Beirut’s port explosion reignites conversations on archive preservation

View Gallery 5 Photos
Reading Time: 5 minutes

A colossal explosion struck Beirut’s port on 04 August, killing at least 190 people, injuring thousands and devastating neighbourhoods. It also imperilled three major photo institutions near the blast site, and propelled issues of photo heritage preservation in the volatile region to the fore.

Lévon Nordiguian sits at his desk, next to an arched window covered in plastic sheeting. “If I were where I am now, I surely would have died,” he says, nodding towards the large, blown-out frame. Nordiguian is the head of the photography collection at Saint Joseph University’s (USJ) Oriental Library. From the 19th century, Jesuit priests built up the majority of the collection as part of their research and apostolic pursuits in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and areas formerly in Armenia, though some works have also been donated. It holds over 250,000 photographic documents, Nordiguian says, including prints, glass plates and magic lantern slides. While evangelical and often orientalist in approach, some of the collection’s images, such as those of archaeological sites, now constitute valuable historical records.

Photographs by Antoine Poidebard, including extraordinary aerial images from the 1920s to 40s, were sitting in boxes on a shelf near a window, alongside other photographic material waiting to be archived, when the explosion hit. Their escape from harm was, “incredible, a miracle”, Nordiguian says. It was a close call for the entire collection, he continues, and the cold storage room, only installed in 2016 thanks to a donation, was breached – its walls warped by the force of the blast. An air-cooling unit sits broken on the ground. Nordiguian says he had been in discussions with colleagues abroad on disaster planning, but the explosion beat him to it.

Port of Beirut, 1930-1940 © Jorge Abud Chami Collection, Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.
F amily portrait from Mount Lebanon by Jesuit Father, Joseph Delor © Oriental Library, USJ, Beirut.

Only around 60,000 of the USJ collection’s images have been digitised, so the impact could have been worse, he explains, with much material lost forever. There is now an urgent need to repair the cold storage room and move forward with archiving and digitisation. But Nordiguian has only two colleagues working with him, and the heavily damaged university faces competing priorities for funds in the wake of the blast. “The country is unpredictable,” he says. “I hope we won’t have another 04 August, but you cannot know.” 

A 10-minute walk downhill, in the trendy Gemmayzeh neighbourhood renowned for its bars, restaurants and art spaces, and now grimly for its proximity to the port, is the Arab Image Foundation (AIF). The independent, artist-founded organisation with an experimental approach has amassed photo collections from across the Arab region and beyond, and holds over 500,000 photographic objects, including albums, prints, slides and glass plates. The explosion happened, “right after 6pm and most employees had left, except for one”, who has since recovered, says artist Vartan Avakian, an AIF board member who led the foundation’s on-the-ground response in the days after the blast. Avakian recounts a scene of chaos as the team made its way through the ravaged AIF premises – shattered windows, doors blown off their frames, work materials strewn everywhere – to learn the fate of the archived photo collections held in cold storage.

From 2009, the foundation, together with the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Getty Conservation Institute, jointly led the Middle East Photograph Preservation Initiative (MEPPI), which focused on building capacity and expertise for preserving photographic heritage in the region. But on 04 August, the AIF’s own preservation efforts became critical to its collections’ very survival.

Despite heavy damage to this cold room, including to its fireproof double metal doors and the partial collapse of its walls and ceiling, miraculously only three images have been found damaged, says Heba Hage-Felder, the AIF’s newly appointed director. She and Avakian point to a host of measures that protected the collections, including simple steps like using elastic bands to secure boxes of glass plate images to shelves, to stop them falling. “It goes to show that when you adopt good practices in terms of preservation and proper maintenance and proper housing of the collection, it pays off,” Hage-Felder says. Nora Kennedy, Sherman Fairchild conservator in charge at The Met’s Department of Photograph Conservation, expresses no doubt. “It is very clear that the preservation efforts at the Arab Image Foundation were absolutely key in saving the collections,” she says.

The AIF had undertaken a major digitisation campaign in recent years, but has still only captured 10 to 15 per cent of its holdings. And while it has multiple backups, the importance of a remote server to host its entire digital records is now clear, Avakian says. “In our contingency planning, we always relied on the Sursock Museum,” he says, referring to one of Beirut’s most important cultural institutions. The AIF’s server was taken to the museum’s underground storage for safekeeping immediately after the blast. “But we didn’t imagine that there would be a disaster that affects both of us at the same time.” 

A devastated store room at the city’s Arab Image Foundation © Arab Image Foundation.

“These photographs are valued and cherished by the local community – they build cultural identity and understanding, foster joy and well-being, and preserve memories that forever connect the past to the present. Their value is regional and global and their tangible presence is vital. These collections must not be moved out of the region.”

Debra Hess Noris, Chairperson, Department of Art Conservation, University of Delaware

The Sursock Museum is just a short walk away, up one of the district’s long stairs. Housed in the former residence of a Lebanese art collector, the converted mansion reopened its doors in 2015 after a major multi-year renovation. The museum hosts the Fouad Debbas Collection – over 30,000 images from the Middle East taken between the 1830s and the 1960s. A small but dedicated gallery has showcased carefully curated exhibitions of its work over the last five years. Part of the Debbas Collection received a preservation grant from The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) in 2013. Those images appear on the EAP website, and “there is steady and continued interest in the collection”, according to programme curator Jody Butterworth.

On the day of the explosion, the Sursock Museum transformed into a scene of devastation with dozens of artworks damaged. The Debbas Gallery was also affected, but no original material was on display at the time, the museum says, and the photo collection, held in secure storage underground, escaped harm. But the Sursock’s role in preserving and promoting the photographic heritage of the region goes beyond its custodianship of the Debbas Collection. Staff there had been involved with the MEPPI network, and in 2017, when the initiative formally came to a close, the museum hosted a major symposium on the photographic legacy of the Middle East and North Africa. Discussions at that time also touched on the importance of keeping local photo collections within the region. Today, Debra Hess Norris, chairperson of the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, notes the importance of the USJ, AIF and Debbas archives staying where they are. “These photographs are valued and cherished by the local community – they build cultural identity and understanding, foster joy and well-being, and preserve memories that forever connect the past to the present,” she says. “Their value is regional and global and their tangible presence is vital.” She adds: “These collections must not be moved out of the region.”

Damage to Saint Joseph University’s (USJ) Oriental Library © courtesy of Lévon Nordiguian

The belief that, “we should not just pack everything and send it to the most secure place in the world is a political decision,” observes Avakian from the AIF. “It’s also about taking agency over that history [of the collections], which is our history as well.” Kathleen Dardes, former head of collections at the Getty Conservation Institute, points out that, “collections can be made safe in situ, when staff – like the AIF team – are well trained and appropriate protective measures are made.”

Nordiguian too is adamant that the USJ collection should stay, despite the challenges. “Some people say, ‘No, we are not secure, give it to the Louvre, give it to…’” he trails off. “What’s the interest for Lebanon? We continue to live here, we have to assume the risk too.”

Corrections and clarifications

This article was first published in Issue #7889 of British Journal of Photography. In the article, it was stated that the photography collection at Saint Joseph University’s (USJ) Oriental Library held over 70,000 photographic documents. This number was misquoted due to an editing error, and has been corrected to 250,000.