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Unstable Icons, Contested Histories

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Vintage Photographs and Neoliberal Memory in Contemporary Egypt

image of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication

This essay discusses the contemporary circulation of digitized historical photographs in the Egyptian online world. On countless Facebook pages and blogs, vintage photographs of multiple genres—including “orientalist” photographs sold in late 19th century to western tourists, early 20th century postcards of the colonial metropolis, advertising shots published in mid-20th century Egyptian magazines, and private family photographs—are being unearthed, reactivated, and assigned with new meanings that are acutely contemporary. “Freed” from the confines of old dusty archives that once constrained their circulation, such “old” (or “vintage”) photographs become iconic en masse: they no longer stand simply for the thing, person or event depicted, but instead signify larger social values and relationships to the past. Their indexicality and iconicity goes hand in hand: it is precisely because they are photographs—images widely believed to have been created as mechanical, and thus objective, imprints of things that once undoubtedly “were there”—that they can perform the cultural work currently demanded of them as proofs of past truths. This ongoing re-deployment and re-signification of digitized old photographs (facilitated by digital technologies and social media) has two recent genealogies. First is the neoliberal rereading of modern Egyptian history in which colonialism becomes recast as a period of once-had-and-then-lost modernity; second is the difficult and confusing post-revolutionary present in which such “liberated,” but also inherently unstable icons serve to prove at once the necessity of a revolution as well as the reason why it has apparently failed.

Affiliations: 1: University of Birmingham, Department of History, UK


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