Latif Al Ani (b. 1932) is considered the founding father of Iraqi photography and his extensive documentary career spans from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, when it became impossible to photograph in public due to the increasingly authoritarian atmosphere of the Saddam regime and the Iran-Iraq War. Working with the Iraqi Petroleum Magazine in the 1950s, Al Ani was the first photographer to shoot aerial views of Iraq from small planes and helicopters. A duality of thinking makes both modernising trends and the retention of ancient traditions themes of Al Ani’s work and the Pavilion exhibition will focus on works from the early period of his career.
Below is an extract of an interview with Latif Al Ani, by Ruya Foundation’s chairman Tamara Chalabi. The full piece, in which Latif talks about his exhibition in America and his assignments in East Germany, is available in the Invisible Beauty catalogue, published by Mousse.
How did you become a professional photographer?
Photography was a hobby for me. There was a Jewish photographer, Nissan, who had a studio. He was my brother’s neighbour on Mutanabbi Street. I used to visit him when I helped my brother in his shop. He taught me how to use an instant camera and gave me a few tips. My brother then bought me my first camera when he saw how interested I was in it. It cost around one and a half Iraqi dinars. This was in 1947, I must have been 15. It was a Kodak box, and it never left my side. My first photos were of life: palms, plants, faces, people on rooftops. Photography was still quite new in Iraq. I had a friend, Aziz Ajam, who was an editor for the IPC’s Arabic-version magazine, Ahl al-Naft (People of Oil). They were was looking for trainees and I applied. Jack Percival hired me. I learned everything there. He was my boss, my teacher, and my spiritual father. My father died when I was young. When Jack died, I was one of his pallbearers. It was his wish.
How did you feel looking through the lens?
I couldn’t wait for the film to be developed so I could see the result.[…]
How did you feel toward the British, at the IPC? Especially in an atmosphere in Iraq of growing nationalism and anticolonial feeling?
I felt very comfortable at IPC. They treated me well. I didn’t feel anything unequal. […] Jack Percival wanted to teach me everything he knew. One day we were in his office and he had a thick photography manual. He told me “Latif, I won’t leave Iraq before teaching you everything in this book.” He saw my enthusiasm. He took me on many trips to train my eye; he even helped reduce my military service time so I could travel more with him. […]
Aerial photography was a novelty in Iraq. What was the experience like?
[…] At one point, the Iraqi government wanted to advertise their new Trident plane. We decided the best way to do so was to photograph it flying over a uniquely Iraqi landmark, the Shrine of Musa Kazim, just outside of Baghdad, which has two domes. This was Jack Percival’s idea. We got into the IPC’s Viscount plane to do the shoot. From the air, I saw things in a different way. […] Colors were different. I saw the contrast more clearly between the ugly and the beautiful. Everything was more exposed. Nothing could be hidden.
Do you have a favorite image?
I took this photo around 1955, in the outskirts of Damascus, in Ghouta Dimashq, in the morning. […] I was on assignment for the IPC in Syria.
If you were still working as a photographer today in 2015, how would you deal with Iraq and the world? What can photography bring today in comparison with when you worked?
I don’t think I can photograph anything today. There is nothing beautiful. Beauty is not just about a view; it’s also about dealing with people on the street. Perhaps outside Iraq I would be able to photograph. […] I am fascinated by speed and time today, the instant image that lets you know what’s going on. […] I still remember the images of Neil Armstrong arriving from the Associated Press through the radio waves in 1969. That was considered fast then. We printed the image and displayed it in Tahrir Square. We had a press center in the square, to put out all latest news in public for people to read.[…]
Was there an official state visual propaganda? And if yes, where did your images fit into it?
Over the course of my work for the state—in the Ministry of Culture first, then the Iraq news agency—the country underwent several ideological changes that were often contradictory. I just applied the general message of this or that period to the images they wanted. For example, after the 1958 revolution, the state was ideologically socialist and wanted to promote the working classes, so I took a lot of images of the existing industries, workers, farmers, and so on. After 1963, the government was nationalist and they cared more about different forms of political life, so my focus was more on the personalities, on rallies and speeches, veering more toward the journalistic. They were interested in showing their projects, such as images of food distribution to poor people. Nonetheless, I didn’t omit things that I thought were interesting, images that I liked […] After 1968, censorship increased more and more. […] The president needed to be presented in perfect pitch. […]
The writer Franz Kafka is quoted as saying, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” Did you ever want to push a story away by photographing it?
On the contrary, I wanted to capture the image so that it would stay with me always.
The full interview with Latif Al Ani is available from the Invisible Beauty catalogue, published by Mousse.