Eerie photo series shows Beirut's beautiful buildings before and after the blast

Joseph Khoury hopes the works will, in a way, help restore some of the edifices featured

A photograph taken by Joseph Khoury in 2016 shows plants drooping over the iron railings of a balcony at a home in Gemmayzeh, Beirut. Potted ferns are fixed to the bars of the ground-floor windows. There are electricity cables running across the building's cream walls.

And in a picture taken this week, Khoury holds the printed photograph from 2016 up against the building as it presently stands.

The contrast is devastating.

The windows in their entirety have been reduced to rubble, baring an arched doorway in the house's interior and bits of debris. The street has been cordoned off.

The house is no more than a kilometre from the site of the explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday, August 4. The blast has killed 171 people, and it devastated many buildings.

The incident was the final insult for many in Lebanon, a country that is enduring an economic crisis due to years of government corruption.

After the blast, Khoury and his partner, Gabriela Cardozo, revisited many of the buildings they photographed in 2016 as part of Bouyout Beirut, a series that focuses on the facades of buildings in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael.

"It was a personal project for me," Khoury tells The National.

"I live in Beirut and the facades of these homes and buildings are part of my daily life. I wanted to do a postcard project dedicated to them. Usually postcards feature typical places such as Raoucheh and Downtown Beirut, and we wanted to shed light on the beautiful homes found Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael.”

Some of the homes and buildings that Khoury and Cardozo photographed were well preserved, others were being rehabilitated. Some had been in ruins since the civil war. The series, which featured large prints of the photos as well as postcards, was exhibited at Beirut Design Week in 2018. Not long after, the works were being sold in museum gift shops across the city, including at the National Museum of Beirut.

Khoury and Cardozo have now decided to start a fundraising campaign by selling large-format prints and postcards of the series and donating proceeds to the Lebanese Red Cross.

Another photo in the series shows a blue building in Gemmayzeh, with a mix of arch-topped and rectangular windows with white slatted shutters. It has an Italian restaurant on its ground floor.

With the postcard of the building before, held up against the image of the structure after the explosion, you can see the building's entire centre has been gutted and the roof seems to be on the verge of collapse.

"It was sad, seeing all that destruction," Khoury says. "We went there some four days after the explosion. We didn't know the exact location of each postcard so we walked around the streets trying to find them again."

In a small but touching move, Khoury and Cardozo left a postcard of the image showing the building before, on each one's facade. “It was a gesture of hope that we can still rebuild,” Khoury says.

“There were some buildings we weren’t allowed to get close to, though, as they had suffered some serious structural damage and risked collapsing.”

Now, the Bouyout Beirut series may actually logistically help with the restoration of the photographed buildings. Khoury says a number of NGOs have been contacting him over the past few days for high-resolution versions of the photos "to check whether they can rebuild the facades".

“Two people in helmets who were surveying the buildings came up to me and took my contact details, saying they might call me in the future in case they needed to look at the pictures.”

Khoury says the damaged  structures are now at risk of being demolished by the municipality.

"Activists are fighting to keep them standing. Those buildings are one of the pillars of Lebanese culture and heritage. It's important that we preserve them."

More information about the photo series and purchasing the works that are helping to raise funds is at www.joekhourystudio.com/donate