The two men pictured are in fact white Europeans, posing in a London studio.
Photograph by Roger Fenton (English, 1819–1869)/Featured at the Clark Art Institute
On display at the “Photography and Discovery” exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is a photo of two men dressed in traditional Arab garb in a carpeted room (above).
They’re smoking a pipe. It’s a beautiful photo, but it’s not from the Middle East.
It was shot in a studio in London by photographer Roger Fenton. The men in the photo are white Europeans, dressed up and posing as Arabs.
The whole thing is staged — as are several of the exhibit’s images. The photos were taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly the first 75 years of photography.
This was also a time of rising European colonial power.
European empires needed justification for subjugating vast swaths of earth, and photography could frame the Arab and Asian world in a way that supported the empire, says Ali Behdad, a professor of literature at UCLA and author of Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of the Middle East.