Orientalism in Photography

by Michelle L. Woodward

“Orientalist” is a term commonly used to describe nineteenth-century photography of the Middle East. Although the word Orientalist at one time simply referred to a scholar of the “Orient,” it is now used to refer to a biased system of representation that creates an essential, patronizing, and hierarchical difference between the “Orient” and the “West.” This shift of meaning occurred as a result of Edward Said’s influential 1978 book Orientalism, which traced how Europe manufactured an imaginary Orient through literary works and the social sciences. Nissan N. Perez, like many scholars of photography, expanded Said’s insights to analyze visual works. Perez, in his book Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East (1839 – 1885), succinctly explains one way of thinking about how Orientalism operates: “Literature, painting, and photography fit the real Orient into the imaginary or mental mold existing in the Westerner’s mind. … These attitudes are mirrored in many of the photographs taken during this time [the nineteenth century]… Either staged or carefully selected from a large array of possibilities, they became living visual documents to prove an imaginary reality.”1

(figure 1) Orientalist cliché of a dancer posing with musicians in Egypt. Circa 1880s. Norbert Schiller Collection, unknown photographer.

(figure 1) Orientalist cliché of a dancer posing with musicians in Egypt, circa 1880s. Norbert Schiller Collection, unknown photographer.

However, it is not accurate or useful to label all photography of the Middle East as Orientalist. Additionally, confining the study of nineteenth-century photography too strictly within the rubric of Orientalism limits the range of possible insights into the production, use, and circulation of photography.2 The visual conventions of late nineteenth-century photographs of the Middle East were not monolithic, but instead varied depending on audience and purpose. Photography from this period includes fictional Orientalist clichés created in the studio (such as erotic harem scenes and models posed as musicians, craftsmen, or merchants) (figure 1), landscapes and depictions of historical monuments (figure 2), elegant commissioned portraits of individuals and families, early press photography, and documentary images of modernization, such as those taken for the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s photographic albums.

Orientalist tropes were used by Western and local photographers alike. The photographer’s national origin or identity mattered less than their intended audience or clientele. Whether they were local or foreign, photographers were susceptible to the pressures of the market and most produced stock Orientalist fare as well as portraiture meant for family consumption and, depending on the studio, a variety of other types of commissioned work.

(figure 2) Landscape showing Mount Horeb with St. Catherine's Monastery on Egypt's Sinai peninsula, circa 1860. Norbert Schiller Collection, Photo Francis Frith

(figure 2) Landscape showing Mount Horeb with St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, circa 1860. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Francis Frith

Generally speaking, late nineteenth-century photography worldwide may at first appear to have a uniformity of style, an easily recognized “look.” There are certainly characteristics of photographs made in this period that are broadly consistent, such as the sharp focus and minute detail provided by the use of large glass plate negatives. There was also a widespread interest in cataloging people according to ethnic group or occupation as well as commonalties in the use of studio backdrops, props, and poses.3 However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that there are also significant variations in visual conventions and style across national boundaries and within them. Describing these variations and understanding their historical context reveals how representational practices are shaped by cross-cultural interactions, social context, politics, commercial considerations, and personal and group identities.

Photography and European desires
The desire to document the Middle East in photographs existed from the first unveiling of the photographic process. In his August 1839 public announcement in Paris of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype, scientist and politician François Arago described the great future potential of this new process with the following example:

How archeology is going to benefit from this new process! It would require twenty years and legions of draftsmen to copy the millions and millions of hieroglyphics covering just the outside of the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, Karnak, etc. A single man can accomplish this same enormous task with the daguerreotype.4

The nineteenth century’s passion for cataloging, collecting, and explaining the world in scientific, empirical terms was manifested in the formation of new disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, new theories like Darwin’s evolution, as well as in the ways society used the new technology of photography. The photograph’s ability to record more life-like detail than any other process led to its use as a tool for accumulating visual surveys of urban space, historical monuments, colonial possessions, and people as ethnic or occupational “types.”

The Middle East was the first region outside Europe and the USA to be subject to these visual surveys of landscape, architecture, and people. By the time Daguerre’s photographic process was announced in Paris as a new invention, European popular interest in the Middle East had already been firmly established. Middle Eastern motifs had been appropriated for use in clothing fashions, literature, music, furniture, drawings and paintings since the sixteenth century. As soon as photographers developed ways to photograph outside their own backyards they immediately headed to Egypt, Palestine and Istanbul. The earliest photographers to travel to the Middle East did not photograph for commercial purposes, but were primarily wealthy tourists or explorers of archeological ruins (often for government sponsors) such as Maxime Du Camp – traveling with Gustave Flaubert – and Auguste Salzmann. By the late 1850s the wet collodion process of making glass negatives allowed for the creation of multiple, more affordable prints for broader distribution. From the 1860s, photographers like Francis Frith and Félix Bonfils quickly found commercial success with a European public fascinated by the “East” as well as with tourists travelling in the region seeking mementos to take home.

Relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe
In the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire still governed a large area of the Middle East. Early in photographic history, indigenous photographers, such as Pascal Sébah, emerged, especially in Istanbul, and, although they interacted with many European social forces, they were not under Western colonial rule. When photography was officially revealed, in 1839, Europe had economic and political interests in the Middle East, and there was widespread popular cultural fascination with the region. Just the year before photography’s historic debut the Ottoman Empire had signed the Anglo-Ottoman Convention, the first of several treaties that opened up the Ottoman provinces to European merchants, giving them unprecedented access to markets. Since the eighteenth century the Ottoman sultans had been implementing reforms, based on European models, in military, educational, technological, and scientific fields. Inspired by Eugène Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris in the late nineteenth century, architectural and urban planning efforts had begun to transform Istanbul into a modernized, European-style capital (figure 3).

(figure 3) At the end of the 19th century Istanbul was transformed into a modern Europeanized capital. Circa between 1880 and 1893. Abdul Hamid II Collection. Phot. Abdullah Freres

(figure 3) At the end of the 19th century Istanbul was transformed into a modern Europeanized capital, circa 1880-1893. Abdul Hamid II Collection, Phot. Abdullah Freres

Socially, Istanbul had been an ethnically diverse city since the Byzantine era when foreign colonies settled for purposes of trade. After various treaties with Europe gave preferential treatment to European merchants in the mid-nineteenth century, the population of foreign residents grew and, by 1885, they made up almost fifteen percent of Istanbul.5 The districts of the city which had the highest concentration of foreigners were Péra and Galata. It was in Péra, on the Grande Rue de Péra, where most photographers, including the Sébah family, had their studios. This main street was full of the most up-to-date European-style shops, restaurants, cafes, theaters, department stores, hotels, and apartment buildings. Foreign tourists as well as the local elite, including members of the Ottoman court, came here to enjoy the cosmopolitan, luxurious atmosphere.

(figure 4) Turkish school girls dressed in European clothes, circa 1890s. Abdul Hamid II Collection. Phot. Abdullah Freres

(figure 4) Turkish school girls dressed in European clothes, circa 1890s. Abdul Hamid II Collection, Phot. Abdullah Freres

In this time of rapid modernization, photography was seen as another advanced technological tool that could benefit the Ottoman Empire.6 The sultans encouraged the use of photography from its beginnings, but it was Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876 – 1909) who is considered its greatest supporter. Abdul Hamid seems to have understood the persuasive and propaganda value of photography and, in the early 1890s, he commissioned the production of fifty-one albums depicting the modernization of the Ottoman Empire through photographs of architecture, educational institutions, students in European dress (including many girls), military arsenals, hospitals, factories, and docks, among other subjects (figure 4). In commissioning the photographs for the albums, the sultan remarked that “Most of the photographs taken [by European photographers] for sale in Europe vilify and mock Our Well-Protected Domains. It is imperative that the photographs to be taken in this instance do not insult Islamic peoples by showing them in a vulgar and demeaning light.”7 After being exhibited at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the albums were donated to the Library of Congress as evidence of Ottoman progress.8 It is not clear, however, if these albums were actually viewed by anyone in the receiving countries, and thus their diplomatic effectiveness is called into question.9

Commercial photography studios
Commercial photography studios were often run by permanent residents in the Ottoman Empire who established long-lasting local studios, unlike many photographers who traveled in the Middle East for a short period, and then returned to Europe with their negatives. Some studio photographers were of local heritage, while others were Europeans who lived in the region for extended periods.

(figure 5) Syrian Moslem women photographed inside a studio in Beirut, Lebanon, circa 1880s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Bonfils

(figure 5) Syrian Moslem women photographed inside a studio in Beirut, Lebanon, circa 1880s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Bonfils

The Frenchman Félix Bonfils, for example, established a family-run studio after moving to Beirut in 1867. His subjects included all the usual themes from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Greece: monuments, landscapes (often titled with Biblical references), and people classified according to type (figure 5). Many studios photographed people as recognizable types posed and costumed as if engaged in traditional and timeless activities, such as brewing coffee, selling produce, praying, or playing musical instruments. Certain Bonfils studio shots of types have been shown to be false representations, with the same model posing as a rabbi in one photo and a cotton carder in another.10 Undoubtedly, the use of models was a common practice among studios.

