Picturing Public Space: Ethnicity and Gender in Iraklio

Order in Urban Space: Military Subjects

The readiness with which Behaeddin himself, and the photographers in Alikiotis’s series sought the vanishing point perspective in Iraklio, indicates their Western influences in their attempt to give a sense of ‘modern’, well-ordered urban space. However, a vanishing point was very difficult to find and reproduce in a city like Iraklio, which had been described by one contemporary commentator as a “medieval pen” (Eleftheria newspaper, 12 February 1900).

Photographers who produced cartes postales in that era, employed a visual metaphor to convey a similar sense of ordered public space. They photographed a significant number of military drills and parades, especially those of the British garrison in Iraklio. At the beginning of the 20th century, the bourgeois classes in Iraklio looked up to the British troops and officers as to a sort of ‘civilising mission’ that was there to aid them on the way to progress. British troops represented first of all an array of technical innovations regarding sanitation and public provision. The experience of British troops from other colonial settings was transferred to the city. The speed and efficiency with which the British took control of the city, quarantined the diseased, filtered water in a specially designated ship, ordered all stray animals exterminated, rebuilt the city’s sewage system, was indicative to the eyes of contemporary Irakliots of their advanced stage of civilisation and governance. Simultaneously, for the upper classes of the city, participating in the dances and soirees of the British garrison emulated some sort of urbane respectability (Anagnostopoulos 2007). Behaeddin captured extensively the activity of British troops in Iraklio: their camp, their football matches and leisure activities, their drills and parades. Mostly, however, he photographed the British garrison in parade drill. In fact, most of the pictures he took of Eleftherias square feature the troops in one formation or another, and the same is true for the ones Alikiotis published in his series (fig. 4). There is here the question of technical limitations: we have to think of the bulky and awkward equipment of wet collodion processing, and the slow exposure times of glass plates to understand particular takes: military subjects were especially rendered to photographing, because they stood still for so long. But there is also an aesthetic aspect to all this, that shows how public space, through parading and drilling, becomes an ordered space dominated by (male) military prowess (see Zei 2005: 188-190). It was Alikiotis who took this narrative a step further, by publishing postcards which visually documented continuity between the British military order and the order of the new Cretan state. He issued a series of photographs in which the foreign-trained Cretan police force emulates the parade drills of British troops. In yet another picture, primary school and high school pupils reproduce a military formation in their drills or during their public ceremonies. Alikiotis’s collection documents thus continuity between the sense of order produced by the British troops and the ordering of the new citizens in the Autonomous Cretan state. He thus hinted at the militarisation of the Cretan polity as the path to the civilisation of the Cretan people that have stayed under the anarchic rule of the Empire for so long. In fact, this resonates with discourses that supported the autocratic character of the new regime by claiming that Cretans were not ready to rule themselves, but had to be trained to this discipline in order to be set free later in a democratic state. Visually, though, it coupled ordered public space with male military displays, thus creating a visual analogy of public space as male space.

Gender and Photography

At the same time, the order and tidiness that was imposed on the city by British colonial troops met with the complex process of restructuring urban public space. This process, fueled by bourgeois initiative, was a highly gendered one. This is perhaps not the place to discuss this at any length, as I have done elsewhere (Anagnostopoulos 2007). Suffice it to say that it was a conscious project to transform all public spaces (i.e. non- domestic ones) to male spaces and all private (i.e. non-public or domestic spaces) into female. This project was not always as clear-cut, nor can we retrieve the visual clues from the archive that point to an austere segregation. The problem with the photographic depictions of the city is indeed the absence of women from the majority of public photographs. This absence can be interpreted in two ways: either women were ‘prohibited’ in some way to enter male public spaces, or the particular spaces chosen for capturing were so selected as to exclude female subjects. It seems to me that the latter is the case. For example, when photographic Eleftherias square on a public occasion, Behaeddin captures a great number of women mingling freely with men. The same goes for other public occasions, such as the arrival of Prince George in Iraklio. These were perhaps only ‘appropriate’ occasions for the mixing of both sexes in public. The selective portrayal of public spaces, however, is highlighted in the case that I discuss below.

Behaeddin’s rural subjects are in their great majority village springs. In captions, the village spring often becomes a synecdoche for the village itself. We could suppose that Behaeddin, amongst others, was interested in the monumental aesthetics of these springs, usually built during the Venetian occupation of the island. However this is not the entire picture. The communal spring was the centre of activity for any village: women and children spent a very long part of the day there, filling up with water for the needs of the household. During specific hours of the day, a long queue would form in front of the spring, and this was an occasion to engage in conversation and gossip.

All photos of village springs are taken with both men and women standing together in front of or around them. This portrayed villages as spaces of non-segregated gender interaction, where women and men were free to meet in the streets, chat and interact as equals. This came in stark contrast with rising gendered discourses of bourgeois propriety in the city, a moral code that was slowly being transferred to the countryside itself. What is more, these discourses were built upon an ideology that contrasted the countryside as rough, dirty, primitive, but also unhindered, pristine, uninhibited, with the city as refined, civilised, clean and restrained, educated and mannered.

Behaeddin chose to portray the few communal springs he photographed in Iraklio, as empty, monumental spaces, in order to show the absence of women from them and reinstate them as ‘public’ spaces. I have already discussed above the example of one such spring, but there is a more telling case: Behaeddin’s favorite theme, the fountain at the central square of the city (Lions square, named after the marble lions on the Venetian fountain). This monument, besides serving as communal spring, mostly for the shops but also for the few houses of the area, was also frequently surrounded by wooden stalls set up by women who sold wild herbs they collected themselves from the countryside. This is visible in much rarer views of this particular fountain. Behaeddin, however, as in fact most photographers of the era, sought to photograph this landmark without these haphazard stalls or other indications of its everyday uses. In a particular shot, Behaeddin chose an angle that looked away from the stalls, in order to ‘crop’ them and their owners out of the picture . In a wonderful turn of events, two small girls, possibly Muslim, have managed to edge their way into the frame at the bottom left corner of the picture, subverting his effort to withhold the networks of female sociability that developed in such public spaces from posterity.

A Final Word: Reading Photographs as Artefacts

To interpret an archive of photographs, one must take into account its historical content, but also the way it is shaped in the present. In the case of Iraklio, the trade in picture postcards has shaped the archive of available traces. It has consequently influenced strongly our pictorial sense of what the past looked like. For example, there is nowhere in Iraklio or elsewhere a complete collection of all postcards published, in order to make assumptions of a quantitative nature. Those private collections that are most extensive are rarely open to the interested researcher. She is frequently forced to work with reproductions of postcards from books published by private collectors, and rarely touches the postcard itself. Some postcards have been massively reproduced to adorn every other coffee-shop wall in town, becoming a trade-mark for urban nostalgia, while others are forever lost or buried in private collections. It is necessary therefore to examine postcards not only as traces of the past, but also as material objects with specific histories.

Professional historians have been somewhat reluctant to engage with the photographic record (Burke 2001: 10, Schama 2004: 24, Morris- Suzuki 2005: 118,). Amateur historians, on the contrary, and particularly in Iraklio, have made this the stock of their trade. Some of the most serious collectors have published photographic albums in which textual narrative is replaced by a succession of photographs organised in thematic clusters or temporal sequences (e.g. Panagiotakis 1998). These historians, rather more akin to collectors, invest great time and effort to discover and copy or purchase documents from the era under question. They actively engage with the trade in historical artefacts, which expand beyond the confines of the local, for example with auctions in Athens or other European cities. They scour specialist shops in the second-hand market of Athens, private and public collections in Crete and elsewhere. Their acquaintances enable them to locate and identify rare postcards and cabinet portraits. These activities are perhaps fueled by a desire for collecting and in a way reclaiming these artefacts for local history, bringing them back to their place of origin. However, the process of locating, identifying and purchasing these historical artefacts is a sorting process, which grades pictorial evidence according to their value for what I have called elsewhere “deictic” history (Anagnostopoulos 2007).

