Al Jazeera World

Family Album

Lebanese and Egyptians discover their family history through old photos and tales of the studios where they were taken.

Filmmaker: Mohamed Mamdoh

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when people wanted to have a photograph taken, they visited a professional studio.

Family albums were full of the resulting images – formal group photos and individual portraits.

In this film, Family Album, Lebanese and Egyptians look back at their family history, captured in these old studio photographs. It is part nostalgia and part personal history, as they reflect on lost moments and memories.

At 120 years old, the Bela photography studio in Egypt is reputedly the oldest in the Arab world.

It was opened by a Hungarian immigrant called Bela, but has now been in the Egyptian Aldein family for generations.

Mohamed Ashraf Mehi Aldein – or Ashraf Bela as he is popularly known – runs the studio. His collection of photos date back to the 1920s and reveal the evolution in Egyptian social traditions, values and beliefs over the decades.

“Some liked the man to be seated, to convey his power, with the woman standing beside him with her hands on his shoulder. This was popular around 1917 to 1920,” he explains.

“Then, they decided the man should let the woman sit, out of respect, and he should remain standing.

“Then, the extended family: grandparents, mother, father and grandchildren stood and the grandparents were seated.”

For Egyptian artist, Amina Kamil, photographs “are a way to capture the present”. But they also document history.

“It’s a souvenir of people we never saw, like our grandparents,” she explains. “My pictures will go to the next generation. They won’t see us, but they’ll know us and what we did in life.”

Leafing through her family photographs with her father, she learns about her grandmother – a doctor at a time when higher education was rare for women – and her great-grandmother, who took part in the Egyptian nationalist demonstrations of 1919 and 1923.

“In this picture, your grandmother is wearing peasant clothes … She didn’t normally wear peasant clothes, but she liked to wear the clothes of her ancestors [for this photo],” Amina’s father explains.

“Here’s her picture when she was a new medical graduate, and she’s wearing a gown and a hat.

“When she took her diploma they called her ‘effendi’. She went and took her little brother’s suit and wore it. And she wore a fez too because she was an effendi. It became an inside joke.”

Azza Suleiman is a lecturer at the Lebanese University in Beirut and says of the resonance of old photographs: “There are some things that have been lost and only memories are left … It’s about what was and what could have been; more than just memories.”

She gets emotional when looking at pictures of her late mother. “It makes me feel like I’m there, back with my mother when she was still in our lives,” she reflects.

Family Album: Photography during the Lebanese war

Azza believes photos are a part of Lebanese culture and says there’s even a joke about it: “How can you tell Lebanese people in a restaurant? Because before they order, they tell the waiter to take their picture!”

Mohamed Zein Aldein is a Lebanese business student who feels that photographs allow him to maintain his special connection to his late grandfather. “Taking a picture with him was like an official event,” he says. “[They] are always posed like taking a picture with a government minister.”

But they also help him to know his uncle, who died in the Lebanese civil war. “My only wish is to have known him,” Mohamed reflects. “I only knew him from pictures.” 

In fact, photographs played an important role during the civil war as they became a way to remember the 200,000 people who were killed.

Ara Keshishan’s Beirut photography business thrived as young men wanted their families to have something to remember them by, in case they were killed.

“During the war, we worked 100 times more than we did the rest of our lives. The soldiers came in 10s and 20s and 30s, saying, ‘Take our pictures, we want pictures’,” Ara recalls.

“During the war, explosions damaged the store 10 times, but the work covered everything. We worked a lot.”

But in an age of mobile phone cameras and selfies, the role of these old studios has been diminished.

Family Album: Azza Suleiman social video

Instead of capturing precious moments in people’s lives, they have been relegated to taking photos for government documents, passports and driving licences.

Family Album offers an insight into the vital role old photography studios played in capturing the lives of ordinary people across the Middle East at a time when photography was in its infancy – and the role those photographs have played during the more recent regional turmoil. 

“They say pictures are always precious to your heart,” Mohamed reflects. “They make you feel nostalgic. They remind you of the beauty of something you lived before. Memories that you want to go back to.”