Fellah Woman with Niqab

Photography by Hippolyte Arnoux, Egypt, late 19th century.
Courtesy of Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

Photography was the key medium of Orientalism, and the Lehnert & Landrock photo studio in Cairo was one of its primary sources. Around 1900, Rudolf Lehnert traveled through North Africa to capture images of landscapes and iconic sites (such as the pyramids of Giza), but especially to photograph people. The genre that emerged from these travels has been called “ethnopornography” because it fuses the colonial regime of the gaze with erotic mystification. Who exactly is behind the veil of the “fellah” (Egyptian peasant) woman, whether an actress or a prostitute – which is ultimately to say, a young woman from the big city who allows herself to be photographed for money – is unclear. The only thing that is reasonably certain is that no peasant woman would have ever strayed into Lehnert’s studio.