The Shape of Things

A meditation on photographing in Beirut, Lebanon…

I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew I wanted to make pictures. I had been in Beirut for nine days with my camera still packed in a brown canvas bag, tucked away in a corner of my rented room not far from the old train station in Badawi. I walked around the city, through its neighborhoods and up its stairs – Hamra, Achrafieh, Mar Mikhael, and Gemmayzeh – looking at homes, cafes, churches, mosques, banks and balconies, searching for a place to begin. I ate tabouli and drank beer. I froze dates and sucked on them like candy as I skirted along city streets choking with traffic, people, and an agitated energy. I climbed the steps to Geitawi, scanned rooftops cluttered with washing machines, satellite dishes, plants, clothes and gray plastic water jugs. I looked south to the Armenian neighborhood and north to the Mediterranean Sea, a thin strip of brilliant blue, seeming to hover in the background, lengthwise on the horizon, flecked with light in the early evening, promising a journey to a destination unseen. When I was lost in the tangle of allies, doors and tall buildings, I would look for that promising strip of sea to find my way home: walk north, then east. 

Ten days and still no pictures: by then, I was habibi to the affable man who baked zaatar in a pizza oven six days a week from his ground-floor kitchen near my studio flat. The neighborhood woke up early with life bursting from homes tucked together and stacked high like old friends who recline into the familiarity of their shared past. In the daytime, people worked; small kids smiled shyly and ran away; big kids delivered gray cubes of coal stacked in pyramids on metal plates to teenagers smoking hooka pipes. Syrian kids shined shoes and sold tissues. One man sold tiny goldfish swimming in small plastic bags from the sidewalk, holding his arm out with the bag dangling from his hand for motorists to see. Another man sold fava beans soaking in water and corn on the cob from a red push-cart with two spoked wheels; another sold prickly pears, skins shaved, orange-pink pulp dripping in a blue plastic tray. Every so often an old lady would confuse the balance of this liveliness from above by lowering a basket tied to a rope from the balcony of her fifth floor apartment; the shop owner waiting dutifully below took the coins from the basket and replaced the contents with flat bread, yogurt and a cucumber; back up it went, slowly, in small jerks. At night, cafés would spill onto the sidewalk: tables, chairs, people grouped in four, smoking, chatting, picking at their plates, men in shorts, women in skirts, music thumping, headlights flash, horns squawk, people yell. A Syrian boy sells single roses wrapped in plastic to smiling lovers. A younger Syrian boy sits on the sidewalk without roses, crying to himself, his head in his hands, alone.

I didn’t know where to begin. I was overwhelmed by the noise, the energy, the exhaust, the exuberance and sadness of a people and their place. I was overwhelmed by this city of Beirut, flanked by water, rooted in soil scuffed and scarred and adored by human beings for millennia, home to migrants and mercenaries, Muslims and Christians, mothers and friends. Home to me for what would be eight weeks and two had already slipped by. July was approaching. I needed to start somewhere. One morning in late June I decided to take a different route to dump my trash into chunky metal bins two blocks away. That’s when I saw the pink wall, and that’s where I began. One picture: a yellow metal can crushed in the gutter, a thick black pole, waist high, capped with a matching yellow band, sloping sidewalk, left to right – the can, pole, and sidewalk all foregrounded against a pink wall with a curious, nearly square window-like indentation.

I found my way into Beirut lured by color and geometry. I started to see the splashes of color and intriguing shapes in unexpected places: one low red seat on a Hamra sidewalk stashed with a phone book; a bright green plastic chair in a Gemmayzeh diner; a sea blue wall trimmed with turquoise; a pink towel draped over a brown railing; a shrine with votive candles still flickering; a palm leaf jutting from a pale green wall, stubbornly and defiantly growing where it wants; a palm tree, a stem really, splashing green on a brown-gray wall; and a one-room building, painted pink, made from wood with an open, inverted roof. I later learned this micro building was the first version of scenographer Nathalie Harb’s Silent Room, a public place built to invite silence and introspection. The enclosed walls would reduce the city soundscape to thirty decibels. Her idea was to quiet the noise and visceral energy of a city bursting with life – the same noise I needed to quiet to begin photographing in Beirut. The room became a metaphor for my photographic workflow: silence the city through shape and color. I relied on instinct and let my camera pull me to objects like a diving rod to water. I’ve learned not to question this artistic impulse. Something else is at work during these moments of creation. Something that disavows the thinking self, resists rationalization and relies on the magic of a psychic space where intention aligns with action. The method is simple: walk, see an object, move close, don’t think, lift the camera, look through the prism, focus, press the shutter and keep walking.   

