Contact Vision: On Photography and Orientalism

Faculty Research Colloquium

Tue Apr 11, 2017 12:30 PM - 02:00 PM
Georgetown Building – 1D63


Ali Behdad, John Charles Hillis Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA, "Contact Vision: On Photography and Orientalism"

Moderator: Firat Oruc, GU-Q



Ali Behdad is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Chair of Comparative Literature at UCLA, and past president of American Comparative Literature Association. He has published widely on a broad range of topics on the politics of culture, immigration, Orientalism, and 19th-century photography. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution (Duke University Press, 1994), A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States (Duke University Press, 2005), Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and the co-editor of A Companion to Comparative Literature (Blackwell, 2010).



This lecture illuminates the ways in which the Middle East has been represented in photographs by Europeans who travelled to the region during a critical period in the development of photography. Considering a range of Western and Middle Eastern archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I offer an account of how photography transformed Europe’s distinctly Orientalist vision into what seemed objective fact, a transformation that proved central to the project of European colonialism. At the same time, Orientalism was useful for photographers from both regions, as it gave them a set of conventions by which to frame exotic Middle Eastern cultures for Western audiences. I also show how Middle Eastern audiences embraced photography as a way to foreground status and patriarchal values while also exoticizing other social classes. The lecture aims to demonstrate that, far from being a one-sided European development, Orientalist photography was the product of rich cultural contact between the East and the West.