Karimeh Abbud: The first Palestinian female photographer short documentary.
Running time: 10 mins
Karimeh Abbud (1893-1955)
Karimeh was a Palestinian photographer who was born in Bethlehem, later moved to Jerusalem, and died in Nazareth.
She was unknown to historians or photographers, until 2007. Ahmad Mrowat was a dedicated researcher who was obsessed with piecing together a picture of Palestinian culture and heritage in order to restore the enormous loss of identity that was suffered as a result of the Israeli suppression of all visual documentation. Through his painstaking and slow work, he made contact with an Israeli collector, Boki Boaz, who had acquired over 4,000 of Karimeh’s photographs that had been raided from a house whose owners had fled during the Nakbah of 1948. (For further visual evidence, Rona Sela’s documentary film, Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel, 2018, depicts the control of history, the rewriting of culture and the shaping of identity).
Karimeh stood out from the all-male photographers as being the first professional female photographer who revolutionised portraiture and landscape photography, presenting a narrative of Palestinian society and travel before 1948. She was unique as the first Arab and Palestinian female photographer who made a living from professional photography. She was also part of the Palestinian struggle against occupation, against the British mandate and the Zionist settlement. She used to advertise herself as the ‘Lady Photographer’ and a National Photographer to reinforce the idea that Palestine was much more than a conglomeration of several sectarian groups.
She broke away from the European photographic style and tradition perpetuated by the all-male body of photographers she grew up with, wanting to show Palestine as it was. Karimeh captured the middle classes appearing ‘normal’, thus destroying the European spread of misconceptions regarding real Palestinian life, which had been perceived as unworthy of attention. Being female allowed her access to the most conservative homes, which allowed her work to reflect her subjects at ease in their own milieus – her male counterparts were unable to enter such environments.
Karimeh transported her equipment by car and she was probably the first woman to own a car and a driving licence in Palestine and the Arab world. She used to travel frequently to photograph in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Tiberias, Haifa and the surrounding villages, places others rarely went to. She took many pictures of beaches, markets, mosques and churches, providing a unique glimpse of Palestinian life, including cities, villages and landscapes that flourished in the early part of the 20th century, and no longer exist today.
European enthusiasm for the exotic and the sacred arrived in 1839 when Palestine was chosen as the first country to photograph outside of Europe, and male counterparts continued this tradition, working mainly for the tourist markets. Mrowat said discovering people like her, whose vast portfolio of portraits and landscapes includes a negative of a young King Hussein of Jordan, contradicts Zionist propaganda that ‘Palestinians before 1948 were uneducated brutes devoid of culture’. Through her work Karimeh reveals Palestine’s true culture. She provides pictorial documentation of Palestinian life, and is one of the first people that could be called a documentarian. She provided a historical record of Palestinian lives from the early 1920s to 1930s and, using emerging cutting-edge technology, she challenged and changed perceptions.
By Hannah Ahmed