Hashem El Madani, a portrait photographer whose stark, spare, and deeply individualized images of Lebanese citizens captured a changing political and cultural scene, has died. The Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the artist Akram Zaatari, who has been instrumental in the preservation of El Madani’s work, confirmed the news today on social media, but did not give an age for Madani or a cause of death. He was born in 1928.
Starting in 1948, Madani began photographing men, women, and children in Saida, Lebanon, in his studio, which he called Shehrazade. Anyone could walk in to Madani’s and get their picture by taken by the artist, who always shot his subjects against a spare backdrop and let them pose however they pleased. (Many of these poses were based on what was portrayed in films being imported into Lebanon at the time.) Madani’s images have been compared to August Sander’s portraits, and are also similar in style to Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé’s studio photography, which likewise recorded a geographical region whose social mores were being radically altered. Until 1982, when a bomb blast destroyed his studio, Madani continued shooting citizens in Saida; by then, according to his own estimation, he had photographed 90 percent of Saida’s inhabitants.
In 1999, Zaatari’s Arab Image Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of pictures related to Arab culture, began working with Madani, in an attempt to archive his photography. Since then, Zaatari has exhibited groupings of Madani’s portraits at various institutions, among them Tate Modern and the Photographers’ Gallery in London. Madani’s work also memorably made an appearance in 2014 in the New Museum’s “Here and Elsewhere” exhibition, a wide-ranging survey of Middle Eastern contemporary art.
“His work told stories of time lost, voices unheard, and the unknown histories of Saida,” Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which represents Zaatari, said of Madani in a statement. “Each photograph in his immense archive showed his kindness, humor, and humanity. He will be greatly missed.”