At home with Lebanon’s politicians

BEIRUT: Given the reclusive nature of some and the bitter enmity of others, gathering all of Lebanon’s politicians in one room seems a challenging feat. Artist Lamia Maria Abillama has come very close to managing it.

It’s taken the better part of seven years, but the determined photographer successfully insinuated her camera into close proximity with some of the country’s most powerful men (and a woman or two), ensuring that the likenesses of President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, Progressive Socialist Party head Walid Jumblatt and more than 40 other figures from across Lebanon’s political spectrum saw in the New Year together.

Entitled “Your Excellencies,” Abillama’s series of 48 portraits, currently on display at Mar Mikhael’s Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth, captures some of Lebanon’s most familiar faces in the unfamiliar surroundings of their homes. Exhibited in lines between two red stripes reminiscent of the Lebanese flag, the photographs position these figures in place of the country’s national symbol, the cedar.

“The whole idea came from seeing the country deteriorate to an extent that it’s becoming unacceptable,” Abillama told The Daily Star. “For the last 30 years we’ve been going into a decrescendo ... At some point I got enraged and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, since this country is going mainly downhill, who are these rulers? Let me go and see them.’”

Herself a daughter of the state – of former director of General Security Farouq Abillama, to be precise – the artist said she used her father’s contacts to gain access to the first few people she photographed. After that, it was a matter of sheer determination: She simply refused to take no for an answer. She described the process as a domino effect: The more political leaders she shot, the easier it was to get others on board.

The aim of the series is to strip away the masks and capture her subjects as human beings, rather than as poster children for their parties.

“When you see them on the television they are not the same,” she said. “It’s a facade. You never know who they really are – they are [like] actors. ... So my first aim was to get close to these rulers and to identify them in a very close-up shoot [by] going into their homes, because at home they don’t have their defenses up.”

“I want to demystify them,” she added. “In Lebanon the politicians always think they are gods, so the idea is ... to break this powerful facade.”

Each home visit was marked by certain similarities, the photographer said, describing the black SUVs with tinted windows outside each residence and the multiple bodyguards who accompanied her at all times. In each home she requested a quick tour, selecting three locations in which to shoot the subject.

Abillama worked alone to heighten the sense of intimacy between photographer and subject. “The best way to get close to people is to get rid of all these assistants,” she explained. “You go by yourself, you are very humble, [seemingly] stupid, polite to everyone. The bodyguards ended up helping me.”

An artist, rather than a photojournalist, Abillama said she spent up to an hour staging each photograph so that the surroundings would reveal facets of the subject’s personality. Shot in their kitchens, offices, dining rooms, even bedrooms, these photos paradoxically capture both the individuality of each subject and the striking commonalities among them all.

Some images are more successful than others at presenting a new side to oft-photographed figures. Sleiman and caretaker premier Najib Mikati both pose rigidly in formal chairs beside a Lebanese flag. Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham is seated in imposing, black-robed splendor in a wooden throne. Others, however, appear vulnerable and human. Looking exhausted and disillusioned – their faces lined as if with years of stress – most stare warily into the lens.

Kataeb party head and former President Amin Gemayel is captured sitting primly in the corner of a dimly lit room, dwarfed by his surroundings. The room’s rough stone walls are suggestive of a medieval dungeon.

Metn bloc leader Michel Murr sits at an old-fashioned dressing table, smiling gently at the camera before a stupefying collection of Christian iconography. A life-size statue of the Virgin Mary holding a round, pink Jesus on her lap is flanked by two candles. Behind it, a table laden with statuary boasts enough rococo renderings of mother and child to stock a small shop.

Most striking is Abillama’s portrait of Lebanese Forces leader Geagea. Captured in his bedroom, the MP sits on the edge of a bed covered with a simple beige blanket. The cold light from a bare neon bulb is reflected by the walls, which are covered with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Neatly folded clothes lie on a table at the foot of the bed, but Geagea himself sports a casual black fleece, jogging trousers and trainers. A rosary dangles from one corner of the headboard. Propped against the single pillow centered on the king-size bed is a small blue teddy bear.

Amal Movement leader Berri is also captured in his bedroom, which Abillama said she felt revealed his character. “This was the most interesting picture I set up,” she said, “because the entire room is about these angles. ... The shape of the bed, the mirror, the sofa – everything is rounded. This is a reflection of this man who for the last 40 years has been trying to round conflict. His room reflects exactly what he does.”

Conspicuous by his absence is Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Abillama said she contacted a party spokesman three times about a portrait, but a sitting was never arranged. She has not given up.

“This is a portrait every photographer would have dreamed of taking because of [Nasrallah’s] charisma, because of his look, because of his role, because of everything,” she said.

Abillama is planning to publish the series in a book later this year. In the meantime, she said, the process has taught her a lot.

“Every one of these guys is in his castle,” she explained, “yet at the same time they are so friendly. In the end you have this feeling of frustration that there is no solidarity between them. You feel ... disappointed. You feel angry. You feel sad. How come all these men, who are so nice, so human, are yet so far apart? How come they are not talking to each other or constructing a country for the sake of national interest?

“In the end you feel that they are so similar. ... They are really like brothers – the same manners, the same way of behaving. They are all the same, yet far apart. It’s very sad.”

Lamia Maria Abillama’s “Your Excellencies” is up at Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth until Jan. 27. For more information, please call 76-557-662.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 13, 2014, on page 16.




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