On display at The Mosaic Rooms, London and part of an exhibition titled “I Spy with my Little Eye: A New Generation of Beirut Artists”; that ran between July 11th and August 22nd 2015; was a series of six photographs shot and processed by George Awde. A photographer of Lebanese origin who works in Doha, Cairo and Beirut.
The series is a selection of photographs from a collection of images that are part of a collective whole titled “His Passing Cover”; a series of photographs captured between 2012 and 2014. The six photos, Untitled (Beirut), were shot using a large format camera rather than in digital format.
The subject, context, photographic format and the way in which the photos were displayed all play a part in how the images were viewed, interpreted and had visitors leave with a lasting imprint of said images; which, I think, were quite haunting. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that haunting is the right word. I only know that I found myself continuously drawn towards the images despite feeling uneasy about them.
So, let’s take it all in one step at a time, shall we?
The models were a group of Syrian boys living in Beirut. That in itself, considering the political climate of the world we live in, immediately raises questions of belonging. These boys, have fled their native soil, are living in an environment that isn’t their own and are struggling to understand life. While at the same time, considering their age, they are also in the middle of juggling between boyhood and manhood, which is confusing enough under regular circumstances.
The context: The streets of Beirut, are streets that have been witnesses to civil war between 1975 and 1991. The shell-shocked buildings, some of which have been replaced or repaired while others have not, have seen unspeakable tragedies. Blood has been poured on those bricks and lives have been lost in alleyways all around the city in the very recent past. And here they are again, lending an ear to the stories of many a Syrian men, women and children who have seen and heard the unspeakable. And yet… and yet, life goes on. Time does not stand still and people move forward stumbling by, trying to figure out Life.
This sort of parable between soul and soil is a staple in Awde’s work as he creates to explore the dialogue between the wound of the flesh and the ruins of the environment in which people find themselves. All the subjects depicted are bare-chested, giving them a kind of vulnerability to their surroundings. It also gives the subjects a slightly uneasy sexual connotation also speaking to the complexities of transitioning from boyhood to manhood in unstable surroundings in place that isn’t home.
The photographic medium is very much a key to the integrity and intimacy of the overall piece. By using a large format camera, Awde is able to tactilely immerse himself into the process of creating the images from start to finish making the entire process far more personal. Awde has deliberately taken this time to personally connect with each of the boys depicted in his photographs. Thus, allowing them to become very comfortable, staring right into the camera lens, staring right at the viewers at every gallery the photos have been and will be displayed in. It is those intimate stares that open a window into these boys’ that creates a sense of unease and intrigue all at once. I think that’s what makes me a little uncomfortable looking at the pictures but at the same time drawn towards them. It is as though they are posing the questions that they have about Life to their viewers and we, as viewers, do not have answers to give. I could almost see the atrocities that these boys have had to see and endure; things that nobody at any age should experience.
Lastly, (I know, this post is longer than I thought it would be so bear with me just a little longer) … Lastly, I’d like to comment briefly on the curatorial choice that was made based on how these six captured moments have been chosen to be displayed.
- The photos were hung scattered around the gallery. One was displayed in a hallway, while another was at the bottom of a stare case and another around a corner. No two frames were set side by side and if they were in close proximity they were not facing one another. The pictures were set up so that the viewer was forced to explore and find all six of them. Moments and glimpses caught in time in streets and slums scattered around a busy city.
- The simply framed moments in time measured 30 x 37 inches and were hung so that the boy’s eye-levels were at or just below the average person’s. I felt that the decision to do so helped create that special connection and dialogue between viewer and subject. If the pictures were hung any higher, I don’t think the intensity of the direct stare would have been as effective and moving.
As a viewer… this was an insightful and exhausting experience.