Mediterranean visions in focus

Elkoury, “Portemilio, Beirut,” 1984.

BEIRUT: In the heart of the city’s downtown gold souks, haunt of the moneyed and fashionably adorned, is a gateway to a vanishing world. Here, unstylish men toil in icy winds and storm-tossed nighttime seas.Greek photographer Stratis Vogiatzis has spent four years documenting the work of fisherman in seven countries bordering the Mediterranean. A selection of his photographs, accompanied by a short documentary, “People of the Sea,” now fills a dimly lit space in the heart of the souks with atmospheric, occasionally macabre vignettes of a fisherman’s life.

The exhibition is one of six currently on show downtown as part of the Beirut edition of PhotoMed.

Vogiatzis aims to draw attention to an endangered trade, one which young people are reluctant to adopt due to the harsh conditions of life at sea. On large fishing boats, he writes in his artist’s statement, most workers are now young Egyptian immigrants. At this rate, he warns, “the beautiful seascape, with small boats traveling gently across it, will cease to exist.”

It’s an idyllic picture that is not reflected in Vogiatzis’ photographs. There are no shots of picturesque fishing boats on a calm, sunlit sea. Most of his photos are taken at nighttime or in the midst of winter snowstorms – capturing men with weather-beaten faces in slick rubber coveralls hauling in nets or sorting through bloody heaps of fish in the dark.

Vogiatzis has an eye for the eerie. One shot captures a doll’s head, netted along with a heap of silvery fish. Face smeared with unspecified red gore, two dark holes mark the doll’s missing eyes. Many of the photographs are blurry, obscuring the specifics of the subjects’ faces and exaggerating details such as the white highlights where light reflects on wet hands and salty rubber.

The photographer’s talent lies in his creating an immersive atmosphere, aided by the documentary’s soundtrack of rough seas and squealing gulls. Incongruous as it is in these plush surroundings, his exhibition is a must-see.

In a brightly lit, two-story space around the corner, an exhibition of black-and-white portraits by Greek-born French filmmaker Costa-Gavras adorns the walls. The filmmaker opened his archives to the public for the first time last year for the French edition of PhotoMed.

Gavras has a talent for capturing his subjects candidly. His collection may include celebrities such as actor Yves Montand (who starred in the filmmaker’s landmark 1969 feature “Z”) and actress Romy Schneider, but these shots are stripped bare of behind-the-scenes glamour.

Danielle Mitterrand – wife of former French President Francois Mitterrand – is captured on a plane, nervously gnawing at a thumbnail as she peruses a document clasped in the other hand. A close-up portrait depicts French journalist and academic Regis Debray in profile. His right eye just visible behind the curve of his glasses, he appears apprehensive and vulnerable, as though caught without his clothes on.

An exhibition of work by a third Greek photographer, Katerina Kaloudi, is on show in Saifi Village. Her grainy, black-and-white photos have an antique air about them, but the undated exhibition tags leave viewers to guess whether or not they present glimpses of a vanished past, or of an unspoiled present.

Kaloudi has a talent for juxtaposing elements that together give the image emotional impact. One photograph shows a man, visible from the chest down, gripping a live pigeon by its wings. They bend ominously in his hands, as though the bird is about to be torn asunder. In the foreground, a young boy averts his eyes. His enormous dark eyes, fixed just to the right of the lens, are filled with a child’s anguish.

Another photograph contrasts duty and passion, capturing two sailors in naval uniform, smart white caps and shiny black shoes forgotten as they passionately embrace their lovers – whether in joyful reunion or reluctant farewell.

In one particularly atmospheric shot Kaloudi makes the most of the sharp, black shadows cast by the fierce Mediterranean sunlight. It captures famed U.S. violinist Yehudi Menuhin playing in an abandoned Greek amphitheater, its cracked stones forming an abstract geometric backdrop. A row of four empty wooden chairs stand beside him and the shadows they cast seem as solid as the objects themselves. Menuhin’s own crisp shadow creates a ghostly audience, the only witness to his performance.

A further three exhibitions downtown display work by Lebanese photographers, who were guests of honor at last year’s French PhotoMed. In the souks, portraits by Tony Hage capture some of the 20th century’s most celebrated figures, photographed between 1981 and 1985.

Clint Eastwood takes a photo of the photographer, face hidden behind his camera. Karl Lagerfeld fastidiously smoothes the shoulder of a model’s jacket. A sad-looking Catherine Deneuve lights a cigarette with characteristic elegance. Dizzy Gillespie, clad in a thin white dressing gown that falls open to reveal the copious expanse of flesh beneath, lounges in a chair, looking dissatisfied. He sits up to light a cigarette, then pulls a face, cheeks puffed out, finger on his pursed lips.

Hage’s photographs also include a cross-section of Arab celebrities, including portraits of a young Ziad Rahbani, a distracted-looking Camille Chamoun and a laughing Youssef Chahine.

“Nascent Lebanese Photographers,” the show of seven up-and-coming Lebanese artists that Hage curated for PhotoMed, is hanging in Saifi Village. Particularly accomplished are Joanna Andraos’ gothic, ghostly series, “Stalker,” which captures white-robed figures in the dim hall of the Linda Sursock Palace, and five self-portraits by Tanya Traboulsi, each of which shows the photographer in two different outfits and poses, as though presenting alternative visions of reality.

The exhibition at Saifi Village’s SV Gallery, consists of work by one of Lebanon’s best-known photographers, Fouad Elkoury. When The Daily Star visited, in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, the gallery was abandoned, the door locked and devoid of any sign an attendant might return. What little could be glimpsed from the pavement outside suggests it’s worth a visit.

“PhotoMed Beirut” continues at locations across the capital until Feb. 16. For more information please visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2014, on page 5.




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