New Beirut photo series brings glory back to city through Roman past

Former war photographer Maher Attar delves into the city’s history for his Lomography works

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In 2020 Beirut, after the previous year’s protests, the port explosion and an economic collapse, photographer Maher Attar abandoned his plans to move when many people were leaving Lebanon.

He’d planned to shoot a Lomography photo series about the city, unveil it for the nation’s centenary in 2020, and then fly out.

But with everything going on around him, the award-winning former war photographer felt the need to stay.

“It happened to me during the civil war also; I did the same thing, I decided to stay,” Attar tells The National. “I thought, ‘No, it’s part of the fight’ and I believe in cultural resistance and the ideology of culture, not the ideology of political militias or parties. I think you can fight with it in a way. I'm documenting the moment.

“It makes me sad that you can see Beirut is destroyed and I wanted to give glory and pride back to Beirut,” he says. “I imagined Beirut as a lady who was abused and abandoned and I started the project.”

The result is Berytus…A Glorified City, an exhibition of Lomography photographs that’s opening on Thursday at Art District - House of Photography in Beirut’s Gemmeyzeh, running until July 16. It features 13 staged images and several salt print depicting Berytus (Beirut’s Roman name) as a woman in a torn white dress designed by Ziad Nakad, traversing war, tragedy and migration, but also pride, hope and peace.

The link to Lebanon’s Roman past is intended to reflect the era’s prosperity and enlightenment, as well as draw on the mythical symbolism of the time. The staged photos are almost theatrical, likening Lebanon’s reality to a tragi-comedy through dramatic poses and costumes.

Many of the images were taken in the abandoned, dilapidated buildings of The Grand Sofar Hotel, Beit Beirut, the now-demolished L’Orient-Le Jour building and an old house in Dhour Choueir, as well as at the Faqra Roman Ruins.

Due to the Lomography technique used, the photos have a grainy, vignette-bordered appearance. The use of expired film has led to intentional imperfections during the dark-room process.

“The first one was Freedom, where you see Berytus on the rocks with the flag,” Attar says. “It's inspired by Marianne de France. She’s a symbol, a myth, a story that doesn't exist, so my photo was the creation of Marianne de Liban.

“That was on October 5, 2019. On October 12, I created Independence, where we see six guys dressed in army fatigues and they try to reach her, as she stands tall and proud with the flag,” he explains. “And then the revolution began. Two images went viral for a while and people were linking them to the revolution. I'm not against it, of course, but it wasn't what my project was about.”

Attar went on to create a scene capturing the pain of forced migration at an abandoned railway station, a photo filled with light and doves of peace and an image of Berytus standing next to old militia signs at Beit Beirut, a former residential building turned civil war sniper’s nest.

I always say we live in an unfinished country; we have nothing done 100 per cent. That's why in the project, you see this beautifully posed woman with her glory, but at the same time we see Beirut desperate
Maher Attar, photographer

Diversity is inspired by Delacroix’s French Revolution painting, Liberty Leading the People. In Attar’s interpretation, Berytus is climbing a destroyed staircase that leads to nowhere, as two women reach out to her. It’s unclear if they are helping her up, or warding her against the climb.

“We see this woman in torn clothing with the flag, and you have a lot of bodies [in the painting]. I wanted to give a little bit of hope with my image, so we see [Berytus] with [a cut-out of] Lebanon as if she's shouldering the burden on herself, but protectively,” Attar says. “She's climbing the stairs as if she wants to leave and you have other women from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Palestine with her, and it's the Palestinian who's holding the flag.

“We had big problems in Lebanon during the war and we accused the Palestinians of a lot, so I wanted to show that also the Palestinians are following Lebanon with the flag, and she's reaching to others at the top.”

Attar has been working with Lomography — a type of film photography originating in Russia that is almost rudimentary, but takes experience to frame and capture the light correctly — for more than 15 years. Without the luxury of endless film, his experience as a photojournalist has come in handy.

“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,” Attar says. “Lomography gives charm to the photos because you can never guarantee what each shot will look like. You can take maybe two shots, just to guarantee, but you have to wait until you develop them to see how it turned out.”

He then made salt print out of some of the negatives, which involves paper treated with light-sensitive chloride salts being exposed to UV— giving the images a grainy, raw and out-of-focus appearance — mirroring Attar’s perspective on Beirut’s current state of uncertainty.

“I wanted more graininess, texture and imperfections in the photos,” he says. “For the narrative of Lebanon being abused in the ‘70s and during the war, I needed this kind of materiality, or physical connection to the work, with the paper and chemical smell in the development stage.

“I always say we live in an unfinished country; we have nothing done 100 per cent. That's why in the project, you see this beautifully posed woman with her glory, but at the same time we see Beirut desperate, and the imperfect, grainy look adds to that.”

Updated: May 02, 2022, 11:03 AM