Latif Al Ani was one of the first photographers in Iraq. He had an active career for more than twenty years, starting in the early 1950s. Al Ani presented the vivid Iraqi culture in its abundance and complexity: besides documenting the westernized everyday life, the political culture and industry, he also captured images of Iraq from the air for the Iraq Petroleum Company.

This interview took place in Baghdad, where he still lives, over several conversations in January and February 2015.

Tamara Chalabi: Some of your photographs deal with Iraq’s archaeological past and major monuments, but there are also plenty of images dealing with the modern city in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if the modern pictures are a prospect on the future with the past as a backdrop. Was it your intention to capture a society undergoing change? How best can we understand these two tracks in your work?

Latif Al Ani: I wanted to show our heritage against our present, the contrast between past and present, where we had arrived in comparison with the past. The fear that I had is what we are living today. It started with the revolution of 1958. This past is being deleted; it has been deleted. I felt there would be no stability. Men were eaten up and newcomers came. Pandora’s box was opened and ignorant people came to rule, who had no culture or understanding of the power they held. Fear was a major motive to document everything as it was. I did all that I could to document, to safeguard that time.

TC: Objects, people, archaeology and urban life are the main preoccupations in your work. This is a very personal point of view for you. At the same time you were employed by the Ministry of Culture and Information. How far was what you were doing “inspired” by official guidelines?.

LA: It was me. They were happy with what I did. I founded the photography department in the Ministry of Information  [later Culture], as it was called in those days, in 1960. I moved there from the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), which was winding down its activities anyway, due to the company’s nationalisation decree. They wanted me. I was the only one in Iraq who knew how to develop colour photos. I accepted on the condition of being paid a higher salary than what they were offering. I hired an assistant, Halim al-Khatat, who later became a well-known photographer, and I also trained Bulus Hanna. We had our own department at the Ministry, opposite the Ministry of Defence on Rashid Street.
I always used a Rolleiflex 6 x 6 cm and Agfa 35 mm film. The best film on the market was Kodak, which I bought from Hassou Ikhwan, the department store close to the Roxy Cinema. They were the Kodak agent and had all the products. There were also other shops selling photographic equipment. Fixed was one shop that carried Italian products, and Iraqi Sports was another.
The department published this magazine, New Iraq, which came out in five different languages: Arabic, Kurdish, English, French and German. It was distributed to all foreign diplomatic communities and international organisations working in Iraq. I travelled throughout Iraq to document the social situation: industry, culture, agriculture, workers, machines.This fitted into the government’s socialist message at the time.
I always translated the message into a beautiful image, regardless. My concern was the beauty of the image, not the politics. This was my creed.
The fear was already planted inside me, as I said, but I took advantage of this job to document.

TC: How did you become a professional photographer?

LA: Photography was a hobby for me. There was a Jewish photographer, Nissan, who had a studio. He was my brother’s neighbour on Mutanabi 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 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-language magazine, Ahl al-Naft (People of Oil). They were 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.

TC: How did you feel looking through the lens?

LA: I couldn’t wait for the film to be developed, so I could see the result. I felt very impatient, hungry and desperate to see what I captured.

TC: Why are you laughing?

LA: I remember the excitement very clearly. I have good memories of those days..

TC: Where did you develop your film?

LA: In film studios on Rashid Street.

TC: What about the camera? Did you hide behind it? Did you watch things you weren’t supposed to?

LA: No! Things were different then. There were stricter social standards, people were polite then. I was. I didn’t break any rules.

TC: Your camera must have attracted as much attention from your subjects as they did for you. You looked at them and they looked at you.

LA: Yes, we looked at each other. It was always an event when I went to a place with my camera. People gathered. It became my social identity; it imposed a certain authority, garnered respect, and people responded well to it since everyone wanted their photo taken. I often pretended to photograph someone while aiming elsewhere. People always wanted to touch the lens.

TC: I imagine that being a photographer in those days wasn’t easy.

LA: My love for photography gave me courage. It pushed me to overcome all barriers. There were hardly any photographers in Iraq then. It was new.

TC: Did you ever think of trying something else? Film, for example, or painting?

LA: I experimented a bit with acting and theatre in 1947. I remember a friend, Jabbar Rashid, from one of the schools I attended – a night school, because I worked in the daytime in my brother’s shop. Life wasn’t easy. Anyway, his brother was a well-known cinematographer and he told us about this theatre school in Saadoun. It cost half a dinar to join. I remember the school’s advertisements, displayed on public buses. I tried it for a while, lectures on theatre and performance. It didn’t draw me in like the camera, but I wanted to experiment.

[. . .]

The whole conversation between Tamara Chalabi and Latif Al Ani can be found in the publication Latif Al Ani.

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