Sunbathers of Beirut: Photographs Celebrating Daily Life in the Middle East | Photography


OOn August 4, 2020, Fouad Elkoury was sitting at his home in Beirut when a huge explosion at the port smashed his windows and blew up his living room. Miraculously, the Lebanese photographer survived but his home was destroyed, along with those of around 300,000 others. “When you experience such an explosion,” he said, “first, your memory disappears. Second, your hearing is ruined. And third, you stop planning. Things are so big, you realize that you are nothing. This is where I am right now. “

One of the foremost Lebanese photographers, Elkoury gained international recognition with his intimate photographs documenting life during the Lebanese civil war in Beirut in the 1970s and early 1980s. Traveling in the years following the conflict, he ended up aboard the ship carrying Yasser Arafat during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He created Atlantis, a series of nautical images featuring the Palestinian leader.

Elkoury’s typical shots juxtapose the personal and the political, producing images that imbue everyday scenes with the heavy resonance of their often traumatic stories. They include Portemilio, Lebanon, 1984 – a black and white image of bathers lying near a fountain at a resort north of Beirut, while the year the image was taken reminds viewers that a few kilometers from the frame, the conflict was raging. In Changing the Steering Wheel, two well-dressed men stare at the lens as their driver replaces a tire. It’s not just a microcosm of social hierarchies – in the background you can see the exploded shells of Beirut skyscrapers. Life and its rituals continue, Elkoury shows, even in the midst of chaos.

“I want to show the region in its true essence”… On the Horse, Jerusalem, 1993. Photography: Fouad Elkoury

We are talking by phone, as Elkoury has spent the last year moving to his family’s “mountain house” in the countryside, where electricity and internet are unreliable. Although he has spent much of his life on the move, first coming to London as a young man to study as an architect, the past two years have seen him take root, his work reaching a new audience. online, largely through the popular Middle Archives East Instagram account. Founded by Romaisa Baddar, MEA republishes historical images of the region and has just published its first book of photographs, comprising the Elkoury photographs of Oman, Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon from 1980 to 1997.

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

The result is an intriguing collection of upbeat and lesser-known works by Elkoury, from a horseman in the middle of a busy road chatting with someone through a car window (Jerusalem, 1993), to a man in a coat wildly jumping into an offer to prevent a child from scoring a goal in an impromptu football match (Gaza, 1994). The book, also called the Middle East Archive, is full of this quiet poetry of everyday life: Regardless of the geopolitical context, Elkoury says, children always play football. Is this the winning ball of the match? We will never know.

The book, Baddar explains, is intended as a corrective to usual representations of the Middle East. “The Arab world has been shaped primarily by suffering, so that’s not all these places represent,” she said. “I want to show the region in its true essence and Instagram is a place where I and a lot of people my age get to know each other. So it seemed important to me to display something much happier than what you would see if you were just Googling the Middle East.

Elkoury, however, does not view his work as mere journalistic documentation. “If my images only show the event happening in front of me,” he says, “the meaning of it will die when the event dies. In order for my images to be preserved over time, they had to be more symbolic.

Taking his first images with a camera stolen from his father’s desk drawer at the age of six, Elkoury took a detour into professional photography, first becoming an architect. But a return to Beirut in 1979 coincided with the chaos of the civil war and he began to photograph his surroundings again. “The war was raging and there was nothing else to do but take pictures,” he said. “I was afraid of conflict so rather than going to the front lines I focused 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. Photography: Fouad Elkoury

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

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

His search for sincerity saw Elkoury immerse himself in the places he chose to photograph. “Usually when I travel to a country I stay for a while – like in Palestine I stayed for two and a half years. I don’t travel for five days. I stay, I rent a house or an apartment and gradually discover the atmosphere and the mentality of the city. It’s interesting to immerse yourself in a country. But at the same time, it’s a pretty dangerous move because you often stumble upon things that you don’t recognize. He pauses. “It’s amazing that I’m still alive. I could have died six or seven times, just being in places I shouldn’t have been.

Elkoury shoots on film. Right now there is a pile of scrolls waiting to be taken to town and developed. The images they contain document a kind of therapy, the one he undertook after that fateful explosion last year. These scrolls record the walks he made through the mountains that surround him. Taking these photographs – going back to her job – helped her recovery. “Nature seems to be the only calming element,” he says. “It gives eternity.”


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