December 1981), pp. 1-6.
[17] Auguste Salzmann, Jerusalem, Etude et reproduction photographique des monuments de la Ville Sainte depuis l’epoque judaïque jusqu’a nos jours, 2 vols (Paris: Gide et J. Baudry, 1856), quoted in Onne, p. 9.

How to cite this article:

Miriam Rosen "Visualizing History," Middle East Report 120 (January/February 1984).

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