Walking between old trains and rails, listening to the voices of the oldest Ammani citizens in a video documentary and admiring their photo portrait series inside the first- and second-class wagon coaches — this was the opening of the Image Festival, an international festival of photography in Amman, situated at the Jordan Hejaz Railway Station, which was transformed for the first time in Jordan’s history into the backdrop for a cultural event. The festival opened April 1, and its exhibitions and workshops lasted until the end of the month, placing itself as one of the longest cultural events in Amman and in a region that associates itself with a great number of artists.
Linda al-Khoury, the founder, curator and organizer of this single major event dedicated to photography in the Middle East, chose this location for the festival’s sixth edition, connecting the history of Amman with this year’s festival theme, which is Hawwiye (“Identity”).
“Amman used to be a small settlement of Circassian refugees when the railway station opened in 1908,” Khoury told Al-Monitor. “The history of this place tells about the development of Amman and its people’s identity. We want ... photography to bring the attention to the city’s first traces.”
Under Ottoman rule, Jordan was pushed to the status of a backwater province. The Amman railway station brought Syrians and Palestinian traders who started their businesses around the growing village. The Image Festival’s opening set the opportunity for Ammani citizens to dig into their modern city’s origins and recall its identity as a refugee recipient.
Khoury founded her photography center, Darat al-Tasweer Photography, in Amman 10 years ago. Through her center, she has continuously pushed young photographers from across the country to pursue a professional career in photography. She has a personal collection of more than 600 photography books by photographers who she invites to the festival.
At the 2016 festival, Khoury hosted one of the most significant living photographers, Czech-French Josef Koudelka. Al-Monitor visited last year’s festival, and for a month Koudelka’s photographs were screened in a public place — the Paris Circle — every evening. Award-winning photojournalist and educator Ed Kashi also exhibited at the Image Festival, offering five-days of workshops and portfolio views for young Jordanian and international photographers, which he wrote about on his website.
“The festival aims to gather more professionals — local and international — and to create opportunities for cultural exchanges,” said Khoury, adding that it strives to “involve the Jordanian audience more in the cultural and artistic realms through noncommercial photography.” One of the Jordanian photographers who attended the festival was Tanya Habjouqa, who is a founding member of Rawiya, the first all-female photography collective in the Middle East. She has garnered international attention and awards with her book, “Occupied Pleasures.”
During the festival, many cultural spaces transform into exhibition spaces and cafes. One such place is Fann wa Chai Art Gallery and Tea Bar, which Khoury established in 2013 to engage the public with the arts. Another place is an old house used by the nonprofit association Jordan Art Treasury in Jabal al-Weibdeh. The house is situated atop one of Amman’s oldest hills of the original village.
Khoury’s passion started when she was young. “When I was 13 years old, an aunt living in the [United States] once brought me a 110 mm pocket camera, and from that moment I started to collect money to buy film,” she said. “I started walking in the streets, hills and stairs of Amman, observing everything. The first idea of a social documentary photography project was inspired by children selling chewing gum in the streets. I was wondering about their social and family background.”
Khoury holds workshops around Jordan — in smaller cities and refugee camps. One of her recent courses was with children outside Amman. It focused on how to challenge gender stereotypes through photography and expand the children’s talents.
The Image Festival started in 2011, in the first months of the Arab Spring. The 2017 edition hosted photographers from Jordan and other Arab countries and from a Brazilian collective. Award-winning photographer Tomas van Houtryve held a workshop. This growing opportunity for amateurs and professionals was not available in Jordan when Khoury wanted to specialize in photography 15 years ago. “I wanted to create what I was looking for when I needed to deepen my knowledge in this field,” she told Al-Monitor. “This is why I founded Darat al-Tasweer.” The Image Festival became the bigger dream beyond that.