Sunbathers in Beirut: Photos celebrating everyday life in the Middle East | Photography
A new set of framed bathroom mirrors photographs aims to capture the optimistic and joyous side of life in the Arab world away from war and suffering. Fouad Elkoury talked to us through his project.
As one of Lebanon's most important photographers, Elkoury has gained international recognition for his intimate photos of life in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the years following the conflict, he found himself in Yasser Arafat's ship during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He created Atlantis, a series of nautical images featuring Palestinian leaders.
The typical Elkoury lens juxtaposes the personal and the political, and the resulting images fill the scenes of daily life with the strong resonance of their often traumatized history. They include Portemilio in Lebanon in 1984-a black-and-white photo of sunbathers leaning against a fountain in the northern resort of Beirut, and the year this photo was taken reminds the viewer that a few miles away, conflict is raging. In Changing Wheels, when the driver changes the tires, two well-dressed men stare fiercely at the camera. This is not just a microcosm of the social hierarchy-in the background, you can see the bombed shells of Beirut's tall buildings. Elkoury showed that even in the chaos, life and its rituals continue.
We talked on the phone because Elkoury had been relocating to his "hill house" in the countryside for the past year, where electricity and internet were unreliable. Although he has moved most of his life and first came to London as a young man to study architects, in the past two years, he has been down to earth and his works have attracted new audiences online, mainly through The popular Instagram account Middle East Archives. MEA, founded by Romaisa Baddar, has republished historical images of the region and has just released its first photography book, which includes photos of Oman, Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon taken by Elkoury between 1980 and 1997.
"When Romaisa came to me, I told her that I didn't have much energy," Elkoury said. "In the two months after the explosion, I couldn't do anything because I was traumatized. I would rather stay alone and think for myself than look at pictures of people eating on Instagram." However, Badar persisted, and El Curry finally gave in.
The result is an interesting collection of Elkoury’s little-known optimistic works, from a horseback rider in the middle of a busy road talking to someone through a car window (Jerusalem, 1993), to a man in a coat jumping frantically to bid to stop a child in one Goal in an impromptu football match (Gaza, 1994). This book, also known as the Archives of the Middle East, is full of the quiet poetry of everyday life: El Curry said that regardless of the geopolitical background, children are still playing football. Is that the winning ball of the game? We will never know.
Baddar explained that this book aims to correct the usual description of the Middle East. "The Arab world is mainly constructed through suffering, and this is not the full meaning of these places," she said. "I want to show the true nature of the area. Instagram is where I and many of my peers get to know the situation. Therefore, it feels important to show something happier than what you saw in Google Middle East."
However, El Curry does not believe that his job is just a news document. "If my images just show the events that happened in front of me," he said, "when the event disappears, its meaning disappears. In order for my photos to be preserved in time, they must be more symbolic. "
When Elkoury was six years old, he used a camera stolen from his father's desk drawer to take his first photo. He took a roundabout path to professional photography and first became an architect. But when he returned to Beirut in 1979, coincident with the chaos of the civil war, he began to photograph his surroundings again. "The war is raging, and there is no other way but to take pictures," he said. "I was afraid of conflict, so I did not go to the front line, but focused on the composition of life during the war."
This kind of attention to the individual in a period of great turmoil is a recurring theme in his works, especially in his 2006 "War and Love" series. Here, the text is written directly on the images of his unmade bed, bathroom mirrors and sunlit walls, forming an amazing combination of the diary description of the breakup and the ongoing conflict in Beirut. Just as his lover does not appear in the image, so does the usual exaggerated depiction of war.
The series was part of the first Lebanese pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Earlier this year, Elkoury once again exhibited a new series of works by the Lebanese American poet and artist Etel Adnan. "I have always been surprised by the fact that the respected museum wants to display and purchase my work," Elkoury said. "I photograph where I live and what I see and feel, nothing more."
His pursuit of sincerity allowed Elkoury to immerse himself in the location he chose to shoot. "Usually when I travel to a country, I stay for a while-for example, in Palestine, I stayed for two and a half years. I don't travel for five days. I stay, I rent a house or an apartment, and slowly learn about this The atmosphere and mentality of the city. It's fun to be immersed in a country. But at the same time, it's quite a dangerous move because you often get caught up in things you don't know." He paused. "Unbelievably, I'm still alive. I could have died six or seven times, just where I shouldn't be."
Elkoury shoots the movie. Now, there is a pile of scrolls waiting to be brought to the town for development. The images they contained documented a certain treatment that he started after the fatal explosion last year. Those scrolls record his walks in the surrounding mountains. The act of taking these photos—returning to his craft—helped his recovery. "Nature seems to be the only soothing element," he said. "It provides eternity."