The drumbeat of this formula has now become my photographic mantra, and my former selves are along on the journey. One of them is a soldier-self, last deposited in the Middle East ten years ago with a weapon, Kevlar, body armor, and whatever thoughts I needed to survive in a place I vaguely understood. That soldier self had priorities of survival, stashed a one-handed tourniquet in his cargo pocket, packed his magazines in a one-to-three tracer mix, and armored-up with a fiction that intel would keep him safe. The idea of making a picture of something because it wanted to be photographed, like Minor White would say, was not a possibility then. But registering a quick glance was possible. And I did look. In Tal’Afar I watched woven gold tassels dangling like jewels from the rim of a five-ton dump drunk as it drove past. I saw the bright green and yellow doors opening to courtyards enclosed by mud brown walls in Mosul. I watched and wondered about a boy and goat, both drinking from the same village well at the same time somewhere between Sinjar and Syria. But I did not have a camera then. It did not occur to me to move closer to the person or thing I saw and make a picture.

Since then, I’ve become intoxicated with the possibility of seeing another perspective rendered in a still image. I have now found way to exist in a world where people and things have a life and shape suffused with meaning that transcends trivial. Although I didn’t know it as I moved through my soldier life-world, I was subtly and unconsciously conditioning myself to see. If there is life in these pictures of Beirut, it emerges from my autobiographical impulse.

 

Beirut Pathways

I think it was Albert Camus who said that to know a town you must know how the people love, how they work, and how they die. As I find my visual way into Beirut, I’m not yet sure how the people of this city love, but I suspect it’s fiercely. How do they work? For some, their days are marked by long hours laboring at a craft they’ve been doing for years; for others – particularly the millennial generation – they seek work in alternative ways, both ingeniously and practically. There’s always a few artists in the bunch, doggedly determined to carve out a life doing what they love, however difficult or precarious. As for how they die, if history is our guide, there’s a legacy of violent death in Beirut. And the trauma of such a legacy has a tendency to leap through generations.

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Yet, to situate a people into our prescriptive formulations of place and meaning is to muddle the ideological space where people form and perform their identities. The only thing I’m sure of is that people here like everywhere else in the world want the chance to choose their lives. In the end, trying to find the splashes of color and shape that fragment the visceral energy of Beirut are as helpful to me as Camus’ prescription.

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Get Out of the Way

I had a plan. I would drive up to Pittsburgh for an extended weekend to photograph places that once meant something to me, and perhaps still do. I would visit what used to be my grandmother's house and take a quick picture from the street. (She's been dead and gone for more than a decade.) It was her garage door that interested me. I thought to frame it straight-on, fill the frame proportionally with that rectangular door. When I visited her in my youth, I would throw it open, march through the garage, past my grandfather's aging tools, onto the back porch and into her kitchen where she'd be waiting with kisses that could taste chocolate on my cheeks. I would take Route 51 to get there, bypassing the tubes and continuing along 51 to the West End Bridge. I planned to stop around West Carson Street and walk across the bridge, maybe look up and photograph those cables reaching upward, hanging onto the giant yellow arch spanning the Ohio River. I may even look toward the city, take a picture from the bridge, just to see what my Nikon would do from that distance at F16. I would visit my father's grave -- also dead and gone, for almost as long as his mother -- to photograph that sandstone wall that I always use as a reference point to guide me to his grave, after a few laps around the cemetery. This plan was beginning to feel good, making sense. The right antidote for whatever it was that I felt then. I always seem to reach for home, a home that I've traveled far from, for grounding during times of change. So, off I went.

And nothing happened as planned. The battery died on my Nikon, the weather was poor, and I became distracted by something else -- my mother's home. I've never lived there, and those artifacts she uses to curate her space are as foreign to me as the idea of a nuclear family. What puzzled me was a peculiar feeling that I was welcome in a place I felt estranged from, a place I could not recognize from my youth. Confused, yet alert and interested, I picked-up my camera, lifted it to my face, touching my face, always touching, looked through the viewfinder, and began composing images, letting light do its work when it could. 

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A poem

"Three Women"

I’m at a rich man’s house with my platoon
at night
to kill or capture the rich man.
Knock first, see if they open, 
if not, go in hard. 
Don’t give them much time.

They open.
Soldiers run up the stairs, through rooms. 
Three women are found and pushed into the front room, 
one old, two young. 
I start with the young woman.

Where’s your father?
Jordan. 

Crashing, thumping and yelling, 
soldiers overturn furniture, scan rooms, 
break cabinets, searching, 
yelling “all clear” while running through the house. 

Why is he in Jordan?
Business.
    
Her hand begins to shake. 
I see she’s beautiful, 
mauve headscarf, earrings, makeup, dress and shawl. 
She’s poised, though afraid, 
sitting on the edge of a low couch.  

What business?
I don’t know. 

Her hand is shaking, quivering. 
Is she eighteen, fifteen? 
Oh, so beautiful, so dignified, 
so poised – yes, poised,
though afraid. 

Where does you father work?
I don’t know. 

Where does he get his money?
I don’t know.

Her quivering and shaking hand,
soft, white, delicate,  
she sits straight like she’s trying to lift her head through the roof,
to rise above
something,

so pretty, so poised, 
though afraid.