BEIRUT: Samer Mohdad’s photographic journey began with a study of Beirut in 1985. One of his objectives, the photographer told The Daily Star, was to reveal the life behind the horrendous scenes of the Civil War, “to work on the memory of the city.”
Mohdad’s yearslong labor has borne fruit in several exhibitions and six bound photo collections. “Beyrouth Mutations,” his most recent book, is a collection of photos and French-language essays examining the changes that have rent the capital’s urban fabric in the last 27 years.
Published by Actes Sud, the book was recently launched at Beirut’s Mark Hachem Gallery.
In terms of content, Mohdad’s 216-page book covers Beirut’s architectural, social and geographical transformations. Thematically speaking, the work is something of a diptych – reflecting upon the evolution of the photographer himself as well as that of the city.
“Beirut is a beautiful woman who wants to keep her beauty,” said 49-year-old Mohdad, “but who aged in a wrong way. She somehow lost her soul.”
With this book, Mohdad says, he wanted to deploy his skill as a photographer to represent his Beirut, one seen from the inside, through Lebanese eyes.
The book opens with a biographical note, in which the artist recounts how his interest in the city started. As a child, he used to look through his parents’ photographs. Among the photos of Al-Bourj square (aka Martyrs’ Square) and other landmarks was one that particularly touched him, capturing his mother with his younger brother.
Mohdad wanted to focus his lens on key moments that pockmarked Beirut over nearly three decades. His images depict locations such as West Beirut and the city’s Palestinian refugee camps, as well as capturing events like a series of explosions in the neighborhood of Barbir and the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.
“Beirut, sick city, seeks to hide its aches with its tinseled downtown, built for wealthy people,” he writes in one of the book’s essays. “But Beirut ... is composed of neighborhoods, women, children, men [and] roads.”
Readers bear witness to Mohdad’s development with essays dedicated to his perception of self at that time: “The Young Man,” “The Aspiring Photographer,” “The Young Photographer,” “The Photojournalist” and “The Artist Photographer.”
The mid-1980s found Mohdad in Belgium studying photography. He began his photographic journey upon his return to Lebanon in the Easter of 1986. Rediscovering the harsh conditions of the Civil War and introduced to the disturbing experience of roadside checkpoints, he started taking snapshots of the Cite Sportif stadium and the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
After returning to Belgium to continue his studies, Mohdad went to Beirut in the summer of 1986 with the aim of obtaining a press card. He wanted free access to the neighborhoods in Beirut without being stopped by the army.
Having received a card from the Lebanon Press agency and the Information Ministry, Mohdad and a colleague then covered the explosion in Barbir that took the life of a local religious leader.
The summer of 1986 also saw Mohdad explore Syria and other parts of the region. Over the following two years he traveled to Algeria and the former-Spanish Sahara for a project with the pro-independence Polisario Front. His end-of-year project was an artistic documentary on the impact of war in Lebanon, Syria and the Western Sahara.
In 1990, a selection of Mohdad’s photos was exhibited at Lausanne’s prestigious Musée de l’Elysée. A few months later, he went to Yemen to cover Yemeni unification, before returning to Algeria.
Back in Lebanon a few years after, Mohdad spent time with Palestinian refugees from Marj al-Zouhour and displaced families from Mount Lebanon.
Over the years his work was published in papers and magazines such as Liberation, DU-Magazin, Cosmopolitan and Das Magazin. He also met luminaries of the political and intellectual scene, including Walid Jumblatt and Samir Kassir.
Another important watershed year was 1996, when Mohdad, Fouad El-Koury and Akram Zaatari co-founded the organization now known as the Arab Image Foundation – which remains probably the most important centre for the documentation and study of historic photographic practice in the Arab region.
“Beyrouth Mutations” conveys the artist’s vision of a city for which he writes he often feels “disenchantment ... but has always inspired him.”
The photographs collected between its covers offer a wide panorama of some of the city’s key moments over almost three decades.
During this period, Mohdad photographed Palestinian refugees and South Lebanese families displaced to the neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jmeel; historic sites like Martyrs’ Square and the Normandy Hotel, center of the Hotels War; the miserable living conditions of many and ostentatious leisure times of the few; the demonstrations that followed the 2005 Hariri assassination and the funeral of Samir Kassir later that year.
Mohdad always knew that a day would come where he would tell the story of Beirut. It’s a city to which, he says, “I feel distant and close, at the same time.”
Samer Mohdad’s “Beyrouth Mutations” is published by Actes Sud and is available at Mark Hachem Gallery and Librairie Al Bourj. For more information, call 01-999-313.