Driven underground by Saddam, ‘Iraq’s greatest photographer’ Latif Al Ani is honored at last

Story highlights

Latif Al Ani is the "father of Iraqi photography"

He will be honored this evening by the Prince Claus awards

His images document everyday Iraqi life in the 1950s and 1960s

Saddam Hussein's Baathist party forced him into retirement in the 1970s

CNN  — 

Latif Al Ani, the 84-year-old photographer who first captured Iraq during its cosmopolitan mid-20th century heyday, has created a unique memory bank of everyday life in the country over decades of restless change.

After spending almost 40 years in “forced retirement” following the rise of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Baathist regime, and suffering the loss of the majority of his historic professional archive during the U.S. invasion of 2003, Al Ani is at last being celebrated. A “revelatory” show in Venice this summer has now been followed by a Prince Claus award, bestowed in recognition of the positive impact his photography has had on Middle Eastern photography and Iraqi society.

From the late 1950s until the brink of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980, Baghdad-born Al Ani captured the social life of the city – at the outset, a modernising, multi-cultural hub – from the streets. His high-contrast black and white images show popular western-style fashion, oil-fuelled industry, and political life in the Iraqi capital.

But Al Ani says he most enjoyed taking to the sky, as a documentary photographer for Ahl al-Naft (“People of Oil”), the magazine of the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company, to capture a different side of Iraq:

“From the air, from the plane, everything is beautiful,” Al Ani explains, speaking from his native Baghdad through a translator. “But as soon as you land again and you walk around the city, you see also the misery and the ugliness of the city, while from the air you only see beauty.”

Mirjan Mosque

During the 1960s – when competing factions jostled for power in Iraq – Al Ani exhibited internationally, as part of a U.S. cultural tour in 1963 and in East Germany in 1966, among others. In recognition of this early success, al Ani earned the name “the father of Iraqi photography” and was considered, to date, to be its most famous proponent.

But spates of violence and political turmoil meant the photographer has been unable to exhibit or photograph in the streets at all beyond the 1970s, when increasing tensions before the eight-year Iran-Iraq War meant freedoms were curtailed.

By the late 1960s, Al Ani held the prestigious position of director at the photography department of the government’s Iraqi News Agency, but was forced into retirement shortly after the Baath Party took power in a bloodless coup in 1968.

According to Al Ani, he later discovered a young member had been informing the party – for which Saddam Hussein was then a rising deputy – about his activities.

Al Ani took his last professional photograph in 1977, he says, losing his desire to photograph anyone beyond close family and friends during the years of successive wars and totalitarian government that followed.

Electing to remain in Iraq and preserve his “spiritual connection” with the country of his birth, he gave up hopes of future exhibitions.

A return to photography?

The Prince Claus awards – presented annually for the last 19 years by the Dutch Royal Family to support freedom of cultural expression worldwide – honor Al Ani and 10 other “artists and cultural role models for their pioneering work in culture and development.” The 2015 awards, presented at a ceremony at the Dutch Royal Palace in Amsterdam on 2 December, also honor young Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, 2015’s principle laureate.

For Al Ani, 2015 has marked an unexpected reunion with a Western audience.

The photographer says he was surprised to be approached “out of the blue” by Iraq’s cultural Ruya Foundation for what would become an acclaimed exhibition at the the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Ruya chairperson Tamara Chalabi had traveled to Beirut, Lebanon where Al Ani kept a small personal archive, after Iraq’s national archive, containing many of his images, was looted in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The Venice show, where he exhibited alongside compatriot artists of wide-ranging ages, was hailed internationally and named “Venice’s most revelatory show” by the Financial Times.

Al Ani has gained new, younger audiences after Venice, and is lecturing at the Society of Iraqi Photographers, he says, while teaching a small group of young proteges.

Looking to the next generation, he says he has mixed emotions about the future of photography in Iraq. He has seen talented photographers leave during the ongoing conflict with ISIS, and he worries too about the country’s heritage, which is left crumbling and unrepaired.

Most of the places he captured in the 1950s and 1960s no longer exist, he says.

He has been saddest to see the center of old Baghdad fall into ruin: “I used to live there, and I grew up there and I loved it very much,” he says. “That has been destroyed, and most of it has disappeared.”

But he believes the conflict with ISIS will pass and he has encouraged his students to document what remains of the country’s heritage. Public photography is still restricted by law, but digital technology makes everything easier, he says, and believes the next generation will have the chance to develop photography careers without interruption.

When asked if he will take photographs again: “Why not?” he says. “Even though I’m 84, now, I think I would be able to do that, and if I have the opportunity, I would be happy to.”