In 1997, Akram Zaatari, Fouad Elkoury, and Samer Mohdad created the Arab Image Foundation (AIF). The goal of this Beirut-based nonprofit organization is to preserve the visual memory of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. To this end, they have undertaken an extraordinary work of preserving photographers’ archives, studio portraits, family albums, and other documents. The Foundation maintains a collection of over 500,000 photographs. Along with its conservation mission, AIF continues to initiate ambitious projects. The team, composed of a new generation of artists and researchers like Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, chair or the board of directors, and preventive photography conservator Rachel Tabet, suffered the full brunt of the August 4 explosion.
Rachel Tabet: We are all traumatized but determined to recover so we can continue our mission. Some of us had our houses destroyed, some were injured, and some lost people we love. Due to our close proximity to the blast site, the AIF building was severely damaged. At the office, the preservation department and the cool storage room, which houses our collections, took the heaviest damage. Despite the chaos and terror right after the blast, two of our team members were able to get to the office and secure our digital assets. The next morning, we were at the office to start cleaning.
It took us 10 days to clean the office and secure the collections. Our digitization lab has been turned into a makeshift storage area with minimal climate control, where all the collections now reside. We are currently assessing the extent of the damage to the collections, but so far it seems to be minimal. We are also working on rehabilitating the office and repairing the damage to our library which contains over 2,000 books. Together with 16 volunteers, we cleaned the books in our library one by one to remove dust and glass shards. More than two weeks later, we are still trying to maintain a balance between our duty to the collections, and acknowledging our shared and individual traumas, and the toll the explosion and its aftermath have taken on us.
Most institutions in charge of preserving large patrimony have an emergency plan in the event of a crisis. It has usually been prepared in quiet times in the hopes that it will never happen. And if, unfortunately, a disaster strikes, the problem lies in the gap between what was planned and what actually happens.
Rachel Tabet: We have been adapting to constant changes in Lebanon since the revolution in October 2019. When the pandemic reached the country in March 2020 and we had to work from home, we took it as an opportunity to revise and update our emergency plan, developed in 2014, because we knew we needed to be prepared for anything. When we went back to work, we made sure that preventive measures were taken and the collections were secured. Practicing preventive conservation over the years has gone a long way towards protecting the collections. For instance, all the heavy boxes in storage were placed on lower shelves, fragile materials like glass plates were secured with tightropes. Although the drywall collapsed and toppled the cupboards one atop the other, most of the boxes did not move. The boxes that did move were light in weight, and did not cause damage to other boxes. From what we have seen so far, the boxes took most of the damage on the outside, but the photographs and negatives, and even the glass plates are intact.
On the other hand, we failed to foresee something of this magnitude happening to the entire city all at once. We have always considered the risks to the collections, the premises, and the surrounding area, but not to the whole city and to such an extent. For instance, we had an evacuation route and meeting point set up, but the amount of destruction made it impossible for the entire team to convene in one place. We had a plan to evacuate the collections to a neighboring institution, the Sursock Museum, but this is proving difficult since the blast inflicted heavy damage to many of the city’s cultural initiatives, the museum included. It was still able to host our digital assets right after the blast, however.