TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The flashes of their cameras light up the dark streets of Tripoli as they wind their way through the narrow alleys of a neglected city waiting to be discovered.
“Where are you from?” ask the shopkeepers, amused that they have become the subjects of the photographs. The group is from Tripoli, its members there to learn about their hometown – and show the world that there is far more to it than the sporadic street violence for which it is typically known.
Tonight’s walk is through Bab al-Ramel, an old and impoverished part of the city that is off the tourist map, even for those rare visitors who do make it to Tripoli.
“The purpose of these journeys is to change Tripoli’s image,” says Yemen Merhebi, who participates regularly in the group’s walks.
“The only time Tripoli is mentioned in the news is when tension between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh escalates. Shoot As You Walk’s main aim is to shed some light on the city’s historical heritage, even when shooting the poorest areas.”
For the past three years, the group We Love Tripoli, which started with a Facebook page in 2007 and is now a registered non-governmental organization, has organized regular photo-shooting excursions through the city called Shoot as You Walk, an ironic play on words for a place known for street violence. The mission of We Love Tripoli is to change that negative image and engage the local community by taking pictures of daily life, then posting them online.
According to statistics taken at cultural tourist sites in Lebanon, only 2 percent of those who visit the country go to Tripoli, despite its historical significance, a result of the perception that it is a dangerous place.
But for these amateur photographers, touring the various neighborhoods is a good way to visit areas with which they are unfamiliar, and interact with people they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with.
The men and women snap pictures of everything – friends sitting on the street, sated diners sipping coffee after iftar, men playing backgammon, children playing in the street, assorted street vendors, or inanimate objects such as an abandoned building, an old Volkswagen van and a scooter. A city not known for its nightlife comes alive at night through the lenses of the photographers.
“When I first started with the tours, my main focus was the old architecture and historical locations,” says Merhebi, who has gone on nearly 40 walks with the group.
“After going to the same places over and over again my aim shifted from the places to the faces – people in the souk or kids playing around, merchants and craftsmen. Some people ask us to take their pictures, but the best shots are the ones where people are not really looking or paying attention.”
Indeed, the candid shots of people going about their daily lives are the type that might be seen in National Geographic. The difference, of course, is that these are taken by locals who are amateur photographers.
As the number of walks increases, the barriers between the people begin to fall. As the group returns to the same neighborhoods, residents remember them, invite them in for coffee and share tales of the old city.
“We were surprised by the reactions of people in the old city,” says Mourad Ayyash. “Some people wanted to share with us their food and their stories, and ask us to take their pictures. And some people told us old stories about the old city that we didn’t know about.”
For Nath Halawani, being with a group of people who share the same passion allows him to get out of his “everyday photography shell,” giving him the courage to take close-ups of what he has come to see as the hidden treasures of his city: “The broken corner of an old balcony, an old veiled woman staring at us, the mustaches of an old Tripolitan, the rush of kids toward our group and the faces they make.”
Flipping through his old albums, he has noticed that the photos he’s snapped while alone are rarely close-ups, while those taken with the group often are.
“When you’re with the Shoot as You Walk team, you’re not afraid someone will yell at you or curse you for taking their picture. People tend to get more relaxed when there are boys and girls all holding cameras,” Halawani says. “It gives you a push to go where you didn’t dare to go before.”
Later on, he adds: “Browsing through all the photos at the end of the stroll always gives me the feeling [that] I didn’t know my townspeople. It’s so strange to see them every day, [without] having ‘seen’ them before.”
Two years ago, some of the group’s photos were exhibited at Nawfal Palace in Tripoli. At any given point, those posted on the Facebook page are geared toward appealing to Tripolitans abroad. And all the while, the group continues its mission of reaching out to people beyond its members’ social community.