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Anonymous. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1950s. Hashem el Madani

Born in Lebanon in 1928, Hashem El Madani is a studio photographer who has been working in Saida, Lebanon for the last 50 years.

Hashem El Madani was five years old, his cousins in Palestine sent him a set of portraits to keep as souvenirs. Madani’s father, a moderate sheikh who had settled in Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, wanted to return the favor but these images gave him pause. Were they haram (a sin)? Madani’s father decided no, they were not. They were just like seeing one’s reflection in a pond. So he sent Madani and his brother to a photography studio to have their pictures taken. This was in the early 1930s in Sidon, and in all likelihood, the novelty of sitting in a studio, watching a photographer work and grabbing hold of a postcard-size print of oneself sparked Madani’s lifelong fascination with portraiture. Seven decades later, Madani is the oldest living studio photographer in Sidon.

After falling in love with photography at the age of five, Madani finished school and left Lebanon for Palestine to find work. He hooked up with a Jewish photographer in Haifa named Katz, who taught him the tools and tricks of the trade. When Israel declared its statehood in 1948, Madani traveled to Amman and then to Damascus before securing the necessary paperwork to get back home. When he arrived in Sidon, he bought a cheap box camera, picked up some chemicals from a photographer in Beirut and set up shop in his parents’ living room. Madani developed his business slowly. He bought equipment on credit, one piece at a time, from a photo shop run by an Armenian in Bab Idriss (the old downtown district of Beirut). As soon as he paid off one purchase, he’d make another. He retired the box camera for a Kodak Retinet; he shelled out for a 35 millimeter enlarger. He started selling 6-by-9 centimeter contact prints for just 25 cents. Business picked up, and in 1953, Madani moved his studio into the first floor of the Shehrazade building in Sidon. He bought himself a large desk, props and a stool for his subjects to sit on, a podium for elevation when necessary. He named his business Studio Shehrazade.

Madani’s studio created a site where individuals could act out identities using the conventions of portrait photography, with the poses inspired by the desires of the sitters, ranging from Vogue models to kung fu moves, Hollywood romances to pamphlets distributed by Kodak and Agfa.

Motivated to expand his business, Madani set out to collect the portraits of all of Saida’s families; he claims that he has photographed about 90% of the city’s population. In creating such an extensive record of the townspeople in this multi-confessional Mediterranean location, Madani’s archive of over 500,000 images subtly alludes to the changing political climate through his subjects’ behaviour.

Essay written by
Fatima Abbadi