Brittany Ellis: “North Iraq A Yezidi Girl” – Memory and Forgetting in the Kersting Photographic Archive

AF Kersting black and white print.

“North Iraq, A Yezidi Girl,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

I don’t know her name. I don’t know the name of the young woman who stares out at me from the photograph I hold by its slightly curved edges. I’ve stared at this photograph for days, coming back to it and to her. She is elaborately dressed, wearing beaded necklaces with big metal pendants piled in great layers around her neck.

Her hair is mostly wound up in a headscarf but pieces have come loose and fall around her face. It’s her face that lingers in my memory. Large dark eyes, serious expression, black lines and dots punctuating her skin. With one hand she holds a woman partially cut off by the framing of the photograph. Her mother? A friend?

I flip the glossy photograph over, hoping for more insight. “NORTH IRAQ A YEZIDI GIRL” in pencil at the top of the page. A set of numbers that has been crossed out, another set written below. F48-51. F11-57. And then an address, A.F. Kersting, 37 Frewin Road, London. S.W.18. But no name, no clue to who she was or how she came to be photographed – her image now kept in a bulging stack of similar glossy black and white images in a pale blue box on a shelf of similar pale blue boxes in a chilly London basement library.

The pale blue boxes containing thousands of photographs, together with boxes of negatives and tattered hand-written ledger books, form the archive of the English photographer Anthony Kersting (1916–2008), which now resides in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute.

Since its entrance into the library’s collection, Kersting’s work has fascinated many, as evidenced by the blog posts from other digitisation interns who have been caught up in the ongoing endeavor of trying to make sense of these enigmatic images and their enigmatic creator. The majority of Kersting’s images reflect his career as a photographer of architectural sites in Britain and abroad, but there is a smaller set of pale blue boxes that contain piles of pictures of people.

These unexpected images come largely from Kersting’s trips to Transjordan, Iraq, and Iran in the 1940s. Tom Bilson, the Head of Digital Media at the Courtauld and Kersting’s biographer, emphasized how surprising these images of people, festivals, and daily life are in relation to Kersting’s broader corpus, where people are usually entirely eliminated from his shots.

Author’s photograph of a box of Anthony Kersting’s prints in the Conway Library

I have spent my brief stint at the Courtauld immersed in these images of people, partly because of my own research interests in visual culture and the Middle East but also because these images unsettle me with their unknowns. I have spent the week asking questions of them. I’ve received only fragmented whispers.

Approaching the Archive

I am an anthropologist and an archaeologist with a particular interest in museums and material objects – the artifacts of the everyday. But I am also captivated by the lines of connection and meaning that extend from objects, connecting, overlapping, and severing as things and people move through space and time.

Unsurprisingly, photographs and archives are like catnip to me. They’re physical things that have been made and shaped by people and institutions over time while also being visual records of places, events, and people. The photographs in the Kersting collection preserve both Kersting and his subjects, albeit only ever in a partial way.

My background leads me to approach these photographs in particular ways, focusing in turn on their histories and contexts, their material properties, and their silences. These multiple approaches complement and complicate each other but cannot ever offer a complete explanation of these images.

The Iran and Iraq Images

I am going to focus specifically on Kersting’s photographs from Iraq and Iran during 1944. From a historical perspective, we know that Kersting visited Iraq in August 1944. A logbook, in which he recorded what and where he photographed, shows that he was in Iraq for at least 11 days beginning in Amadya and Mosul and ending in Baghdad. During this time he photographed people and places in Dohuk, Kirkuk, Hatra, Al Kosh, and Lalish.

The photograph of the Yezidi girl comes from his time in Lalish, when he photographed a Yezidi religious festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi. His photographs show scenes of baptism, dancing and music, and feasting together during the festival. According to the same ledger, Kersting visited Iran for at least 9 days in November and December of the same year. He travelled less widely according to captions on the images and the ledger, spending most of his time in Tehran, Isfahan, Ray, and Delijan.

