Discovering the history of women photographers in the Middle East is a daunting task. And because it's so difficult, historians don't always have as much information readily available to work from, but  a dedication to analyzing the historical evidence that actually is available can change this.
For Students: We hope this guide sharpens your reading skills and deepens your understanding. For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ides, freely and without further permission from AramcoWorld, by teachers at any level. Common Core Standards met in this lesson: RI.9-10.5, RH.9-10.8 (see details below).
 —The Editors

Do you have comments? I'd be pleased to hear from you at [email protected]/
 —Julie Weiss

Women Behind the Lens: The Middle East's First Female Photographers

When you're a young history student, you tend to read information that's presented in textbooks. As you become a more mature learner, you discover that behind the stories in the textbooks are years of study and, often, more questions than answers. "Women Behind the Lens" is a case in point. Discovering the history of women photographers in the Middle East is a daunting task, as you'll read. And because it's so difficult, historians don't always have as much knowledge about their subjects as they might—and hopefully will—in the future.

In the meantime, "Women Behind the Lens" provides an excellent opportunity for you to sharpen your skills as an attentive reader who can tell the difference between conjecture and fact, and who can evaluate the strength of a historian's analysis based on historical evidence. By the time you finish the following activities based on the article, you will be able to:
  • Explain why it is challenging to study women in history.
  • Distinguish between fact and conjecture/opinion.
  • Identify and evaluate evidence that supports a claim.
  • Use photographs as historical evidence and analyze them to draw tentative conclusions.
The Challenges
"Women Behind the Lens" is presented in an unusual format: It comprises three short essays, each by a different author, with an introduction by editor Tom Verde. Read the introduction and the essays, making notes on the parts of "Women Behind the Lens" that address what makes it so challenging to study the early photography of Middle Eastern women.  Write a sentence or two that summarizes the challenges. (You may also think about how these challenges apply to discovering other aspects of women's history.)

Facts and Opinions

Given these challenges, the writers of "Women Behind the Lens" can't always give the information you (and they) might want. Instead, they use the sources they have, and make educated conjectures based on what they know. As a reader, it's important for you to be able to the difference between a fact and the writer's conjecture or opinion. It's a skill that will help you not just when you read about history, but in your life outside of school too.

Here is one method to help you distinguish between fact and opinion. As you read the article, highlight in one color all the words and phrases that let you know the writer is presenting facts—that is, things that he or she knows to be true. Then, in another color, highlight all the words and phrases that let you know that the writer is hypothesizing or interpreting. Here is a paragraph from the article as an example:
A small number of women may have owned their own studios during those early years. Two professional female photographers from 19th-century photography dynasties in Beirut come to mind. In 1909, Dalil Beirut (Beirut Guide) listed a photography business called Studio Madame Philippe Saboungi. Philippe Saboungi was the son of Georges (Jurji) Saboungi (1840–1910), who was the first photographer in the Arab world to open a locally owned studio. Madame Philippe Saboungi seems to be Rikke, the younger Saboungi's Danish wife. Philippe operated his father's practice until 1916, and one can only speculate about why the name of his wife was attached to another studio at the same time.
When you've finished, you should be able to see what's fact and what's conjecture.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with conjecture. It's often necessary when scholars are just starting to explore a field and they face the challenges you identified above; it can be helpful in pointing toward areas for further research. But it's good to recognize it for what it is. Equally important, the skill of distinguishing between fact and conjecture, or opinion, will help you be a more informed citizen as you discern what's news—that is, what has actually happened in the world—and what's commentary about that news.

Try using the two different colors on a news article or on the transcript of a video or audio news report. Which parts present facts, and which present opinions or conjectures? Share what you find with the rest of your class. What generalizations, if any, can you make about news versus commentary? You might try this method with different sources to see which lean more toward fact and which lean more toward opinion. That will make you a better news consumer.

The Photographs

Finally, turn your attention to the photographs themselves. Compare the photographs by Lydie Bonfils, Karimeh Abbud and Marie al-Khazen. Before you read the respective captions, consider each photo. Discuss with a partner what you notice about each one. Then go back to the article and re-read the parts about each of the three photographers and the interpretations of the photos included in the article. Based on your own perceptions of the photos, do you agree with the interpretations offered? Why or why not?

Common Core Standards met in this lesson:

RI.9-10.5 Analyze in detail how an author's ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).

RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims.