The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2021 | Recording the Invisible: Islamic Architecture and its Photographic Archives
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Recording the Invisible: Islamic Architecture and its Photographic Archives

Principal Supervisor: Dr. Simon O’Meara

Co-Supervisor: Dr. Emma Sandon

Project Description

Rationale & Aims:

This project investigates the use of photography for the study of Islamic architecture. Photographic archives are key sources for the history of Islamic architecture. The project proposes that the perspective that underpins the lens-based technology of photography used to visualise Islamic architecture emerges from an historically and culturally specific development in European art and science. As such, photographic sources for the study of Islamic architecture might not integrate key elements of Islamic visuality, or the social and cultural conditions of both seeing in the Islamic world and the making of meaning of what is seen by the inhabitants of that world. Photography might not fully accommodate Islamic visuality.

The project’s first aim is thus to establish how inimical photography is to the recording of Islamic material culture, including Islamic architecture. That is because Islamic architecture and design are commonly linked to metaphysical elements, forming part of a visuality that pertains as much to the invisible realm (the Quranic al-ghayb) as to the visible realm (the Quranic al-shahada). The photographic archives represent, at best, perspectives of the visible realm of this Islamic visuality. The project’s second aim is the development of strategies that expose the perspectives at work in photography and suggest ways of allowing for the ongoing use of the images the archives of Islamic architecture contain, but in a manner accommodating of both realms of Islamic visuality.


1) the unravelling of the problematics of Islamic architecture’s records in photographic archives; 2) the appraisal and harnessing of scholarship and practice-based research that critique photography’s claim to produce indices of reality, in order for 3) the development of strategies that accommodate the ontology of Islamic visuality and offer a more appropriate and contextually interpretive use of the existing collections in the photographic archives.


With reference to the project’s first objective, in order to analyse the role of photography in the development of the field of Islamic art and architectural history, the candidate will focus on at least two photographic archives important for their Islamic architectural records; for example, the K.A.C. Creswell archive at the Ashmolean Museum and the Friedrich Sarre archive at Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art. They will firstly analyse the intersection of colonial politics and architectural representation at play in them and the photographs they contain. Then, secondly, they will select approximately four architectural sites from these archives and, with reference to textual and non-textual Muslim sources regarding them, compare and contrast their representation in these sources with their representation in the archives. This process of site selection will be dictated by the availability of the sources regarding the site. Depending on the site, the sources will include a mixture of the following: local histories, travel accounts, cosmographies, poetry, personal narratives, including oneiric ones, marginal diagrams, miniature paintings and other artworks, both historical and – where they exist – contemporary. Many of these textual sources exist in European-language translations.

With reference to the project’s combined second and third objectives, in developing a critique and practice of the interpretative use of the archives, the candidate will engage with contemporary theories of photography, in order to propose experimental strategies for both the more appropriate use of existing photographic archives and the photographic representation of Islamic visuality. These strategies concern the practice of photography, namely, the actual taking of pictures, the display and reproduction of photographs themselves, and the curatorial and editorial use of existing photographic archives. Theoretically, this practice will be situated within an understanding of the historical context of the photographic practices that have informed and shaped the archives. The candidate will engage with current debates on archives and history that study the ways in which archives are assembled, collected and catalogued, whilst reiterating the importance of these collections for historical research. The project encourages experimental strategies in archival research to be in part practice-based, as well as theoretically informed, in keeping with the increasingly widespread focus on practice in SOAS’s School of Arts. The integration of theory and practice of photography in the use of archives is also an important element of Birkbeck’s doctoral programme training as well as a key focus of its History and Theory of Photography Research Centre.

Subject Areas/Keywords

Architectural history; archives; decolonization; Islamic architecture; Islamic visuality; photography

Key References:

Ackerman, J. S., ‘The Origins of Architectural Photography’, CCA Mellon Lectures, 2001,

Ahmed, S., What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton UP 2015

Azoulay, A. A., Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Verso 2019

Hamilton, C., Harris, V., Pickover, M., Reid, G., Saleh, R., Taylor, J. eds.

Refiguring the Archives, Springer 2002.

Kenaan, H., Photography and Its Shadow, Stanford UP 2020.

Troelenberg, E.-M., ‘Framing the Artwork: Munich 1910 and the Image of Islamic Art,’ in After One Hundred Years: The 1910 Exhibition ‘Meisterwerke muhammedanischer Kunst’ Reconsidered, ed. A. Shalem & A. Lermer, Brill 2010

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor:


Further information about PhDs at SOAS is available from:


Application process:

1) Admissions Application: 26th March 2021.

Apply for the Research Degrees programme: MPhil/PhD in History and Archeology using SOAS’s online admissions form.

Further guidance for applying for admission to the MPhil/PhD programme and documents are here

IMPORTANT: Please state in the admissions application that you wish to be considered for the Bloomsbury Colleges PhD Studentship, use the title of the studentship ('Recording the Invisible: Islamic Architecture and its Photographic Archives')  as your Supporting Statement/Cover letter Title and state Dr. Simon O’Meara as your Principal Supervisor.

Use your Supporting Statement/Cover letter to explain why you are motivated to apply for this project, and what skills and experience you will bring to the project. In your Supporting Statement/Cover letter set out how you would engage with this project based on your previous academic training and experience. You do not need to submit a research proposal for this studentship application; if the system asks you to upload a document here, please upload your Supporting Statement/Cover letter again.

2) Studentship Application: Friday, 26th March 2021.

Apply for the Bloomsbury Colleges Studentship by completing and submitting this studentship application form ASAP or by Friday, 26 March 2021.

Applications deadline: 26 March 2021