What makes much of the Bonfils family’s work particularly Orientalist was their explicit effort to capture what they imagined was a timeless, unchanging Orient on the verge of disruption by an external, imported modernity. By selectively and deliberately choosing only particular elements from the surrounding environment to include in the picture, such as rural landscapes, traditional clothing, and props that suggest pre-modern occupations, they strove to meet their, and other Europeans’, expectations and interests. Adrien Bonfils, wrote that “Before that happens, before Progress has completed its destructive work, before this present – which is still the past – has disappeared forever, we have tried, so to speak, to fix and immobilize it in a series of photographic views.”11 The Bonfils family was not interested in illustrating present-day realities, but preferred to recreate for the camera what they saw as the region’s “pristine character and special cachet.”12 This desire can be seen in their posed photographs of lone water-sellers, carpet merchants, tinsmiths, and other occupational and ethnic types, as well as in their deliberate focus on the traditional, rural, and Biblical, to the exclusion of all indications of modernity.

(figure 6) Interior of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, circa 1890s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Sabah & Joaillier

(figure 6) Interior of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, circa 1890s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Sabah & Joaillier

(figure 7) Shoe makers market in Istanbul, circa 1890s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Sabah & Joaillier

(figure 7) Shoe makers market in Istanbul, circa 1890s. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Sabah & Joaillier

Studios were owned by indigenous photographers as well. Pascal Sébah, whose parents were Syrian Catholic and Armenian, established a studio in Istanbul in 1857. His studio produced views of monuments, city streets, landscapes, and family portraits, as well as the usual Orientalist material such as staged scenes of ethnic types and women posing seductively. Pascal Sébah’s son, Jean, who took over the Istanbul studio after his father’s death, was commissioned with his partner Pollicarpe Joaillier to provide photographs of neatly arranged rows of school children across the Empire to add to Abdul Hamid’s albums that were intended to depict Ottoman modernization.

More uniquely, the Sébah studio also produced many documentary-style photos taken in city streets and inside markets and mosques with what appear to be actual residents or pedestrians sitting or standing like portraits. These are not models, and they are not pretending to be working or wielding excessive props to signify their identity as types. In this period the arrangement and posing of people for a photograph was deliberately decided by the photographer due to slow shutter speeds and large, heavy camera equipment that required a tripod. But beyond the necessary basic arranging and directions to keep still, many photographs of public places by the Sébah studio seem to depict people as modern-day individuals, gazing confidently at the camera as they pose in their usual environments, rather than as Orientalist types.13

(figure 8) Water carriers in Cairo, Egypt, emptying their goatskin bags. Phot. Bonfils

(figure 8) Water carriers in Cairo, Egypt, emptying their goatskin bags, circa 1880s. Phot. Bonfils

A detailed comparison between photographs by Bonfils and Sébah will help illuminate the tropes of an Orientalist photograph. The Sébah studio took many photographs of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a place well-known to tourists. In this example dated ca. 1873, Sébah arranged merchants to appear lined up in front of their shops (figures 6 & 7). The composition of this and other similar photographs locates the subjects in their social context. By intentionally angling the camera so that it captures the length of the street, Sébah shows how the market is structured with shops that sell fabric or clothing clustered in the same area. He also dismisses stereotypes about his subjects by showing that not all fabric merchants dress alike. Additionally, the photo reveals the variety of men and boys present in this social space. These visual revelations may seem trivial, but they are quite different from the impressions given by a more typical nineteenth-century image of a Middle Eastern working man. For example, the Bonfils photograph ‘Water carriers emptying their goat skin waterbags’ (approx. 1885 – 1901) (figure 8), carries an Orientalist implication of the Middle East as a place outside of time. By consciously omitting any individual or social details in the photograph, Bonfils proposes that this is how all Egyptian water carriers appear. The corner where two walls come together that is used as background reveals nothing about either the water carriers or about the city fabric around them. This set-up is as close to a studio photograph as possible, without being inside the studio. Even the wooden latticework over the windows look suspiciously like a prop.14 In this style of Bonfils photograph, the focus is on the body and the symbolic props or postures displayed, which reinforce stereotypes known to Europeans. In contrast, Sébah’s portrait style emphasizes a group of individuals and their connections to a larger society, exposing a complex and subtle interaction and thus eluding easy stereotyping.

