"I used to go down to the coffeehouse with the Turkish workmen after we had worked during the day, get a coffee or a beer," remembers Nickel, now director of the Center for Creative Photography.
One day in 1982, the group was watching the World Cup championships on TV. The games "were interrupted by a news report about somebody who had gone into a McDonald's in California with an AK-47 and started shooting up the place. I remember the workmen got really concerned about this and turned to me and said, 'We're very sorry. America must be a very dangerous place.'"
The young American scholar was nonplused. He had lately had to fend off his own mother's worries about his safety in dangerous Turkey. But his Turkish friends insisted that American violence was less understandable, and more frightening, than their homegrown variety.
One man told Nickel, "The difference is in Turkey if you hear about violence being committed, you can usually understand the reason for it. Political reasons you can understand. But this, in the United States, of somebody just shooting up a McDonald's for no reason at all, doesn't make any sense to us. It's so scary."
The conversation, so antithetical to American ways of thinking about the volatile Middle East, turned into an epiphany of sorts for the budding young scholar of photography. It helped him "begin to see the world through someone else's eyes," he says. And it set him on a course of study. He decided to research the European photographers who flocked to the Middle East in the 19th century and made pictures that had more to do with Western preoccupations than with Middle Eastern reality.
"The concern I took off to graduate school was, what does it actually mean to be a photographer and make pictures of a region through your own eyes and not be able to see it through the eyes of the people you're actually documenting?" Nickel says.
At Princeton, he ended up studying Francis Frith, an English photographer and Quaker who made three separate journeys to Egypt and the "Holy Land" in the late 1850s, in an effort to document the historical truth of the Bible. Relatively obscure today--photographic historians dismiss his workaday pictures as merely "topographic"--Frith was wildly popular in his time. Victorians rushed to buy his exotic pictures of the "sacred geography" trod by Jesus and the prophets, and they laid out plenty of cash to buy them in illustrated volumes or in cheaper stereoscope views.
Frith even published a Bible illustrated with his photos of Biblical landscapes, an ingenious manifestation in one volume of his Quaker belief that religion could be approached rationally and scientifically. Already a self-made millionaire from a wholesale grocery business that provisioned ships in the thriving port of Liverpool, Frith got even richer from his pictures.
"The more research I did on the guy, the more I was glad I never had to meet him or talk to him," Nickel confesses. "He was quite the showman. His language was quite bombastic. He was a terrible chauvinist. He was an Englishman of the mid-century."
This year, Princeton University Press published Nickel's Francis Frith in Egypt and Palestine: A Victorian Photographer Abroad, upgrading his dissertation into a sumptuous scholarly volume illustrated with photos from Frith's travels.
The book is not intended as a conventional biography, though it can't entirely escape the adventure story of Frith's three journeys into the desert, by sailboat, camel and mule. One time, the steamship left England without him but with his bulky equipment, and he didn't catch up to his mammoth plate camera, portable darkroom and glass plates until two weeks later in Egypt.
Nor is it an art history concerned primarily with aesthetic values. Instead, Nickel has attempted a cultural history that looks at what Frith's photographs meant to his fellow Victorians.
"The history of photography has for too long been caught up in the idea of photographic truth, when it really should have been about photographic belief," Nickel says. "People in the 19th century would look at Frith's photographs and see, in fact, that they confirmed that the Bible is true."
The book also excavates what Nickel calls the "archaeology" of Western misconceptions about the Middle East--ideas that unfortunately still shape geopolitics today. Frith typically photographed romantic views. With their tumbling stone ruins being buried by drifting sands, his pictures conjured up a lost civilization, not a real-life, contemporary place. He ignored the Suez Canal, then under construction, and never took a picture of "any kind of modern structure, no railroads, no canals. His project was about a kind of romantic, untainted pre-modern East. He didn't want to talk about what was really going on there."
Worse, Frith subscribed to the prevailing "Orientalist" view that Arabs were exotic, "half-civilized" and decidedly inferior to Europeans. In one photo, taken in Egypt, Frith made a counterpoint of a European and an Arab. The white man is jauntily dressed in a practical suit and briskly gazing out into the future; the Egyptian is encumbered by his long robes, and turns his head passively away from the view.
In a typical passage, Frith wrote, "The Arabs who infest (Palestine) are the laziest, the most cowardly and worthless set of fellows."
Contemporary Western politicians fall into the same trap, Nickel says, stereotyping the people and the various cultures of the region.
"The Middle East as we know it is a half-imaginary place," Nickel says. "It's obviously a real place, but it's been subject to all kinds of projections by westerners for a couple of centuries." When we talk about the Middle East, he says, we talk in the same dualities Frith used: "We're Christian; they're Muslim. The Westerner is industrious; the Middle Easterner is lazy. The Westerner is modern and scientific. The Middle Easterner is superstitious and backward."
In the most dangerous stereotyping, Muslims as a group are equated with terrorism.
"Now the administration in Washington can invade a completely innocent country in the region and count on the fact that that most Americans think that they're all terrorists over there," Nickel says. "It doesn't matter which country you invade. They're all bad."
Frith thought that Muslims were illegitimate landholders of places that truly belonged to Christians. The best thing all around, the photographer believed, would be for the white man to take up his burden and rule these wayward people.
"It is an exciting thought that perhaps to England will eventually fall the task of governing this wonderful land, and of reviving and Christianizing its mummified and paralysed life," Frith wrote.
Such ideas sound remarkably familiar to today's political sloganeering, though nowadays we talk less about Christianizing the Arab world and more about democratizing it. But the impulse is similar.
"There is a certain attitude, especially in the United States, about our right to invade and take over and administer those countries," Nickel says. "They're not democratic. They don't think the way we do. So they obviously ... are not legitimate.
"The interesting thing is that so much of the issues that pertain to Frith in the 1850s we see going on around us right now," Nickel adds. "A lot of things in the world have (changed), but the relationship between the East and West hasn't changed. All of the things, the rhetoric, that you find on the nightly news is the same rhetoric you would have found back in the 1850s as well. Frith is an interesting kind of case study in how modern issues of globalization were already playing themselves out back in the 19th century and all of the same sort of agendas were already in place. You can't think of the issues in the Middle East as modern in vintage, as relatively recent."
With the snail's pace of academic publishing, Nickel actually wrote the book long before the Americans invaded Iraq, but the crises in the Middle East have been "part of the political landscape as long as I've been a sentient adult," he says. His book is far from an explicit critique of American policy, but he said he was excited to "find an archaeology for these ideas, to find them being debated and discussed in not dissimilar fashion 150 years ago."