BEIRUT: In times of war, when the media is flooded with photos of death and destruction, it can be the images of daily life continuing amid the chaos that pack the most punch.
Take Syria, for instance, where 30 months of conflict have thrown up hundreds of thousands of photographs and video clips of violence. Groups such as Lens Young Homsi and Lens Young Dimashqi, who strive to show moments of normality – a child playing in the street, young men sitting on a doorstep beside a flock of pigeons – have gathered some 260,000 Facebook fans, keen to absorb images of survival.
Many of the photographers now capturing images of Syria are in their 20s – too young to recall Lebanon’s Civil War. The then-young Lebanese photographers who documented that conflict 30 years ago, however, are now in a position to reflect on the past.
“Generation War” – an exhibition and an accompanying book by Katya Traboulsi, exhibited at the Beirut Art Fair – is a call for peace from those who have witnessed war firsthand.
A selection of work taken by six photographers in the 1980s, “Generation War” sets out to capture the realities of conflict while avoiding direct representations of violence.
Traboulsi contacted George Azar, Patrick Baz, Jack Debaghian, Aline Manoukian, Samer Mohdad and Roger Moukarzel, photojournalists whose work made the front pages of newspapers around the world during the 1980s.
“I asked them to dig,” she says, “and to give me pictures of life during the war – not death, not the dramatic side, but life.”
Traboulsi says she wanted to send a message about the realities of war to Lebanon’s young generation.
“My aim is first of all to show how we were living in the past,” she explains, “and your perception of life when you are 20 – you feel like it’s endless. You have no fear. You just live intensively and life is kind of beautiful in spite of everything. ... Today, at 50, what have we learned from it? What have we gained or lost?”
Traboulsi’s book includes a text by each photographer, recalling the scenes they witnessed. These memories are not easy to read, but they do communicate some of the lifelong impact war has had on those who documented it.
Azar came to Beirut from the U.S. in the early ’80s, at the age of 22. The photographs in his selection focus on children, capturing a small boy engrossed in pretending to shoot a wooden toy gun, a laughing Palestinian boy clutching the shells that just destroyed his home, and an old man weeping in his bedroom, surrounded by a sea of children’s faces, peeping curiously through the windows.
Manoukian – the only one of the six who did not go on to work as a war photographer after the conflict ended – says that revisiting her photos was incredibly hard.
“I had put them in a box, put chains on the box, put the box in a safe, closed the safe and lost the key,” she says, with a contagious laugh. “So I wasn’t at all ready to bring out these war years.
“When Katya proposed to do the exhibition ... I had to go through all these negatives again and all these memories again.”
The passage of time has not affected the power of these photographs to conjure up the past.
“They don’t have the three dimensions to them,” Manoukian says, “they don’t have the sound, they don’t have the smell, but when I look at them I do go back to these years and to these atmospheres.”
One of the most powerful images among Manoukian’s selection, from 1988, captures a bespectacled veiled woman, hurriedly walking along Hamra Street, carrying a stack of papers. Manoukian’s camera finds her passing before a movie poster, in which a buxom woman in fishnet tights, black shorts and a low-cut corset points a handgun at an unseen target.
The surreal shot is accompanied by the simple caption: “During the war, violent, X-rated and detective movies became very popular.”
Baz, whose seven images take the form of a series of ironic postcards, was inspired by the dual representations of Lebanon in international media in the ’80s, as a war torn wasteland and a holiday destination.
“I wanted to go into dark humor about Lebanon’s tourism,” he explains, “and way of life in the ’80s. We had postcards from the Ministry of Tourism praising ‘Green Lebanon’ and the skiing and the water and festivals and stuff – something I never lived. I lived it differently.”
Baz captures Lebanon’s mountains and sea, still touted by the Tourism Ministry, with a shot of a topless man in a speed boat towing a woman on water skis, a Kalashnikov clutched in his hands, and a photograph of people skiing at Faraya Mzaar in 1987, guarded by armed militiamen.
These shots, perversions of clichéd images from an idyllic tourist brochure, are marred by hints of the violence that forms their unseen context.
“I emphasized the presence of the gun,” Baz says, “which was everywhere, and the absurdity – the whole collection is kind of photos from Absurdistan. Nobody believed that this is how it was. ... This is how we stayed alive in the ’80s.”
Samer Mohdad, who has released a number of books containing images from the Civil War, presents his photographs as moments in an ongoing narrative, referencing himself in the third person as he describes the story behind each shot, complete with his interaction with the subjects.
Dabaghian’s black-and-white shots are accompanied by detailed, personal captions. Under a shot of Beirut, glimpsed through a sniper’s eagle-like vantage point, he writes: “After being injured by a sniper I’m scared to death of open space. This picture weighs on me because it reflects my feelings and gut wrenching fear.”
No wonder these images were set aside, out of sight if not out of mind, for three decades.
Roger Moukarzel, who lost almost his entire archive when the Reuters office was bombed in 1989, created an installation for the exhibition, displaying his old camera, pager and portable radio alongside the photographs he managed to salvage.
“When we gathered again I had some nightmares,” he admits. “We revived our memories and our lives during the war.
“This is actually a message of peace,” he adds. “We should not forget the past. The young generation [should] know that war is bad and we have to do everything possible to avoid it.”
In the context of the war raging next door and Lebanon’s own precarious security situation these images, powerful reminders of a part of Lebanon’s past few are keen to address, are an ominous reminder that, unless guarded against, history all too often repeats itself.