R.A.F. Nairn Bus, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

There are several copies of a photograph of a large R.A.F. bus against the desert landscape which gives some insight into Kersting’s method of travel. On the back of one of the copies, Kersting has written “Trip to Iran,” while on another, “Modern desert travel. The Nairn bus running between Baghdad and Damascus. When this photograph was taken, the bus was being used by the R.A.F.” As an addendum and in different ink, “The R.A.F. Nairn Bus: Habbanniya to Damascus.”

The different captions are confusing. Was this taken on the route between the R.A.F. base in Habbanniya, Iraq, to Damascus, Syria? Or near Baghdad? Or in Iran? Why was he on a military bus in the first place? Who are the other people – some in uniforms but one in the foreground clearly not – in the image?

Tom Bilson informed me that Kersting was part of the R.A.F. for a period of time, but it is unclear whether he was on military business during these trips to Iraq and Iran. It certainly would not be unusual for an intelligence personnel to use photography as a cover for espionage, particularly in 1944 during WWII in this region, which had experienced the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the Anglo-Iraqi War just three years earlier.

This political history is largely absent from Kersting’s images themselves, save for two intriguing photographs taken in Duhok, Iraq. The first is a group of men, some in traditional Iraqi dress and others in suits and even shorts, outside of an unmarked building. On the back Kersting has written:

“Iraq, A group round the M.O.I. reading room in Dahook [sic], a Kurdish town between Amadia and Mosul. Allen, M.O.I. public relations officer in Mosul, who arranged my transport for me, is in the centre of the group. A. F. Kersting. Aug 1944”

Group of men outside of M.O.I. reading room in Duhok, Iraq, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Reverse of the image showing Kersting’s handwritten annotations.

M.O.I. is often used as an acronym for both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Information, though Ministry of Information might be more appropriate here in the context of a reading room. “Allen” is not mentioned in any other images or in Kersting’s ledger.

In a second image, a group of men read magazines and books together, possibly in the mentioned reading room. Arabic and English maps on the rear wall show theaters of war. “War Map of the USA and Japan” reads one.

These photographs obliquely show Kersting’s historical setting and his network of contacts, military and governmental, that made his journeys possible, but they also raise questions about the purpose of Kersting’s trips in the region, which was still an active site of British military negotiation and surveillance.

Viewed today, these photographs are still politically relevant, especially considering the persecution and violence faced by both Kurdish and Yezidi people. Kersting’s photographs highlight visibility and cultural vibrancy, providing a record of these communities’ traditions, longevity, and physical presence.

Unannotated photography of men reading with war maps in the background, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Besides trying to situate these photographs and Kersting himself in a particular historical and political moment, I’ve also tried to approach these images as cultural records. They simultaneously portray different ethnic and national communities and also record Kersting’s own understanding and classifications of these groups.

The images from Iraq, in particular, I think, reflect Kersting’s interest in the communities he met. On the back of a photograph (Image 9) of a Kurdish man, Kersting has written, “Iraq, A typical Kurd, inhabitant of Kurdistan in North Iraq. He wears the typical colored trousers, and carries a rifle, with a band of ammunition round his waist.” He gives some context to the man’s clothing as well as Kurdish people’s geographic presence in Iraq.

The photographs of the Yezidi festival at Sheikh Adi, in particular, are somewhat ethnographic, that is, trying to portray the experiences of people engaged in a specific activity or way of life. They show the smoke from pipes and incense, musicians mid-song, dancers moving together, children running around, mothers carrying children to baptisms. Kersting isn’t just capturing an event but an atmosphere.

“North Iraq, Musicians playing for the Yezidi dance known as the Debka atet eh annual festival at Sheikh Adi. A row of dancers can be seen immediately behind.” Photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi men at the festival at Sheikh Adi, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944

However, like photographs taken and used by anthropologists in the early and mid-twentieth century, Kersting’s photographs and captions are reductive. “A typical Kurd,” “A Yezidi girl,” “Yezidi man,” “A typical Assyrian.” By these captions and categories, Kersting appears more interested in (stereo)types of people rather than specific individuals. Hence the lack of names.

I wonder about Kersting’s interactions with the people he met and photographed. Did Kersting ask to take people’s photographs? Were they excited or made anxious about this? Did they ever see the photographs of themselves? How would they or living relatives feel about these anonymized images sitting in a box in London?

