BEIRUT: Overshadowed by more than 20 floors of cratered concrete, an assortment of men and women, clutching canapés and glasses of wine, milled around the former sun deck of the Holiday Inn, their cellphones in hand.
Some craned their necks upward, balancing beverage and camera to frame the ruined hotel silhouetted against a dusky sky. Others focused their lenses on the crumbling pool, seeking ways to contrast the band playing hotel lobby music at one end against blue tiles pockmarked by a long-ended war.
It was a fitting start for Saturday evening’s event – the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture’s announcement of the winners of its documentary and photography grant program, an initiative that aims to further the cultural relevance of the form in the Middle East and take both artist and viewer beyond the region’s usual stereotypes.
“The image is very important. We live in a world of fast-moving pictures and an overflow of information. This program aims to put the focus on a genre that pauses, reflects and invites [us] to contemplate and understand,” explained AFAC’s executive director Oussama Rifahi.
“Documentary photography sheds light on important narratives that are often neglected or unknown. It is an under-developed genre in the Arab region, where most visual production is journalistic and driven by mass-media broadcasting.”
The 3-year-old program, which is being run in association with Magnum Photos’ non-profit foundation and the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund, saw some 84 applicants from 16 Arab countries whittled down to 10 winners from eight around the region.
Lebanon’s lone laureate is 25-year-old artist Natalie Naccache, whose project, tentatively titled “Middle/Higher Syrian Refugees Community,” aims to provide a fresh angle on the much-documented crisis.
“There has been a lot of media fatigue with it,” she told The Daily Star. “People aren’t connecting with it as they should because they are exhausted. I wanted to refresh people’s memories about what it’s like to be a refugee.”
Instead of documenting the lives of poorer, working-class refugees – something she feels has been done so extensively that people no longer engage with the issue – she wants to look at the everyday lives of those who have money to get by but remain affected by enforced displacement.
“I want people to understand Syrian refugees in another way, and I want it to hit them psychologically about how it feels like to be an outsider,” she said. “Just because they have money to rent doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.”
The idea for her project, which will employ both photography and video, came from a multimedia story she recently completed for Der Spiegel about Lebanese high society. For her, the wealthier refugee angle will go some way to providing the other side of the story in a country where a quarter of the population is now Syrian.
“I’m hoping to capture people not feeling included in society. For example a Syrian kid at school ... it would be about showing them not being included or being bullied. ... [or] for example a Syrian woman not being able to get married at home.”
Also planning to explore the human fallout of Syria’s 3-year-old civil war is Omar Imam, this year’s Syrian grant winner.
“Live Love Refugee” will be a series of photographs – “based on personal experience,” Imam explained – dedicated to how the conflict has affected the country’s lovers, couples and even widows.
“The difficulties [they experience] are sometimes external, because you live in a smaller place with less money and you leave either most things or everything in your country,” Imam told The Daily Star. “But also you leave behind your memories of the places and people, and often you meet totally new people through your social life or through working in the camps.”
For Imam, the experience of becoming a refugee with his wife and daughter has been both good and bad. “In one way it is very hard,” he said, “and in another way it is a good opportunity to rediscover ourselves and people around us.”
Imam plans on photographing eight to 12 couples, both his friends who have moved to Beirut and newer acquaintances that he has made while working with aid groups in informal camps in the Bekaa Valley.
Whether rich or poor, he found that the common factor was that grueling process of relocating your life. “That’s what I’m trying to focus on,” he continued, “how we recreate our world and how people accept their new life. Especially in the camps, they think it will last two or three months but it is lasting years.
“So we are rebuilding our lives,” Imam said, “and all of that affects directly the romance, the relationship, the sentimental feelings [for someone] in our life. Sometimes it is stronger, sometimes it has trouble.”
In a joint statement the jurors – museum director Zeina Arida, documentary photographer Susan Meiselas and writer and critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie – said they awarded projects that were “distinctive in their subjects, compelling in their narratives, serious in their research, and encouraging in their promise to develop and grow in a mentored relationship.”
All winning ideas were also multidimensional, “complementing traditional photography with other media as a means of bringing their work to broader audiences.”
The other winners pitched stories ranging from Yemeni women fighting for their rights and Palestinians forced to give birth at Israeli checkpoints to more offbeat topics such as Egyptians living in wartime bomb shelters and the growth of female participants in the tbourida – a traditional Moroccan show of horseback war techniques.
In addition to receiving production funds winners are invited to two intensive workshops, and will be mentored for six months in project development – aiming to get the artists as much exposure as possible.
“This collaboration enables young documentary photographers in the Arab region to explore important social issues through creative and personal approaches,” remarked Prince Claus Fund director Christa Meindersma. “Local voices can express current realities creatively, in ways that may not otherwise be heard.”