Portrait of the Martyr as a Young Man: The Social Lives of Photographs in Revolutionary Egypt

PHRC Research Seminars in Cultures of Photography

Lecture by Dr Lucie Ryzova (University of Birmingham)

November 10, 2015 


In the PHRC’s second seminar of this term, the historian Dr Lucie Ryzova provided the audience with an insight into her recent, fieldwork-based project about the role of photographs in revolutionary Egypt. Through interviews and observations during and after the revolution Ryzova documents the social lives of photographs in order to scrutinise the visibility of the revolution’s martyrs.​

Focusing on the year 2011, Ryzova explained how ID or snapshot photographs of primarily young men who were killed in the course of the revolution were incorporated into acts of personal but most importantly public commemoration, and argued that these variously remediated images became modern icons. For instance, photographic portraits of the dead were cut out and mounted on different backgrounds with the help of Photoshop, they were then transferred into graffiti, photographed again, disseminated in social media networks, printed out, framed again and, finally, took part in procession-like demonstrations wherein people wearing stenciled images of the martyrs on t-shirts, held these portraits high up in the air presenting the face of the revolution. One of her main observations within these practices is the fact that the dead remain undead as long as the revolution itself takes place.

A lively discussion ensued in which Ryzova’s notion of photography, which is embedded in an approach of oral and visual history, was the main issue at stake. Under discussion was if and how far the events on Cairo’s streets elided the various socio-cultural, political as well as religious backgrounds of different groups, households or individuals and how these multi-layered affiliations may have affected the specific production, usage and circulation of photographs. Further issues were raised on the liminal character of these photographs, how performance entered into their remediation and how the concept of “the martyr” can be understood in this context.

Reviewed by Franziska Kunze (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)


Visual Histories, Archaeological Constructs and the ‘Indian’ Pasts

PHRC Research Seminars in Cultures of Photography

Lecture by Dr Sudeshna Guha (Tagore Research Scholar, National Museum, New Delhi, India)

October 20, 2015

Beginning this year’s PHRC seminar series was Dr Sudeshna Guha with what may prove to be a seminal moment in the discussion of the relationship between archaeology and photography. The relationship between archaeological research and photography has been viewed for too long as a one-dimensional symbiosis, often under the aegis of art historical analysis or through an archaeological standard. Guha’s seminar exploded these attitudes with a level of detail and a multidisciplinary approach that should be productively emulated – especially by us PhDs!

Her explanation of the use, and sometimes abuse, of archaeological photography in India explored themes from a range of disciplines and opened the subject to a new methodological approach. Archival history, aesthetics, archaeology, the history of knowledge, even architecture was all included in her analysis. The archive played a particularly prominent role, yet Guha continually extracted more than a surface understanding of the archive’s role within the creation and manipulation of archaeological knowledge.

Guha discussed the connection between Assyrian archaeology and the aesthetics of Indian architecture, through a discussion of archaeological pieces, bound for Britain in the 1850s but displayed in Bombay en route. Like much of Guha’s presentation, this is a view that questions many traditional opinions of archaeological influence and puts photography at the heart of this re-thinking.Further, many scholars of Indian archaeology have become embedded in the colonial debates that inevitably surround the subject. Whilst Guha tackled these historiographies decisively, her multidisciplinary approach to photographic history has allowed her a freedom to go beyond these surface intersections and attain a deeper understanding of the era, and archaeology’s role within the colonialist agenda. For example; the manner by which archaeological photography was used to modify the contemporary understanding of Indian religion and identity. Through this kind of photographic history we are able to track the efforts of colonial powers to manipulate religious attitudes; efforts that had attempted to seamlessly transition Hindus to Christianity using photographs.

If all assessments of archaeological photography were conducted in such a way, I am convinced there would be a far greater understanding not only of photography and its role in shaping our history, but a great many more disciplines.

Reviewed by PHRC PhD student Duncan Shields