Between Orientalism and Modernity
Many of the Sébah family’s photographs make use of conventional Orientalist clichés prevalent at the time in depictions of the Middle East, prompting some writers to label their work as Orientalist.15 However, upon close examination, a portion of their work also reveals a vision of the Ottoman Empire that is different from the typical Orientalist genre. In particular, their portraits of everyday people in public settings, which emphasize order and modernity within indigenous historical structures, indicate a perspective that does not fit comfortably into the Orientalist mode.

As Zeynep Çelik noted in the context of Ottoman representations in the late nineteenth-century world fairs, while “many Muslim nations accepted European supremacy and attempted to remodel their institutions according to Western precedents, they were also searching for cultural identity under the strong impact of European paradigms.” She goes on to explain that “European paradigms were not simplistically appropriated; they were often filtered through a corrective process, which reshaped them according to self-visions and aspirations.”16 Similarly, the Sébah family’s photographic studio may have creatively adapted some European conventions, such as photographs of occupational types to suit their “self-visions” as part of a modernizing society. Yet, their images portray a rich history depicting their subjects as dignified members of diverse, cohesive local communities. The style diverged from the typical Orientalist perspective of the Ottoman Empire by emphasizing order within the context of the local social fabric, while at the same time depicting places and peoples that tourists were curious about, such as markets, merchants, bath houses, and mosques. The Bonfils family may have felt “love” for their adopted countries, as one scholar maintains, but their affection was for a European vision of a static, romantically traditional world whose people could be described through familiar character-types from the Bible or tales from 1001 Nights.17 While Bonfils photographs are certainly not the most extreme Orientalist representations of the Middle East, they make a useful comparison to those of the Sébah family since both were prolific, long-standing studios that represented the Ottoman Empire through the end of the nineteenth century.


1Nissan N. Perez, Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East (1839 – 1885), New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with The Domino Press, Jerusalem, and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1988, 50.
2Important new work on Ottoman photography is now being done that attempts to go beyond the framework of Orientalism while still taking it into consideration. For example, see Camera Ottomana: Photography and Modernity in the Ottoman Empire, 1840 – 1914, Zeynep Çelik and Edhem Eldem, 2015: Koç University Publications.
3For examples of studio photography around the world see: Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography, Paris: Revue Noire 1999. Wendy Watriss and Lois Parkinson Zamora, Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America, 1866 – 1994, Austin: University of Texas Press in association with FotoFest, Inc. 1998. For a European example of categorizing members of society by occupation see the work of the German photographer August Sander.
4Gisèle Freund, Photography and Society, Boston: David R. Godine 1980.
5The census of 1885 quoted in Zeynep Çelik, The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press 1986.
6European experts were brought to Istanbul to assist with modernization efforts. Two of these experts, Enest de Caranza and James Robertson, were also photographers who pursued their avocation while in the Ottoman Empire. Bahattin Öztuncay, ‘Ernest de Caranza: Member of the Société Française de Photographie’, History of Photography 15:2 (Summer 1991), 139-43. Bahattin Öztuncay, James Robertson, Pioneer of Photography in the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul: Eren 1992.
7Quoted in Selim Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876 – 1909, London: I.B. Tauris 1998, 156.
8See Carney E.S. Gavin, Sinasi Tekin and Gönül Alpay Tekin, ‘Imperial Self-Portrait. The Ottoman Empire as Revealed in Sultan Abdul Hamid’s Photographic Albums’, Journal of Turkish Studies 12 (1988). Another set of albums was sent to the British Museum.
9Edhem Eldem, “Powerful Images: The Dissemination and Impact of Photography in the Ottoman Empire, 1870 – 1914,” Camera Ottomana: Photography and Modernity in the Ottoman Empire 1840 – 1914, Istanbul: Koç University Publications 2015, 114.
10Perez, Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East (1839 – 1885), 141.
11Carney E.S. Gavin, The Image of the East: Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfils, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1982, 1.
12Ibid.
13For an expanded discussion of the work of the Sébah studio, and that of the Bonfils studio, see Michelle L. Woodward, “Between orientalist clichés and images of modernization:
Photographic practice in the late Ottoman era,” in History of Photography, 27:4 (Winter 2003).
14Several other Bonfils photographs use the same corner with different arrangements of figures, and many use similarly blank backgrounds bereft of contextual detail. For examples visit the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives Photographic Collection website. (http://sphinx.museum.upenn.edu:591/default.htm)
15For one example see Özendes, From Sébah & Joaillier to Foto Sébah: Orientalism in Photography.
16Çelik, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at 19th Century World’s Fairs, Berkeley: University of California Press 1992, 10-11.
17Gavin, The Image of the East: Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfils, viii, 1, 33.

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