After hearing the news of the Beirut blast, photographer Ammar Abd Rabbo left Paris on the next flight to the Lebanese capital. He arrived in the city by noon the following day and was ready to start shooting.
A seasoned photojournalist of 30 years, Abd Rabbo, who was born in Syria but lived in Lebanon for many years, says he was driven by "the will to witness and to document".
“It is to try to keep a record of what’s going on, because it was moving every day. Every day, the theme was changing, and the more you take pictures, the more you have a trace of what happened,” he says.
On his first day, he mostly took photos of people amid the wreckage of their homes, capturing the emotion as the dust was beginning to settle. He then focused his lens on Beirut port, the site of the explosion on August, his long shots framing a landscape of crumpled shipping containers, contorted steel beams and broken buildings.
These images are part of a new exhibition at Ayyam Gallery titled To Beirut… and the artist has arranged for 75 per cent of the proceeds to go to the non-profit organisation Beit Al Baraka to help its rebuilding efforts in the city.
Of his decision to capture the tragedy of the explosion through a bird’s-eye view, he says: “I liked the idea of distance because it gives more of the scale of the incredible scenes. It’s interesting because you no longer see the emotion of the victims. You don’t see the victims at all. You are in the awkwardness of this huge event.”
He describes the visuals as having an unnerving, unreal feel, something he says visitors of the show have noticed too. “Someone came up to me and said the photos look like a movie set. We can’t really believe this happened,” he says.
For Abd Rabbo, the situation hit close to home – he lost seven friends in the blast, and tens of others have been injured with “scars they will carry for ever”. His apartment in Beirut was also heavily damaged.
He describes the difficulty of this specific experience compared to his previous reporting assignments. “This one was tougher because when I was on the streets people were mourning those who passed away and I know their names, I know who they are. It’s also tough to go back in the evenings to my flat, which was devastated.”
Though he is most known for his journalistic work, he has also produced more conceptual photography in the past, and his rare collection of images of world leaders was exhibited at Ayyam Gallery in 2012.
Abd Rabbo admits that for some, it may seem strange to see these tragic photos in an art context, but, he says: “Art is not disconnected from reality. Art is also part of what’s going on, what’s happening around us. And what’s around me right now is this horror, this sadness, this destruction.
“When you go to a war monument or war museums, these places are sometimes surrounded by beautiful architecture, though they are there to remind us of a horrible event in reality,” he says. However, despite the harsh reality behind the photographs, they are composed at times with an aesthetic eye for symmetry and repetition.
Currently, Abd Rabbo remains in Beirut, where he is following rebuilding efforts and the political fallout of the incident. His work on the ground is also what led him to choosing to donate the sales of his work to Beit Al Baraka, highlighting a specific initiative by the organisation that allows those in need to select items from a charity supermarket using a provided cash card, where most NGOs offer food baskets with pre-packaged items. A few of his images also capture protests around the city.
The show at Ayyam Gallery ends with a photograph of a noose, left there by protesters as a statement to the government.
Though Abd Rabbo condemns the death penalty and violence, he says it illustrates the sentiment that so many in Lebanon carry – the need for “punishment” and accountability towards those who have been running the country.
The explosion, caused by the detonation of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at Beirut port, is simply the latest tragedy for Lebanon, which had already been beset by a financial crisis even before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe.
“There’s a kind of depression … It makes the whole atmosphere quite heavy,” Abd Rabbo says. “All this together gives a kind of sad moment, but it is also an interesting moment to document what’s happening. People can be angry. People can go the streets. Anything could happen.”
To Beirut… is at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Dunai, until Thursday, November 12