War stories or: how you can’t shoot what you hate

I’ve been shooting Street Photography for two and a half years now. Until a few months ago it was a relatively easy path. It was easy simply because it was fun. The learning curve was steep; it still is. There was a lot to learn; there’s more even still. But none of that took anything from the pure enjoyment of grabbing the cam, walking the streets, and shooting whatever came along that grabbed my attention.

The results didn’t matter that much, or at least now they don’t seem to have been so. I wasn’t seriously worried about having a ‘voice’ or a style of my own that I could develop. This would come later, I thought. I also didn’t actively pursue a specific project because I thought it was too early. This could come later as well, I kept convincing myself.

Instead, during these past years, I was busy dabbling in pseudo-psychology, trying to adapt Carl Jung’s ‘Active Imagination’ technique to my own photographic process. Active imagination is a meditation technique where one could have the subconscious communicate with the conscious and let it vent out its concerns. So naturally, many of the photos I shot only mattered to me. Nevertheless, after two years of mindless fun, this photographic egocentrism started to wane. Enough with the pretty pictures. Pretty is a bad word. Time to move on and try to photograph this city’s people. Time to try to capture some true – or truthy – essence of what I see. Time to shoot with intent.

Shooting Beirut wouldn’t be too hard, I figured. After all, I was born and raised here. I’m in the know on how bad its multiple personality disorder is; it should be a breeze revealing its people’s ethos. How pretentious. As soon as I started seeing people as living, breathing subjects, and not just as abstract shapes that could geometrically fill my frame, I balked. Seeing them differently was giving me anxiety all of a sudden. I didn’t want to shoot anymore. We photographers are supposed to empathize with our subjects. No sympathy required; just simple empathy. But even that I couldn’t do.

As much as I tried denying it, it started dawning on me that I didn’t like these people. Associating them with the city meant that years of suppressed images came floating back to the surface. I didn’t need to take pictures of them; I had reels and reels of mental images that were scrolling through my mind that would overshadow any scenes I was hoping to capture now.

May 1989. Teta Imm-Hanna is praying the rosary, standing facing a statue of the Virgin Mary set against the wall down in the bomb shelter. In the apartment building where we lived, all of us kids called her Teta even though she wasn’t our grandmother. I don’t remember her real name, Rose maybe, but everyone called her Imm-Hanna, or mother of Hanna (John), her only son who was shot in the head in the mid-70s by a drunken militia man. She was praying the rosary because it was May, the month of the Virgin, and every day she would set up a small shrine, light candles, burn incense, and go through the beads with children and other women in the building reciting the Hails Marys around her. Even if this year all 75 or so tenants are huddled up in a 5-room shelter with bombs raining on us, either by the Syrians or the Christian militia, she wouldn’t have it any differently.

Halfway through her ritual, a 240mm bomb (we knew them by sound) explodes at the door of the shelter. The blast was so powerful, I remember my hair rising up as if touched by static electricity. We were all covered with dust falling from the ceiling. Women were screaming, children were crying. Teta turns and yells at us: We’re not done yet! Keep praying! ‒ Click.

Winter 1990. Dad has to go to work. He’s a fireman and, in times of war, demand on putting out fires booms. My mother pleads with him not to go; the shelling was especially heavy that day. He wouldn’t have it; duty comes first. He drives down the small hill away from the building. No sooner does the car get out of sight than an explosion blasts right where the car was supposed to be. ‒ Click.

My mother breaks down, but the neighbors assure her that his car had already long passed by the time the bomb went off, so he is definitely safe. There was no way to be sure, though. The area got cut off, even for pedestrians. For days we stayed in the shelter, listening to the radio, hoping for good news. The stations had turned into country-wide Public Address systems for people looking for family members who had disappeared. The phone lines, if they ever worked, worked locally; no call would go through to a different area code. We placed our calls, repeatedly. But none were answered. They were ten days of hell.

On the eleventh day, the what, why, and how elude me. But I remember my father walking into the building lobby in his blackened uniform, my mother slowly walking towards him. They hug, she cries, our neighbors standing around them cry. ‒ Click.

As it turns out, the day he left, he had barely escaped the explosion and couldn’t turn back. He spent these eleven days putting body parts in garbage bags, many belonging to people he knew well. He had also tried to send calls over the radio to tell us he was safe. But he was calling the ‘Voice of Lebanon’ while we were calling the ‘Lebanese Radio,’ each catering to a different warring party. The irony of the stations’ names escaped us all.

Fall 1984. It is Catechism class and Miss Ghada, our 11eme (first grade) teacher, asks us to write down a prayer. Dear God, please kill all the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Syrians, was my prayer. She looks me in the eyes and says: you never ever pray for other people to be killed. God will never listen and you’re the one he’s going to be upset with.  ‒ Click.

February 2005. I walk into the office early in the afternoon and make myself a coffee.  I sit at my computer, crack open the glass pane door by my side, and light a cigarette. A minute later, the power goes out. Normal for Beirut. The building’s generator will run in a second, I think. The floor starts rattling. I look outside and I see a mushroom cloud. A deafening explosion rips through my ears and I see myself flying off my chair across the office.  ‒ Click.

I’m on the floor and right across is my co-worker Ahmed. We get up and head towards the exit. My boss, Maroun, and his wife, May, join us from their desks, but we decide that the bathroom is safer for now. We stand in silence next to each other in the tiny stall. May starts crying; their two daughters, Magali and Mélanie, are in school.  ‒ Click.

We don’t know what hit us. A raid? Car bomb? Does it matter? A few minutes later we open the bathroom door to let some light into the darkened room. I see my bloody reflection in the mirror, and soon start picking out the glass shards lodged in my face. ‒ Click.

I feel something warm trickling down my neck. It better not be my head, I think. I’m afraid of needles and I don’t want to get sutured now. Priorities seem to get jumbled in such times. Oh, it’s just my ear that was slit. Thank God.  ‒ Click.

The Prime Minister had been assassinated when his car got blown up two blocks away from our office. Dozens dead. Hundreds wounded.

December 2013. All the pictures I need to take have already been taken. I had always thought that these events went away, buried deep down. Yet this damned photography business kept bringing them back up to the surface. Perhaps it wasn’t by chance that for these past few years I was only looking at people as abstract shapes and not as characters. It was pure escapism; the camera was my shield. A shield from having to look at these awful people who cause nothing but harm. We are these awful people. It doesn’t matter if we were victims, survivors, or oppressors. Being passive bystanders is akin to being enablers. We deserve better? Then why aren’t we doing something about it?

Now it’s becoming more and more obvious why Street and Documentary Photographers barely exist in countries with recent wars histories. Shooting the streets makes you face realities that you don’t always want to face. Long live escapism! Let’s shoot some landscapes. Tripods for everyone!

3 thoughts on “War stories or: how you can’t shoot what you hate”

  1. A deep look inside a soul of a person and country. I had the wonderful opportunity to friend a few photographers from Lebanon this last summer at a workshop I was teaching in Sarajevo. Their passion still infuses me with the need to look deeper inside myself. It’s hard to look at ones own country while looking into oneself. As we have been together by robert frank and many others. The photographer sometimes finds himself in the land of others imaginations. I suggest to take yr passion to look into yrself to another country and find yourself in their environment and perform the operation of melding yourself into their collective dreams and make something from both you and them…..a book, a dream, a song.

    1. Thank you for your words, Jason. Much to think about. The land of other imaginations is probably what I need to think about the most.

      PS: The photographers you met in Sarajevo are good friends of mine. They brought me back a signed copy of your “The Americans list” book, as requested.

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