Mrs Knox Arabian Days, ou les premières photographies du Koweit et des Émirats, présentation par Mathilde Bertrand
Early photographs of the Middle East are rare things. The bulk of them resides in official archives of the former colonial administrations and in the collections of geographical and anthropological societies whose emissaries scoured this region of many myths and mysteries. And yet emphasis need to be laid on two other very rich sources of images available to us for investigation: the photographs made by Arab photographers, who set up their own studios, and the private documents gathered by travellers and foreign settlers in the area.
The turn of the century represents a phase of steady expansion for photography of the Arabian Peninsula by Arab photographers themselves. Despite original reserves regarding the nature of this new medium and the cultural weight of religious prohibitions on images of animate beings, important political figures endorsed it with passion, whereas theologians, scientists and wise men developed insightful theories on photography, therefore legitimising it by the same token. They analysed the photograph as a mechanically-produced reflection of an object rather than the thing itself, an image akin to the reflection of an object in a mirror. According to them, photography was not and could nor be a violation of the ontological self.
Important also is the amount of pictures still held in private collections and exhumed from time to time, as is the case for the photographs presented here, taken from this old album patiently arranged by Laura Ethel Knox.
As a member of the ruling class administering the territories of the British Empire, (although a very minor one), Mrs Knox was unavoidably positioned at a long remote from the vicissitudes of the lives of the people that her husband was there to govern.
Indeed, being a foreign, white woman, dressed in full Edwardian garb complete with colonial hat, the wife of a British Political Agent in the Persian Gulf, at a time when the British were increasingly tightening their control of the area, could only be hindrances for a woman like Laura Ethel Knox interested in discovering the lives and mores of the population whose contact she sought. Not infrequently, her attempts with her camera demonstrate an eagerness to know better and deeper the people, their culture and their land. It seems that the presence of her camera, a rare and conspicuous implement in the Arabian peninsula of the 1910s, paradoxically offered her an entry into the everyday lives of the people of Kuwait, Bahrain and Muscat.
Her husband, Stuart George Knox, successively « Political Agent » in Kuwait (1907-9), Bahrain (1910-11) and Muscat (1911-15), was an important cog in the colonial wheel of the British Empire. He had to seek and ensure the collaboration and partnership of local rulers and powerful traders with relatively little coercive means, in order to bolster up the control of the British control on the region. He regularly reported his activities to the Political Resident posted in Bushire (south western coast of today’s Iran), on matters of military and political rule, administration, justice and trade.
Therefore while her husband played on the active side of colonial politics, Mrs Knox, armed with her Polaroid, took up the role of witness, spectator and recorder.
The photographs that she took herself or gathered from friends, and then stamped in her album, juxtapose the official, the personal, the mundane, the poetical, the informative, the uncanny, metaphors of the complex perceptions she may have experienced during her life there. Her eye is caught by the beauty of the Kuwaiti oases, keened by the bustling activity of the souk, attracted to the smooth lines of the pearl-diving boats, puzzled by the impenetrable mystery of a passing woman wearing a mask, who resists the photographer’s capture of her face. The photograph becomes an auxiliary in an enterprise of discovery, it opens a realm of new perceptions, and possibly of a new myths.
Maquette en pdf : 01.06.2008 Mrs Knox