Photos beyond light and shadow

BEIRUT: One of pop culture’s worse kept secrets is that there’s nothing objective about photography.

Some of the limits of photographic truth are evident in print journalism.

Newspapers rely on forceful images of human suffering and joy to help illustrate stories – and relieve the newsprint’s unremitting gray. Yet the “crop” that often makes the shot more powerful also makes it less “objective.”

Anyway, stories are always more complex than the photos meant to illustrate them.

“From a Distance,” the solo exhibition of Lebanese-Austrian photographer Tanya Traboulsi, which opens Wednesday at Karantina’s Art Factum Gallery, sets out to challenge the criteria of clarity – and putative objectivity – that marks commercial photographic convention.

“I think that’s the strength of photography,” Traboulsi said. “It allows you to look at a photo and to understand it in your own way if you want to. Or, if you prefer, to find a clear message.

“The theme of the exhibition is the intrusion into privacy. This is very common in Lebanon. You can protect yourself within a bubble: You can see from the inside to the outside and people can see your insides from the outside.”

In this show the bubble isn’t transparent but acts as a medium obscuring image clarity. This is the methodology unifying the exhibition’s otherwise diverse photo series.

“People seem foggy,” Traboulsi says, and the world seems foggy to the spectators, “because the photograph provides no information about the person’s interior life.”

The show has seven distinct elements. The main part is comprised of six photo series devoted to undermining expectations of photographic reliability – “Eintragung Ins Nichts” (a note to nothing), “Fog,” “La Fenêtre,” “Seules,” “Silence” and “You.” All were shot since August 2011, using various analogue and digital techniques and printed on Hahnemuhle fine art paper.

Staged in parallel with, yet somewhat removed from, Traboulsi’s photos is “6:10am,” an installation assembled from screenshots taken from DVD renderings of Super-8 family films shot of the artist when she was a child.

“Fog” and “La Fenêtre” (The Window) were both filmed on medium-format film.

Created with a Rolleiflex camera, “Fog” is a color series that finds it subjects in a series of seaside landscapes and interior shots of figures moving through an historic house.

Unifying these exteriors and interiors stylistically is the piece of mesh fabric Traboulsi has draped over the camera lens – which renders these otherwise photogenic subjects as indistinct as the series title would suggest.

Shot on expired black-and-white lomography film using a Japanese-made Mamiya camera, “La Fenetre” takes as its subject an anonymous-looking stairwell (at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace), at the top of which is the window in question.

The photos dwell upon the unexceptional elevator cage and staircase that dominate the stairwell.

Their features are captured in more or less well-defined images, their visual irregularities accentuated by the poor quality of the image produced by the old film stock – a fortuitous accident, Traboulsi says.

The movement of the series suggests a photographer’s effort to find the source of the light flooding the stairwell. When the camera finally does, it seems natural that – rather than opening up on some gorgeous vista (a rare thing in Jisr al-Wati where this stairwell is situated) – the photo frames a window whose view is utterly distorted by the glare refracting through the glass.

“From a Distance” is Traboulsi’s first solo show in Beirut but she’s not new on the scene.

Her work has been part of various group shows over the years and published a number of volumes. She’s perhaps best known for her richly textured photos of Beirut’s indie and experimental music scene, work that’s been shown to good advantage in Ziad Nawfal and Ghalya Saadawi’s “Untitled Tracks: On Alternative Music in Beirut” (2010).

Musicians are conspicuous in their absence from this show.

“I love music photography and I’m not going to stop it at all,” Traboulsi laughs. “But I’ve been doing music since 2007. I love the musicians and the music but artistically and technically, khalas, it’s not challenging anymore.

“I had the urgent need to get some personal series out – something more personal [and] more intimate.”

The most distinct of the four digital series in “From a Distance” is “Seules” (the feminine plural declension of the word “alone”). In an exhibition devoted to obscuring photography’s aura of clinical accuracy, the photos in this series are technically the sharpest. They are also the most artificial.

The color prints are all composed of identical pairs of young women (the photographer herself) in various postures of silent companionship.

One shot finds the pair reclining on a sofa – one scrutinizing a laptop screen while the other watches television through her spectacles. Another piece depicts the identical women sharing a queen-sized bed; one sleeps while the other reads a book. In a third print, one version of the photographer poses in her Sunday best while her other barefoot self sits poised to capture her profile with the Rolleiflex.

Traboulsi says she originally conceived of “Seules” in answer to a call in a Swedish magazine on the subject of “best friend,” one she didn’t have time to work on at that time.

“What I want to say with this is that I’m my best friend,” she says. “I’m never alone as long as I’m with myself. I don’t know how to express that in words. But there were times I was really miserable in my life – when you learn to be with yourself, you learn you’re not alone. It makes you very strong.”

The artificiality in “Seules” lies not simply in the identical pairings but the deliberate blurring of the line between the artist and her subject.

The black-and-white series “You” also pairs (in this case overlapping) images of the artist.

Here the subject is swaddled in lengths of mesh material, not unlike the stuff placed between the camera lens and subject in “Fog.”

“I had this image in mind and I just wanted to shoot it,” she says.

“It’s like the way that you grow and evolve and transform ... freeing yourself from something ... like a butterfly from a chrysalis. It’s like freeing yourself, maybe from your old self or maybe a self that you don’t like and wanted to get rid of.”

Tanya Traboulsi’s “From a Distance” is up at Art Factum Gallery from Sept. 12 to Oct. 19. For more information ring 01-443-263 or see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2012, on page 16.




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