Culture

The devotion is in the details

INTERVIEW

BEIRUT: Roody Khalil's photographs revel in the accidental and the everyday, the ordinary and the all-too-often overlooked. The 36 images that constitute Khalil's first-ever solo exhibition - which opened rather inauspiciously on Wednesday evening at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche, just as a bomb blast rocked the coast less than a kilometer away - capture the incongruities and contradictions of Beirut without ever resorting to the cliched or the contrived.

Through Khalil's camera lens, Beirut appears in moments and fragments, a city that is lived and experienced through the intensity of its details and the chaos of its rhythms. Khalil deftly avoids iconic or emblematic shots that have elsewhere packaged the city as a delusional postcard, an exotic invitation or an object lesson in urban warfare. Instead, in one image after another, he pinpoints a precise slice of life and builds a meticulous composition around it.

In doing so, he infuses beauty into the banal and articulates the emotional and intellectual perspective of Beirut's young and independent population, an elusive demographic that is given short shrift in the city's political life and popular culture.

Khalil's exhibition, entitled "Around the City," represents a journey and a struggle in addition to the number of exposures on a standard roll of 35 millimeter film. The images signify episodes in a young artist's attempt to claim a small but recalcitrant city as his own.

They also portray the inevitable debate over whether to stay or go in a city that never quite reciprocates the love or loyalty of its residents.

Khalil, who will turn 26 next month, is slim and slight of build, with a thin mustache, a penchant for mesh-and-foam truckers' caps and a smile as easy as it is infectious. He goes by a first name that is chosen (Roody) rather than given (Nadim). Like many artists of his generation, he admits he used to be enthralled with the idea that he could change things in Lebanon, but says he has since learned to walk away from political debates that no longer hold any meaning, direction or purpose for him.

Born in Beirut, he grew up in the Dahiyeh and left Lebanon for Italy in 2000.

"It was a romantic story in the beginning," he recalls. "Then it became an academic story." For a few months, Khalil studied Italian literature. But his language skills didn't develop as fast as he wanted them to, so he left for the United States to continue his education there. At school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he began studying photography and, relishing the syntax and grammar of a visual language created by such street photographers as Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen, he mastered the art and stuck to it.

"We spent a lot of time in the lab," says Khalil, "studying different techniques, and there was a lot about composition. That helps me a lot still," he adds. "I see that my work is different from other people's work because it's all about the framing."

Khalil returned to Lebanon in the spring of 2005. He didn't want to live in the Dahiyeh again - "too crowded, too controlled, it didn't fit my lifestyle" - so he got a place in the capital proper. He started taking pictures professionally for local magazines (such as the short-lived Time Out Beirut) and newspapers (such as Al-Akhbar). He also picked up work as an actor, a theater technician, a bartender, a video artist and a filmmaker. But beneath it all he knew he wanted to create an artistic archive of Beirut, his Beirut.

"I set out to make a document of the city," he says. "It was tough the first year. I got here in May 2005. I had been out of the country for five years. I felt like a tourist in my own city."

Having arrived in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri's assassination, the demonstrations of the so-called Beirut Spring, the Syrian withdrawal and a spate of assassinations and bomb explosions, Khalil knew that he didn't want to document the political situation. "People were already doing that," he recalls. "And I didn't want to hang around the demonstrations."

At first, Khalil cast around for grand themes to direct his lens and give structure to his emerging body of work. The war with Israel that came crashing down on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 proved a pivotal moment - no themes were necessary.

"I realized I didn't want to photograph Beirut like this," Khalil says. "I was trying to figure out if I should be here or not, but I realized it's my city. Before the war there was hope. After the war everything collapsed. I decided I didn't need a theme. What I love about Beirut are the details.

"If you live and work in a place, you understand what everything means, how everything is placed. Framing the old guy on the balcony," he says, in reference to a photograph entitled "Nouzol" of an elderly man looking down at Khalil from the balcony of a crumbling hotel in Gemmayzeh, "with his face and his features, he's almost melting. It captures the uncertainty [of the neighborhood]. All these old houses are being torn down." The area's elderly residents don't really have a place anymore, he adds, as a glut of cafes, restaurants and clubs take over every conceivable street-level space and reconfigure the sleepy residential quarter into a hipster haven.

Khalil's work - from the keen juxtaposition of a street stencil and an advertising billboard to a pair of bent metal poles framing a set of cars zooming through a red traffic light - is embedded with meaning and laced with commentary. Look closely and one finds numerous social critiques. Among the issues that Khalil's photographs probe are the status of women and the prevalence of fashion, migrant labor and the many spheres of economic neglect, dreams of emigration and a toxic atmosphere of lawlessness. Add to these a mood of listlessness punctuated by sorrow and "Around the City" becomes a powerful document indeed.

"They say people don't walk in Beirut but you have to walk," says Khalil, like a flaneur for the 21st century. "No matter how much the political or religious aspects are changing, the life of the city remains the same. You will always see the chaotic Beiruti state of mind. No matter how many new cars or new phones there are, there is still a guy eating his lunch on the Corniche and throwing the remains of his meal into the sea."

For an older generation of artists, producing images of Beirut has long been problematic, thus the prevalence of reworked visual archives and documents. Khalil escapes this predicament by amplifying his own intimate point of view. As much as his work recalls the great street photographers of New York and Paris, and as much as he shares the precision of Edward Hopper's compositional framing, the emotional tenor of his work aligns him with artists like Nan Goldin (circa "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" and "I'll Be Your Mirror") and the Los Angeles-based skateboarder-turned-youth culture chronicler Ed Templeton (in his series "Teenage Smokers" and "The Golden Age of Neglect").

"Everyone has to find their own meaning," explains Khalil. "Is the city yours? How could it be? You get lost in the city. There's no stability but I think I found my own understanding and made up my own mind about this place. It's the details that make people want to stay."

Roody Khalil's "Around the City" is on view at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche through July 20. For more information, please call +961 1 868 290

 

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