Founder and Curator Romaisa Baddar talks about how Middle East Archive helps play a role in “changing the narrative”.

Middle East Archive is a digital archival catalogue that retrieves everyday candid memories from the Middle East and the Maghreb. With a highly curated selection, the platform uses photography to immerse viewers in a diverse assembly of lighthearted, traditional and honest moments that have been “lost in time”. 

With the intention of steering away from the negativity that overcasts the region, the Middle East Archive brings forth much-needed representation. Born and raised in Amsterdam, 24-year-old Moroccan-Egyptian Founder and Creator Romaisa Baddar opens up about her two-and-a-half-year journey. Commenting on inspiration, education, representation and collaboration, Baddar is all about exposing the sparkle of the region. 

Byblos, Lebanon 1965.
© Raymond Depardon

Middle East Archive is a creative photo library that retrieves lost memories from the Middle East and the Maghreb – what inspired you to create the account?

The cliché answer would be the need to bring light to the region. But I think, in all honesty, the inspiration was simply intrigue. I wanted to represent the region in a more accurate, light-hearted way on a platform that is accessible to a large number of people, a younger generation. I see it as a source of news, an educational source for anyone and everyone really. 

Photography is the principal medium that institutes this archival collection. What is your relationship with photography? And what makes it such a powerful outlet?

I have always had an interest in photography, wanting to become a photographer myself. So I would spend my early years looking at photo books, going to exhibitions, searching for images and so on. The more I looked for images the more I realised there was certainly a lack of representation and access to art regarding where I am from. I would look up places I have visited or my parents’ hometowns and would find nothing but war images. 

Photographs are stolen snippets of a moment in time. They are the closest thing we get to the truth – the closest thing to an honest interaction. They speak to so many people for so many reasons.  When I did the exhibitions in LA and NY for my previous book launch, I got to see people’s reactions to the photographs. An image can mean whatever you want it to. The viewer has control of the narrative. That is powerful. 

The images that are posted on the account are Profound. It is hard for people not to respond to them. How do you collect the images seen on the account? Is it archival books, followers, photographers etc? 

Honestly, Everywhere and nowhere. In the beginning, when I started this, I would find images on google – I would search up ‘Egypt in the 90s’ or ‘Morroco in the summer’. Whatever results I found I would post. Now, as the platform grows and there comes a need for licensing and agencies, I started to work more closely with photographers and collection holders. 

It’s funny because everyone thinks I have a hidden shoebox with all these secret photographs but really it’s photographs that are out there but aren’t seen. I sometimes stumble on photos accidentally, some offer their images – It is a very natural process. But, when looking for photographs, I consciously collect images that steer away from war-like imagery – so no soldiers or bombs or anything. 

You mentioned that you enjoy connecting with fellow creatives when sourcing images. Would you be interested in collaborating with young MENA artists that have a passion for capturing moments like these in our modern world? Or is this account solely dedicated to archival moments?

I think the term ‘archive’ instantly makes people think of the past. To me ‘archive’ has a different meaning. I look at it as moments that are overlooked, hidden, lost in time and so on. So definitely – I admire loads of upcoming photographers. Collaborating with young artists is something I would love to do more. If I only focused on the past, it would be more of a historical account. I want to show what the region stands for today – show the beauty that remains to be overshadowed by negativity. 

Baghdad, Iraq 2003
© Alexandra Boulat

You previously collaborated with Lebanese Photographer Fouad Elkoury and created a touching coffee table/ Photography book that people can take home and enjoy. Is this something you will continue to do? 

I do have another book coming out. My first book publication was focused on collaboration. I wanted it to feature an Arab creative. The deciding factor on Fouad ElKoury was really the cover photo, the boy with the boom box, which is exactly how I see the region. He had alot of images that I related to so we decided to work together on the book. 

However now, with my new book – I didn’t want to focus on one photographer but to collaborate with a large number of artists, focusing on one theme. I can’t say much but it is a topic that we all relate to and that has multiple meanings that live so strongly in our culture. 

As a region that is frequently misrepresented, The platform you created has birthed a beautiful environment where people can connect to their roots and understand their cultures better. Did you expect to achieve this level of success when you started? 

Not at all. I started this in my cousins’ bathroom. I would look up images of the region and show her all excitedly. When I started posting them on my Instagram stories for fun, I ended up getting positive reactions and responses from my friends so I thought I would create a page dedicated to them. 

Somehow, I guess algorithms, people picked up on it. I mean God bless Instagram because somehow the images found their way to larger individuals. When one larger creator reshared the images that is when it really grew and got visibility. A year into it, I got messages about prints and exhibitions. That is when I thought – why am I not doing something with this? I could really do something big. 

Das Island, United Arab Emirates 1976
© René Burri/Magnum Photos

I always find myself sharing the images with my friends too. Whether it’s the country you are from or a moment that connects to you, every picture on the page is so joyful. Do you have any favourite Photographs? 

It’s hard because every day I have a new favourite image.  For a long time, it was the Palestinian man smoking a cigarette. Every time I look at that photograph I think – yes, these are my people. Another one is also the cover of the first book. The textures make the image so simple yet loud. 

Middle East Archive is that Instagram page you are always happy to see on your page. What can we look out for in the future? 

There are a lot of projects coming soon. I can’t say much but I will say it’s very very exciting. Keep up with the Instagram page to not miss out. Everything is bigger and better. 

Amman, Jordan 1989
© René Burri
Born and Raised in Abu Dhabi, Palestinian creative Dujanah Jarrar reports on all things imaginative, immediate and intimate. Passionate about shifting perceptions and cultivating insight, her writings carry themes of cultural placement, identity and representation, exploring what innovative collaboration and creativity mean today.