Carine Chelhot Lemyre
University of St Andrews, Scotland
Behind the Scenes: The Case of Marie Lydie Cabanis Bonfils and Other Women Photographers in the Middle East
In an article on the ‘invisible history of women photographers in the Middle East’, the scholar Stephen Sheehi writes, ‘when we speak of Arab photography, we should expect that behind every male photographer is a woman.11
There could not be a more accurate statement to describe the circumstances of Marie Lydie (Cabanis) Bonfils, the wife of the French photographer Félix Bonfils, who established the renowned photography studio La Maison Bonfils, in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1867. Much has been written about European photography studios that operated in the Middle East, however, the role that women occupied in the effective management of these successful enterprises has thus far been neglected. Marie Lydie’s part in the management of her husband’s atelier is merely one of those examples. Furthermore, most of the scholarship on female photographers in the Middle East has concentrated on the Europeans who had travelled to the region to subsequently return to their home countries, such as Lady Brassey and the countess Élise de Perthuis. This recognizes Lydie as the first female photographer who was based in Lebanon and the Middle East, more broadly. Furthermore, recent research has shown that she was in fact amongst several women who were participating ‘behind the scenes’ in other studios, their role only having been recently acknowledged.
This talk will focus primarily on the tasks with which Marie Lydie was assigned in the Bonfils atelier on the basis of her gender, such as dressing female models in preparation for the photographs of ‘types’ and ‘costumes’. It will also shed light on her contemporaries such as Rikke Sabunji, Anna Guichard, Juliet Geiser, Octavia Kova, and Karimeh Abbud.
11 Stephen Sheehi, ‘Behind Every Male Photographer: The Invisible History of Local Women Photographers in the Middle East,’ Aramco World 70, no. 2 (March 2019): 28–30, p. 30.