Professor shares Middle East photos with libraries

By Josh Day

In the course of his travels as a Foreign Service officer, photographer and professor, Dr. Colbert Held has taken photos in every country in the Middle East.

Out of the 19,000 individual Kodachrome slides he personally took, 175 pictures will be spread across different displays in all of the Baylor libraries starting Feb. 7.

According to Corrine Peters, the Ohio graduate student working closely with Dr. Held on the display, the exhibit “is a visual representation of the small amount of information that his collection could possibly share.”

Dr. Held described his exhibit as “visually attractive, but informative and even instructive.”

Held was born in Stamford on Sept. 3, 1917, and is the son of a Baptist minister.

Before beginning his photographic career, Held attended Baylor and was a photographer for the Round Up Yearbook staff.

He graduated from Baylor in 1938 and recieved a master’s degree from Northwestern University in 1940.

After a brief teaching career at Mississippi College, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, where he attended the Air Photographic School.

He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1954 as a lieutenant colonel and began working as a photographer for the Foreign Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of State.

When Held began his journey into what would become an expansive photographic record of the massive infrastructure and societal changes in every Middle Eastern country, neither he nor his superiors knew the full significance.

Regarding the photos he took in his life, Held said, “I never thought of them as having any permanent value.”

Held began his job as a geographic attaché.

Held said attachés were expected to keep the Department of Foreign Affairs informed about all the ethnic, road and topographic maps as well as the publications and dictionaries of each Middle Eastern country that were being produced.

This was in addition to giving reports on the culture, language and governments.

For a period of 20 years, Held worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of State and the embassy.

His photos and records were one of the few sources of information the U.S. had about the Middle East.

Even to many in the U.S. government, Middle Eastern geography and culture was relatively unknown.

“The Middle East was still a mystery, so a picture of Kuwait was many times the first time they had ever seen a picture of Kuwait,” Held said.

At the time, now-familiar places like Dubai were in their infancy.

“They weren’t known and they weren’t much to know. They were just fishing villages,” said Held.

His last trip was in 2003.

“When I returned, I took pictures of high-rises,” he said.

From 1956 through 1976 Held went from country to country, revisiting each of them in five-year increments.

Each time he returned, he would walk the streets and document the changes with his camera.

Over the years, a dirt pathway would become a four-lane highway and the “ratty hotels with roaches” in which he once stayed would turn to elegance.

Even though he retired from the Foreign Service in 1976, he continued his work while fulfilling his duties as both Baylor’s diplomat-in-residence and professor of geography.

His knowledge and experience contributed to his book “Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples and, Politics,” which is still currently still used at Baylor.

Held said he enjoyed his 50-year career in photography, but he feels that as a 95-year-old he no longer could.

“I’d go back in a minute if I thought I could carry luggage, climb steps and ride elevators,” Held said.