In a few words, deictic history is a point-and-tell performance, the ability of local historians to point at a particular place and narrates how this specific place was in the past. It is not exactly to trace the genealogy or linear development of the place, but to recall, and be able to demonstrate, the form it had at a particular point in time. The importance of photographs for this sort of local history is of course enormous. Most of the postcards owned by collectors and reproduced in published volumes are there to show how so-and-so square was a hundred years ago, or how this or that road looked like many decades ago. Deictic history in the context of the history of the city of Iraklio performs a double movement. First, it fetishises traces of the past into things that preserve and communicate the ‘aura’ of that past. Second, it constitutes a performative act, which engages both the collector and his (almost all collectors are male) public. Perhaps this double feat is akin to the ability of photography to transubstantiate and become the thing it portrays, as in the case mentioned by Alan Sekula of someone pointing at a picture of her dog and saying “this is my dog” (Sekula 1982: 86). In the case of Iraklio, however, this is made possible only on the condition of scantiness of the evidence which postcards portray – the built fabric of the ‘old city’ – as well as the scarcity of postcards themselves.

A serious collection of historical photographs does not merely attest to the ability and perseverance of a collector, but is also an effect of his class position. The spare time, connections and resources necessary for such an undertaking make it a rather exclusive pursuit, but not necessarily an upper-class one. Some of the most prolific collectors and local historians are retired public servants, with good pension schemes and rural or urban property. They usually fund the publication of their collections by private means. Given that each postcard is unique – it contains text, stamps and other marks that distinguish it from all others, the publication of a private collection becomes a marker of social status, a public display of conspicuous consumption. The commodification of such publications disguises the conditions of their historical formation. Postcards assume their importance as historical ‘traces’ by pointing to spatial forms that have been forever lost, demolished or withered away. Yet, only after the impact of the bourgeois plan of urbanisation on the city were these spatial forms considered as a cultural commodity. Mosques, markets, arches, springs and houses were demolished as this plan deployed throughout the 20th century, in order to give way to modernisation and rid the city of a burden carried over from the barbaric, “Turkish” past. This process was in many ways a class offensive waged by the middle and upper classes of the city that had the means to bring about changes to the built fabric of the city. By collapsing the archive of this transformation under a spatial, deictic logic, local history occludes the creation of spatial and value hierarchies.

Looking at postcards of Iraklio as a “three-dimensional thing, not only a two-dimensional image” (Edwards and Hart 2004: 1), alerts us to the fetishistic substitution that deictic history rests upon. In this case, postcards as things assume the potency of signifiers-cum-signified as surrogates for material things that have been forever lost. However, this potency does not adhere to postcards ab ovo, but is created as they enter social relations, as scholars like Edwards and Hart are quick to point out. The performative way that photographs are used in the local history of Iraklio serves to obscure the antagonisms that brought about the ‘monumental scarcity’ of the city, by replacing it with the graded rarity of its pictorial representations. It consequently obscures the material relationships that make historical evidence so scarce, but at the same time ‘normalises’ the photographic record itself.

As is obvious from the analysis above, photographers of the beginning of the 20th century focused on very particular themes and avoided others, based on their perceptions of audience, ethnicity, gender, propriety and progress. It is also evident that the photographs that were eventually most frequently published have also been selectively chosen from a variety of available ones, in order to serve the ideological orientation of their owners or users. The ‘archive’ of pictorial representation is thus formed by a process which undermines any notion of photography as direct representation of a past reality. In this context, it is inexpedient to discern content from form, as is common in most discussions of anthropological and historical treatments of photographic representation.


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Image: courtesy of Vikelea Municipal Library Collection, Heraklion, Crete.