Seeing Sudan: visual archives in a time of war by Kylie Thomas

Two men standing in front of buildings at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. Photograph by Elsharif Aboud. c.1960. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.
Two men standing in front of buildings at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. Photograph by Elsharif Aboud. c.1960. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.

This visual essay focuses on archival photographs from Sudan that form part of the Sudan Family Archives, a collection assembled and digitized by photographer Ala Kheir, in association with the Photography Legacy Project. The piece reflects on these images in the light of the war in Sudan that began on 15 April 2023.

In a black and white photograph by Elsharif Aboud, two young men in the middle of a wide stretch of ground turn to face the camera, their faces invisible in the midday glare. Behind them are the buildings of the University of Khartoum, founded as the Gordon Memorial College in 1902, and established as a public university when the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1956. Although he never worked as a professional photographer, Aboud, who studied architecture at the University of Khartoum, created thousands of photographs of everyday life in Sudan from the 1950s onwards. These photographs, along with images by other notable Sudanese photographers Gadalla Gubara and Abbas Habiballa, whose archives are dispersed and under threat, are being curated and digitized by Ala Kheir, a Khartoum-based photographer, working in partnership with family members of the photographers and with the Photography Legacy Project. Kheir’s aim is for the archives to open space for dialogue about identity, history and politics, but his work, like everything else in Sudan, has been interrupted by the outbreak of war on 15 April 2023. Since that date, the University of Khartoum, situated less than two kilometers away from the general command of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese Air Force headquarters, and not far from the Presidential Palace, which was seized by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on the first day of the war, and subject to airstrikes in May, has become a zone of intense fighting. More than 6 million people have been displaced by the conflict between the two military factions, and 2.8 million people are reported to have fled Khartoum, where there has been widespread looting, sexual violence, and loss of life. From 30 May to 1 September 2023, the city of El Obeid in North Kordofan state, just over 400 kilometers west of Khartoum, was held under siege by the RSF. During this time, supplies of food, drinking water and medicine were cut off and hundreds of civilians were killed.

Librarian at the University of Khartoum library. Photograph by Elsharif Aboud c.1960. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.
Librarian at the University of Khartoum library. Photograph by Elsharif Aboud c.1960. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.
Portrait of Abbas Habiballa’s extended family, El Obeid, Sudan c.1973. Photograph by Abbas Habiballa. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.
Portrait of Abbas Habiballa’s extended family, El Obeid, Sudan c.1973. Photograph by Abbas Habiballa. Courtesy of Ala Kheir and the Photography Legacy Project.
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