It’s been a busy 12 months for Akram Zaatari. The 47-year-old Beirut based artist represented Lebanon at the 2013 Venice Biennale and recently had a high-profile show at New York’s Moma. This multimedia exhibition, his first at Thomas Dane, sprawls across both sites of the Mayfair gallery and is a fascinating meditation on the role of images in our lives today.
Number 11 Duke Street is a hive of activity: ’28 Nights and a Poem’ occupies the entire space and is a tender homage to Studio Sheherazade, a portrait studio which was opened by the photographer Hashem el Madani in Zaatari’s hometown of Saida, South Lebanon, in the 1950s. Zaatari employs iPads, LCD screens, Super 8 projections, photographic prints and cabinets packed with memorabilia to conjure a shifting snapshot of Lebanon’s postwar society through the negatives, celluloid reels and photos belonging to El Madani’s studio.
Down the road at 3 Duke Street you’ll find the film ‘On Photography, People and Modern Times’. A 38-minute study of Zaatari’s work as co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation (which was begun in1997 to collect and preserve images from the Arab world), it marks a shift in mood. Here the almost clinical act of archiving pictures is portrayed on screen, while personal stories about how the photos came about flash up as a series of extended subtitles.
The show raises an important question. Has photography’s power been diluted through the ubiquity of digital images? In the past the local photographic studio would have been a focus of community. Today we use pictures to forge an identity – and associate ourselves with others – via social media. Zaatari makes the point that, if we’re to leave a record of contemporary life, our snaps need to be valued, and preserved.