December 4, 2022

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Sunbathers of Beirut: the photographs celebrating everyday life in the Middle East | Photography

5 min read

On 4 August 2020, Fouad Elkoury was sitting in his home in Beirut when an enormous explosion at the port shattered his windows and blasted through his living room. Miraculously, the Lebanese photographer survived but his home was destroyed, along with those of an estimated 300,000 others. “When you go through such an explosion,” he says, “first, your memory disappears. Second, your hearing is ruined. And third, you stop planning. Things are so big, you realise you are nothing. This is where I am at the moment.”

One of Lebanon’s foremost photographers, Elkoury came to international recognition with his intimate photographs documenting life during the Lebanese civil war in Beirut in the 1970s and early 80s. Travelling in the years following the conflict, he found himself aboard the ship carrying Yasser Arafat during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He created Atlantis, a nautical series of images featuring the Palestinian leader.

Typical Elkoury shots juxtapose the personal and the political, producing images that imbue scenes of everyday life with the heavy resonance of their often traumatic histories. They include Portemilio, Lebanon, 1984 – a black and white image of sunbathers reclining by a fountain at a holiday resort north of Beirut, while the year the image was taken reminds the viewer that, a few miles out of the frame, conflict was raging. In Changing the Wheel, two well-dressed men stare imposingly into the lens while their driver replaces a tyre. It’s not just a microcosm of social hierarchies – in the background, you can see the blasted-out shells of Beirut high rises. Life and its rituals go on, Elkoury shows, even amid the chaos.

‘I want to show the region in its true essence’ … On the Horse, Jerusalem, 1993. Photograph: Fouad Elkoury

We are speaking by phone, since Elkoury has spent the past year relocated at his family’s “mountain house” in the countryside, where the electricity and the internet are unreliable. Despite having spent much of his life on the move, initially coming to London as a young man to study as an architect, the past two years have seen him grounded, with his work reaching a new audience online, largely via the popular Instagram account Middle East Archive. Founded by Romaisa Baddar, MEA reposts historical images of the region, and has just released its debut photography book, comprising Elkoury’s shots of Oman, Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon from 1980 to 1997.

“When Romaisa approached me, I told her I didn’t have much energy,” says Elkoury. “For two months after the explosion, I couldn’t do anything because I was so traumatised. I would rather stay alone and think for myself than be on Instagram looking at pictures of what people are eating.” Yet Baddar persisted and Elkoury finally relented.

The result is an intriguing collection of Elkoury’s lesser-known, optimistic work, from a horse rider in the middle of a busy road talking with someone through a car window (Jerusalem, 1993), to a man in a coat leaping wildly in a bid to stop a kid from scoring a goal during an impromptu football match (Gaza, 1994). The book, also called Middle East Archive, is full of this quiet poetry of everyday life: no matter the geopolitical context, Elkoury is saying, kids still play football. Is that the winning ball of the match? We will never know.

The book, explains Baddar, is intended as a corrective for the usual depictions of the Middle East. “The Arab world has been framed mainly through suffering, when that is not all these places stand for,” she says. “I want to show the region in its true essence and Instagram is a place where me and a lot of people of my age get informed. So it felt important to display something far more joyous than what you would see if you just Google the Middle East.”

Elkoury does not, however, see his work as a mere journalistic documentation. “If my images just show the event happening in front of me,” he says, “the meaning of it will die when the event dies. For my pictures to be preserved in time, they had to be more symbolic.”

Shooting his first images with a camera pilfered from his father’s desk drawer at the age of six, Elkoury took a circuitous route into professional photography, initially becoming an architect. But a return to Beirut in 1979 coincided with the chaos of the civil war and he began photographing his surroundings again. “The war was raging and there was nothing else to do but take pictures,” he says. “I was scared of the conflict so, rather than head to the frontlines, I concentrated on what constituted life during the war.”

‘I photograph where I live and what I see and feel’ … Changing the Wheel, Beirut, 1982.
‘I photograph where I live and what I see and feel’ … Changing the Wheel, Beirut, 1982. Photograph: Fouad Elkoury

This focus on the personal in a time of massive upheaval is a recurring theme in his work, most notably in his 2006 series On War and Love. Here, text is written directly on to his images of unmade beds, bathroom mirrors and sunlit walls, creating a startling combination of a diaristic account of a breakup with the ongoing conflict in Beirut. Just as his lover is absent from the images, so are the usual bombastic depictions of war.

That series formed part of Lebanon’s first pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where Elkoury again exhibited earlier this year with a new series accompanying works by Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan. “I’m continually surprised by the fact that respectable museums want to display and purchase my work,” Elkoury says. “I photograph where I live and what I see and feel and there’s not more to it.”

His search for sincerity has seen Elkoury immersing himself in the places he has chosen to photograph. “Usually when I travel to a country, I stay for some time – like in Palestine I stayed two and a half years. I don’t travel for five days. I stay, I rent a house or flat and slowly get to know the atmosphere and the mentality of the city. It is interesting to immerse oneself in a country. But at the same time, it is quite a dangerous move because you often fall into things you didn’t recognise.” He pauses. “It’s incredible that I’m still alive. I could have died six or seven times, just being in places I shouldn’t have been in.”

Elkoury shoots on film. Right now, there is a pile of rolls waiting to be taken to town and developed. The images they contain document a therapy of sorts, one he embarked upon after that fateful explosion last year. Those rolls record the walks he has been taking through the mountains around him. The act of taking these photographs – of returning to his craft – have aided his recovery. “Nature seems to be the only soothing element,” he says. “It provides eternity.”


https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/nov/01/fouad-elkoury-sunbathers-beirut-photographs-celebrating-everyday-life-middle-east

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