Latif Al-Ani holds the reputation as being the founding “father of Iraqi photography,” known for his images of urban life in Iraq in the 1950s to 1970s. He also extensively photographed the booming oil industry, starting when he joined the photography staff at Iraq Petroleum Co.’s Arabic-version magazine, Ahl al-Naft (People of Oil).
“My first assignment was to photograph the then-king of Iraq, King Faisal, during an event. From there I went on to photograph all of the oil refineries in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Al-Ani said in an interview with In Sight.
He noted how Iraq changed after the discovery of oil.
“This discovery led to jobs and developments in infrastructure, education, health care and the arts, and was reflected in the culture and life of Iraqi people,” Al-Ani said.
Al-Ani’s work is on display in an exhibition with 16 other artists, titled “Crude.” “Crude” is part of the inaugural programming of the newly opened Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. It is described as work that explores “oil as an agent of social, cultural and economic transformation, as well as a driver of geo-political upheaval.”
New York- and Sharjah-based exhibition curator Murtaza Vali told In Sight that though the images Al-Ani produced for the Iraq Petroleum Co. were originally intended for a Western audience, they trained local artists to produce company propaganda in Arabic that was relatable to local and regional audiences.
Vali highlighted the importance of Al-Ani’s photographs to the visual history of Iraq.
“In my estimation, parts of this visual archive, and especially Al Ani’s photographs, serve as an important visual repertoire through which the people of a newly independent and fast changing Iraq, came to see themselves and their nation as modern. The selection of images I chose for the exhibition highlight some of these changes like: the urban transformation of Baghdad from an Ottoman city of crowded bazaars and winding narrow alleys to a modern city with broad automobile-filled avenues and modernist skyscrapers and mass housing projects.”
Al-Ani notes that his photographs are not the kind of images people are used to seeing from Iraq in present times, and hopes that his work could encourage another such renaissance in the country.
“I wanted to show our heritage against our present, the contrast between past and present, where we had arrived in comparison with the past. For me, photography is preserving the moment for future generations. I think viewers are surprised or shocked when they see my photographs in contrast to what they see of Iraq today. I hope that they make people think and feel the pain we feel, and get inspired to help Iraq have another ‘golden age.’ ”
“Crude” is on view Nov. 11 to March 30 at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
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