By Mary Pelletier
A quick Google search reveals an oft-repeated, neat little biography for Karimeh Abbud, complete with an image of her, stood next to a large-format camera, shutter release in hand. Karimeh was allegedly the first female photographer in Palestine, born in 1896 to an esteemed, intellectual family who resided in Bethlehem. She also went by the title ‘Lady Photographer’, and proudly stamped the moniker on her prints. Seeing this calling card, I was hooked – how had Karimeh managed to make her mark in the old boys’ club of Holy Land photography practice?
The biographical information about Karimeh online was surprisingly one-dimensional. She had worked throughout Palestine, making her studio in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, specialising in photographs of women and families. Articles stated her importance with certainty, but I was curious as to the source of this information – did it come from her family? Who had declared her the ‘first’ Palestinian female photographer, or as some claimed, the first female to run a photographic business in the Middle East? What had happened to her photographs, and why weren’t they in a museum collection somewhere?
With funding from the PEF, I got right down to asking anyone in Bethlehem and Jerusalem with photography knowledge who would listen – where can I find Karimeh Abbud and her photographs? Articles from the Jerusalem Quarterly and online sources cited the Nazareth Archive Project and Ahmad Mrowat as being the source of the research. The Nazareth Archive Project was said to house Karimeh’s work, but phone numbers to Mrowat were disconnected, as were phone numbers I tracked down for family members who were said to have helped compile this initial information, circa 2007.
Karimeh’s name seemed to be one that everyone knew – but no one knew much about. One Palestinian photography collector let out a long sigh when I asked him what he knew of Karimeh’s work, citing that her reputation had been overblown – her studio photographs were nothing special, photographically speaking. I disagreed – I had been attracted to Abbud’s photographs because those I had seen online seemed much more intimate than the stage-y, directed portraiture of Jerusalem photographers like Khalil Ra’ad.
Looking at photographs from Issam Nassar’s collection, reproduced here, the subjects of her photographs seem to exude a comfort, both with their partners and with the photographer herself – as though the taking of the picture is not a transaction, but instead a sort of collaborative effort. (Nassar has written further on Abbud in the larger context of Middle Eastern portraiture in the Jerusalem Quarterly, cited below).
That skeptical collector also put me in touch with Rev. Mitri Raheb, head of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, and, as it turned out, Karimeh’s unintentional biographer.
Meeting with Rev. Raheb helped to set some things straight about Karimeh’s biography – his book, a limited-print run paperback written in Arabic and with a foreword by Ahmad Mrowat, charts her life through Lutheran church records. He sets a clear picture of her life’s trajectory, her family life, the chances afforded her by her family’s status, even her marriage – many things left out of any online articles. All of the context afforded by Rev. Raheb’s publication is important, especially when considering the style of Karimeh’s subjects and her mobility.
The images in the book had come from two Abbud family photographic albums. These two undated images, taken by Abbud herself, are reproduced on pages 94 & 95 of Raheb’s publication and demonstrate Abbud’s signature portraiture environment – the women here are comfortable with each other, but also with Abbud’s presence. It is obvious in both images that their proximity to one another demonstrate a close relationship – most likely mother and daughters, and then the two sisters, alone – but we also see that Abbud treated her familial subjects in the same way she treated her paying clients, and vice versa – there is a warm professionalism that plays out in each of these different sets of images.
It is the foreword by Mrowat in this text that seemed curious to me, however. Where earlier articles by Mrowat stated he had acquired ‘some 400’ Abbud photographs from an Israeli photography collector, this text (published 2011) noted a legal case brought against him by the same Israeli collector. He states that the collector had no right to keep the photos, as he was not related to her in any way. This calls into question the amount of weight placed on earlier claims for the archive in his articles – who actually owned the pictures that were being written about, did the author have permission from the owner(s) to use them, and were the claims accurate? Does the Nazareth Archive Project exist outside of articles bearing its name?
There are many outstanding questions I am in the process of answering – beginning with gaining access to the ‘some 400’ photographs that were the subject of this legal case. A ‘Part 2’ will be forthcoming!
Mrowat, A. 2007. “Karimeh Abbud: Early Woman Photographer (1896-1955).” Jerusalem Quarterly 31: 72-78.
Nassar, I. 2011. “Early Photography in Palestine: The Legacy of Karimeh Abbud.” Jerusalem Quarterly 46: 23-31.
Raheb, M. 2011. Karimeh Abbud: Pioneer Female Phographer of Palestine. Bethlehem, Palestine: Diyar Consortium. Print. Arabic language.