“Iraq, A Typical Kurd…” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

Materiality in the Archive

In addition to being visual images, these photographs are physical objects. They take up space in boxes and shelves. Their curved edges and stains show age and wear and damage over time. They contain the physical marks of Kersting’s pen and pencil, recording the movements of his hands. Some theorists in anthropology have suggested thinking about the biographies of objects – their moments of coming into being, moving through the world, and their eventual “deaths.”

“North Iraq, A Typical Yezidi”, photography by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

A biography of these images provides yet another way of looking at them. We could think about the technologies, materials, and skills required to produce them. Kersting worked with multiple cameras, which would have taken up space and required particular environments to prepare properly. The images would have been rendered on glass plates treated with special chemical solutions. They would have had to be printed onto specific kinds of paper using yet more chemicals to render the image and fix it in place.

After printing, Kersting inscribed them with dates, log numbers, descriptions, copyright stamps, his name and address. And while there are copies of certain images, no two are exactly the same because his descriptions vary. Some copies have additional, intriguing marks from R.A.F. censors or printed marks indicating that the paper is government-issued. What kinds of review processes did these images go through? And why do only some of them show signs of being reviewed or processed by the military?

“Iraq, A Typical Iraqi girl, from the country north of Mosul,” photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944.

It’s intriguing to think about the lifespan of these images. Did Kersting keep them in an album or display them in his home? Were these travel photographs shown off to friends? Were they commissioned by a particular organization? Did he consider them to be documentation of “exotic” people (a term now considered highly problematic but which circulated in popular discourse in his time), personal mementoes, or fine artworks? Why were some printed on glossy paper and others on flat matte paper? These are questions for which we don’t know the answers. But we do know more about these images’ futures.

These images, like the rest of the Conway Library’s photographic and print collections, are in the process of being digitized so that they can be stored and accessed online. The digitization process is an immense one, requiring hundreds of volunteers to help sort, label, photograph, and categorize all the images in the library.

So these photographs will live on in a digital form even after their physical forms degrade. But does our experience of an image change when it becomes pixels and code instead of photographic solution and paper? I can’t have the same experience of handling a photograph and flipping it over in eager anticipation of more information. But rendering high-quality images for a digital collection does make these images more accessible, potentially even allowing their circulation within the communities in Iraq and Iran that they portray.

“Quieter than Silence”

The anthropologist David Zeitlyn describes archives as spaces between memory and forgetting. They’re repositories of information, stories, and moments, but they also can outlive their subjects and makers, becoming ghosts of bygone people and places. Working in archives is extremely gratifying because it provides opportunities for rediscovery but it can also be frustrating as more and more question marks develop. 

The more I look at these photographs through different analytical lenses the more I realize just how much I don’t know and will probably never know about them. Through digitization, crowdsourcing, and circulating the photographs back within their communities of origin certain individuals could potentially be identified, but Kersting’s motivations remain unknown.

Unannotated photograph of Yezidi musicians and attendants of the annual festival at the holy site Sheikh Adi, photograph by Anthony Kersting, 1944. I am particularly struck by the young men in the bottom left corner who stare curiously into the lens of Kersting’s camera.

The photographs are even more ghostlike and frustrating to me, too, because they emphasize just how much is missing in appreciating the moment or person that is captured. It reminds me of the musical performance Quieter than Silence by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. In their fusion of Syrian and Iranian traditional music and poetry, the two men reflect on friendship, loss, and conflict. They emphasize the pain that comes with knowing that there should be sound or life in a moment but not being able to find it – experiences that seem quieter than silence.

These images seem quieter than silence to me in some ways because these places and people were not still and silent but teeming with movement, noise, color, and life. In the photographs, though, they have been frozen, silenced, detached. I long to reinvest these images with sound, smell, taste, and touch. So as I hold the photograph of the Yezidi girl, I think of her necklaces clinking together. I imagine the textures that surround her, the noise of a celebration, the click of a camera’s shutter closing.


Brittany Ellis

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant