A serial killer stalks the streets of Beirut. Hunting at night, he keeps to the shadows, lurking in quiet spaces in the suburbs of the city until he selects his target. The bodies of young women are found, one after another, slumped in car parks or discarded on construction sites. Panic begins to grow.
One body lies on its side, as though sleeping, on a stretch of pavement in front of the looming skeleton of an abandoned housing block. Another lies on the sand beside a heap of industrial tires on a stretch of reclaimed land, the city lights visible in the distance above a strip of black water. A third is found half in and half out of the shadows at the edge of a car park, the colourful blue and red canopy of a circus tent incongruous in the background.
Thankfully, these gruesome scenarios are not real crime scenes but photographs staging imaginary murders. Lebanese photographer and clinical pathologist Lara Tabet was inspired by 2666, a detective novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolano, in which 112 women are murdered.
Inspiration for the exhibition
"I take one part of the book that's called The Part about the Crimes, where he chronicles murders that happen in the city of Santa Theresa, a [fictional] city which he bases on Ciudad Juarez, which is a border city between Mexico and the US," says Tabet. "What I do is I take the framework of this part of the book and I transpose it to Beirut as a way of doing a portrait of the city at night through imagined femicides on the margins of the city."
She's speaking surrounded by her eerie photographs, on show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in a solo exhibition entitled Underbelly. Tabet's expressions are hard to make out in the dark gallery space, which has its doors and windows blacked out and is lit only by the faint glow of the lightboxes that display her beautiful, yet haunting, crime scenes.
“One of the things that really talked to me is that the city is a major character in the book but also there was this mix between mysticism, like an evil inherent to the city, but also a systematic approach of investigation,” she says. “For me, it was a pretext to go and explore the margins of this city via these crime scenes, and this is something I work on regularly, going to marginal spaces, breaking and entering in order to take a photograph.”
Tabet spent two years on the project, which was shot using an old-fashioned large format camera, a bulky piece of equipment that made it hard to go unnoticed.
She was frequently interrogated by police and private security guards during her night time shoots, which were staged in areas of the city that blur the lines between public and private.
The gimmicky aspect of a show based on the premise of an imagined serial killer who leaves a trail of victims is offset by the depth of thought that has gone into the exhibition and the complexity of the themes Tabet's work explores.
'Stories are often told through the male gaze'
The photographer has captured a classic noir aesthetic that creates an atmosphere of menace without gratuitous gore.
It is the urban fabric of Beirut that is the main focus of her images, rather than the corpses of the murdered women, which are placed subtly within each scene, sometimes invisible at first glance, and bear no signs of violence.
Each photograph is accompanied by a smaller image, a microscopic photograph of bodily fluids. Tabet has also staged photographs of fake evidence from the crime scenes, such as a smashed bottle or fragments of paper buried in mud. These images explore the long history of photography as a forensic tool.
“In this project it was important for me to tackle several photography methods, to convey the historical relationship between photography and crime, so crime as a space for fiction or speculation or pop culture, but also photography as a scientific method used in forensics or in medical imagery,” says Tabet, who works as a clinical pathologist in a private lab and took all the photographs herself. The trope of the male serial killer who rapes and murders female victims is a staple of crime fiction and Tabet is aware of the dangers of employing hyper-sexualisation and violence against women in the service of entertainment.
As a woman staging scenes that fit within this tradition – even playing the murder victim in some of the photographs – she attempts to subvert this motif by reclaiming agency of the narrative and questioning its prevalence.
“I think one of the reasons – but not the sole reason – is that stories are often told through the male gaze,” she says. “But also historically it’s common to have sexual crimes perpetrated against women. However, I think that the trope is present more than it should be because of who represents these stories in popular culture or art.”
Questioning the gender tropes of crime fiction
The recent popularity of British television series Killing Eve, a thriller about a female serial killer and the female agent on her trail, has demonstrated an appetite for fiction beyond the standard mould. Tabet aims to raise questions about gender roles and perception in a similar way
"I thought that being female I can have this gaze, especially given that there's a performative aspect where I am in it as well, and it's a way to subvert these gender stereotypes," says Tabet.
"This was a question that was at the forefront of my thinking, and for me it was important to become the storyteller reappropriating the hyper-sexualisation of these images. It is a commentary on this trope, but I think it's only possible because the artist is female. I think it's important here how the artist, the killer, the perpetrator, the photographer, the clinician, the evidence seeker are all one and the same person."
As well as exploring the links between photography and crime and questioning the gender tropes of crime fiction, the exhibition aims to explore the urban fabric of Beirut and its rapid pace of change. Many of the photographs are taken on construction sites or in car parks, or beside heaps or rubbish or rubble, awaiting clean-up so that the land can be repurposed.
“Scouting was a very big part of this project,” explains Tabet. “I was looking for places on the edge. For me it’s important how the margins of the city keep expanding, so I was looking at the geographical edge but also the edge of what is public and what is private.”
Ultimately, the vicious serial killer of Underbelly has become a metaphor for a cannibalistic city, where destruction makes way for construction in a never-ending cycle.
Underbelly continues at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut until February 20