Lebanese photographer Maher Attar got his start in photojournalism, covering foreign conflicts that took him on assignments across the globe. Now, after more than three decades he is turning his lens towards his own country, at a time of economic turmoil and hardship for the nation once hailed as a model of prosperity in the Middle East.
In his new project Berytus…A Glorified City, Attar uses the Holga 120 and expired film to produce raw and striking images. The imperfections that result are key to Attar’s intentions to show Beirut as a city that has been “abused but never broken.”
In this interview he tells us how his use of analogue photography compliments his desire to remind viewers of Lebanon's past, and at the same time inspire hope for the future.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
I started my career as a war photographer working for Agence France-Presse in Lebanon. My debut as a press photographer was launched in 1985 by a moving photo taken during the civil war in Lebanon that made it to the front page of New York Times. In 1986, Sygma Photo Agency, now known as Corbis-Getty, appointed me as a Middle East Correspondent. I covered the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the Afghanistan Taliban war, Achille Lauro hijacking, and other conflicts and events in the Middle East, before the agency relocated me to France to be on its elite team of Paris-based photographers in 1990, where I travelled on a number of assignments that covered major world events.
As an expert in Lomographic techniques, I was selected by the MEP (European House of Photography) and IMA (the Arab World Institute) to exhibit work at the first photography biennale of the contemporary Arab world in Paris from November 2015 to January 2016.
How did your project, Berytus .. A Glorified City, originate? And how did it develop into what it is now?
The idea came to my mind when I returned to Lebanon a few years back and saw the city where I was born in a huge chaos. I imagined Beirut as a lady, as a city that has been war torn and abused, but never broken. Violated across the centuries, destroyed and reconstructed time and time again, Beirut continues to resist and remains standing. My curation shows Beirut (Berytus) as a woman, communicating a series of messages through images of independence, deprivation, immigration, and what’s left to interpretation.
In naming Beirut “Berytus”, I derived inspiration from the Roman Berytus, the capital of Phoenicia during the glorious Roman colonia of the Eastern Mediterranean—emphasizing the illumination within the photo series subject. The choice to embody the powerful narrative behind Berytus as a woman, torn at the seams of her dress, speaks to the immense struggle yet perseverance of the Lebanese spirit. Berytus always struggles to keep her head high but does so despite all odds.
A lot of the photographs are taken in abandoned places or ruins. What is the significance of these locations?
I searched for abandoned buildings in Beirut in what was known as the “Green Line” zone between East and West Beirut. I breathe, smell, touch and feel the locations with all my senses. I scouted settings that would best convey both the pain and beauty of Beirut. ‘Dove of Peace’, one of the masterpieces of the series, was shot in the baroque-style Grand Palace in Sawfar, built in 1892. Other photos from the series were shot in Beit Beirut, once known as the Barakat Building built in 1924, which is an undeniable heritage building in Beirut’s history. Today, Beit Beirut’s walls tell stories of tragedy through graffiti and engraved sniper bullet hole.
What attracts you to the Lomography approach to photography?
In the world of digital photography where images are consumed like fast food, I shun instant gratification in favour of Lomography, a technique that makes the most of inexpensively built cameras, expired films and the courage to click away with no control over the final result. This way of working dramatizes my photographs, connecting my experience as a war-photographer and reflecting my unconditional love for Beirut’s architecture.
Through theatrical productions in the abandoned and iconic architectural sites, my photo project comes alive. When using this technique, I take the opposite approach to the perfection of digital photography. The images come out raw, poorly framed, out-of-focus and grainy with a black circle in the corner. Also, the use of deteriorated film and the chemical makeup of what is altered beyond what the eye can see is unexpected, surprising and exciting to me. The images produced are in some way archaeological, reminiscent of those of the earliest photographs, such as daguerreotypes. The contrast of Lomography and obeying traditional photographic rules, such as the composition and balance of the image, is essential in terms of achieving truly creative work.
Which cameras and film did you use for this project?
I used a Holga 120 camera with expired Kodak films. It's 100 percent manual. It gives charm to the photos because you can never guarantee what each shot will look like. You can take maybe two shots in this kind of camera, just to guarantee, but you have to wait until you develop them to see how it turned out. You have to be quick; you have to be very clever. I'm against photographers who say 'I took 600 images to get one’. You can better spend your time on the right click and right lighting, but not take the same shot 15 times
What message are you hoping to communicate with these photographs?
The main message of this body of work is to bring back the glory to this city and hope to the young generation. Also, to keep film photography alive as the younger generation continues the old artform in a digital world.
We would like to thank Maher for sharing his work with us. The exhibition, Berytus .. A Glorified City, is open now and will run until mid July at Art District - House of Photography in Beirut. For more details about Maher Attar's work visit his website.