Sunbathers in Beirut: The Photographs That Celebrate Everyday Life in the Middle East | Photography

ISLANDOn August 4, 2020, Fouad Elkoury was sitting in his home in Beirut when a huge explosion at the harbor shattered his windows and blew through his living room. Miraculously, the Lebanese photographer survived, but his home was destroyed along with the homes of an estimated 300,000 others. “When you go through such an explosion,” he says, “your memory disappears first. Second, your hearing is destroyed. And third, you stop planning. Things are so big that you realize you are not “This is where I am at the moment.”

One of Lebanon’s leading photographers, Elkoury gained international recognition with his intimate photographs documenting life during the Lebanese civil war in Beirut in the 1970s and early 80s. Traveling in the years after the conflict, he was aboard the ship with Yasser Arafat during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He created Atlantis, a nautical series of images with the Palestinian leader.

Typical Elkoury footage equates the personal with the political, producing images that permeate everyday scenes with the heavy resonance of their often traumatic stories. They include Portemilio, Lebanon, 1984 – a black and white image of sunbathers leaning back by a fountain at a resort north of Beirut, while the year the photo was taken reminds the viewer that the conflict raged a few kilometers outside the picture. . In Changing the Wheel, two well-dressed men stare impressively into the lens while their driver replaces a tire. It’s not just a microcosm of social hierarchies – in the background you can see the explosive grenades from Beirut’s high – rises. Life and its rituals continue, Elkoury shows, even in the midst of chaos.

'I will show the region in its true essence'… On the Horse, Jerusalem, 1993.
‘I will show the region in its true essence’… On the Horse, Jerusalem, 1993. Photo: Fouad Elkoury

We are talking on the phone, as Elkoury has in the past year moved to his family’s “mountain house” in the countryside, where the electricity and internet are unreliable. Despite having spent much of his life on the go when he originally came to London as a young man to study as an architect, he has for the past two years seen him grounded, where his work has reached a new audience online, mainly via the popular Instagram account Middle East Archive. Founded by Romaisa Baddar, MEA is reposting historical images of the region and has just released its debut photo book, which includes Elkoury’s images of Oman, Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon from 1980 to 1997.

“When Romaisa approached me, I told her I did not have much energy,” says Elkoury. “For two months after the explosion, I could not do anything because I was so traumatized. I’d rather be alone and think for myself than be on Instagram and see pictures of what people are eating. “Still, Baddar kept going, and Elkoury finally gave in.

The result is an intriguing collection of Elkoury’s lesser-known, optimistic work, from a rider in the middle of a busy road talking to someone through a car window (Jerusalem, 1993), to a man in a coat jumping wildly in a bid. to prevent a child from scoring a goal during an impromptu football match (Gaza, 1994). The book, also called the Middle East Archive, is full of this quiet poetry of everyday life: regardless of the geopolitical context, says Elkoury, children still play football. Is it the winning ball of the match? We’ll never know.

The book, Baddar explains, is intended as a corrective to the usual depictions of the Middle East. “The Arab world has mainly been framed through suffering when it is not all these places stand for,” she says. “I want to show the region in its true essence, and Instagram is a place where I and many people my age are informed. So it felt important to show something far more gratifying than what you would see if you just Googled the Middle East. . “

However, Elkoury does not see his work as merely a journalistic documentation. “If my pictures just show the event happening in front of me,” he says, “the meaning of it will die when the event dies. In order for my pictures to be preserved in time, they would have to be more symbolic.”

By recording his first photos with a camera stolen from his father’s desk drawer at the age of six, Elkoury took a twisted path into professional photography, first becoming an architect. But a return to Beirut in 1979 coincided with the chaos of the Civil War, and he again began photographing his surroundings. “The war raged and there was nothing to do but take pictures,” he says. “I was afraid of the conflict, so instead of going to the front line, I concentrated on what constituted life during the war.”

'I photograph where I live and what I see and feel'… Changing the Wheel, Beirut, 1982.
‘I photograph where I live and what I see and feel’… Changing the Wheel, Beirut, 1982. Photo: Fouad Elkoury

This focus on the personal in a time of massive upheaval is a recurring theme in his work, especially in his 2006 series On War and Love. Here, text is written directly on his pictures of unmade beds, bathroom mirrors and sunlit walls, creating a sensational combination of a diary account of a break with the ongoing conflict in Beirut. Just as his lover is absent in the pictures, so are the usual bombastic depictions of war.

That series formed part of Lebanon’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007, where Elkoury again exhibited earlier this year with a new series accompanying works by Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan. “I am constantly amazed that respectable museums want to show and buy my work,” Elkoury says. “I photograph where I live and what I see and feel, and there is nothing more in it.”

His search for sincerity has seen Elkoury immerse himself in the places he has chosen to photograph. “Usually when I travel to a country, I stay for some time – just like in Palestine, I stayed two and a half years. I do not travel for five days. I stay, I rent a house or apartment and slowly get to know the atmosphere and mentality of the city. It is interesting to immerse oneself in a country. But at the same time, it is a rather dangerous move, because you often fall into things you did not recognize. ” He pauses. “It is unbelievable that I am still alive. I could have died six or seven times, just being in places I shouldn’t have been. ”

Elkoury shoots on film. Right now there is a pile of rolls waiting to be taken to town and developed. The pictures they contain document a kind of therapy he started after the fateful explosion last year. These scrolls record the walks he has taken through the mountains around him. The act of taking these pictures – returning to his craft – has helped his healing. “Nature seems to be the only calming element,” he says. “It gives eternity.”

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