Paola Yacoub’s grounded perspectives

BEIRUT: “I don’t want to document a situation. I have nothing to say,” Paola Yacoub remarks.

“No,” she quickly adds. “I have maybe something to say about a situation, but I realize that with the photographs, I reach a limit in saying something through photography.”

“Radical Grounds,” Yacoub’s solo show at Marfa’ gallery, is mainly comprised of photographs focused, literally, on the ground. The bulk of the exhibition is photos of stones (at times, perhaps, historic ruins), rocks, dirt and scenes where the terrain is the focus. They’re photos that, in the most literal sense, testify to the photographer’s presence in the territory - one stretching from Lebanon to Kurdistan.

She is also showing “Casts of Bullet Holes from North/South Wall Situated on the Green Line” 1995, and blotting paper works serially titled “Wall Stamp of Bullet Holes situated on the Green Line,” 1995. Yacoub created the pieces by applying techniques used in archaeological fieldwork to the damaged wall of a Beirut building. The small bullet hole casts, arrayed on a red table, somehow evoke the objects Yacoub has photographed.

Yacoub’s series of images evoke horizontal (surface) and vertical (what lies beneath) readings, not just on physical planes but also on temporal axes of reference. They stimulate topographical, geographical, historical, archaeological, documentary, investigative, even at times mysterious or imaginative readings.

That’s not to make these images sound exciting. They are, for the most part, pictures of stones, dirt and such.

“I’m absolutely even not a photographer. I think even I do bad photos, you know. They’re literally bad,” Yacoub told The Daily Star, “but they’re very well-processed, developed, because it’s like a [game]. I play a lot with photography.”

Photography in the conventional sense isn’t the point of Yacoub’s show. The images, taken between 1990 and 2012, were shot on a variety of different cameras. There is little that provides stylistic or aesthetic uniformity. Some tend toward the documentary or artistic, while others seem almost accidental. Yacoub has not provided any caption information. The images are numbered sequentially and dated, as if part of a file or archive.

There are echoes of Yacoub’s former archaeological work and clear lines to her previous production and broader practice.

She first came in close proximity to photography during Lebanon’s Civil War, when she was shadowing photojournalist Karim Daher. “The photojournalist documents a situation, and I was off [this track] already because I was a civilian. I was too fearful,” she says. “I’m not a reporter. ... I just took the photos aside [from the action] and this ‘aside’ today is part of my practice.”

Yacoub has long photographed apparently benign scenes that may contain an inherent, perhaps imperceptible threat. Her series “Summer 88,” for instance, shows images of a still dangerous Civil War Beirut, focusing on old buildings, overgrowth, in an almost casual or narrative way.

In another work, “Elegiac landscapes,” she plays on the ambiguity of picturesque landscapes in south Lebanon that contain the memory and traces of suffering and danger. This is part of seeking a way “to talk about a war or pain without having to literally show it,” she says.

In “Radical Grounds,” Yacoub reveals only that the images are taken in the Middle East. Yet this raises immediate questions about their precise location, historicity and purpose. It also creates a tension between the banality of the images and the specifics about them that remain hidden from the viewer.

“There is a lot of research and inquiry about the spaces that I take the photos in, like whether it’s a mass grave, whether there’s a killing or something, so it’s very very documented,” she says, “but I reached the limit of a documentary practice where I have the feeling it doesn’t say anything about what is happening.”

Weighty philosophical ponderings underpin “Radical Grounds.” Among them are ideas of agency and intentionality, the role of the photographer-author, and automatisms in the photographic process. The work challenges expectations and conventions that are taken for granted in most photography today.

Yacoub has chosen an extreme subject - the ground - to make her point, going back to the barest principles. Her images are the antithesis of photojournalism (there is no action), documentary photography (there is little information to elucidate matters for viewers) and conventional art photos (there is little aesthetic consistency). Some of the works question the value of a photograph as a source of aesthetic interest at all.

Those with an appetite for such a philosophical exercise may find Yacoub’s show engaging. Those looking for something else will likely be disappointed.

“There’s a process of doing and there’s an ethical position that I wanted to say, so there is a statement in this exhibition,” Yacoub says. “It’s to say that I have an intention in taking a photograph and that I’m positioned on the ground while I take the photograph.”

This observation might seem entirely banal, since the default position for a photographer is generally to be present on the ground in a location and to take a photo there intentionally. It becomes less so when considering the risks photographers may take to get certain shots. This also compares with the increasing, at times sinister, use of drone or satellite imagery to survey terrains, locations, events and individuals.

Yacoub observes that the idea of being “on the ground” in central Beirut at this time of uprising is pertinent. “Now there is a revolution there,” she says, referring to the capital’s downtown. “There are events to come, but I’m there on the ground. I take the photos. ... Events contract spaces in a way. They contract events and they move on, and my responsibility is maybe just to be there ... and not to force the image into saying something that I know now has its limit.”

“Radical Grounds” is showing at Marfa’ until Dec. 27. For more information, see:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 21, 2019, on page 8.




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