Nelida Nassar 10.15.2013
The fourth annual Beirut Art Fair has enjoyed a great success. Its most visited stand “Generation War,” however, is a misnomer of the French generation de guerre. “The Generation of War” or “The War Generation” would have been a more appropriate translation. The tone of this photographic exhibition is compassionate, and the images are often horrifying, but the wall texts maintain a measured, unemotional voice. The captions focus on the, who, when, where and how of war photography, clinically parsing the many ways – amateur, artistic, official, professional and propagandistic – that the camera has intersected with mankind’s nastiest and most destructive pastime.
The exhibition, a focal point of the Fair, fills one of the largest available spaces and includes some of the most recognized and – though the word sounds strange – beloved images of the Lebanese war. Roger Moukarzel’s picture of a bride in her white wedding dress leaving for church on her father’s arm is astonishing. They emerge from an entryway, framed with stacks of sand bags, with no armed fighter or sniper in sight. Is it real? Faked? Or simply miscaptioned? The bride, it turns out, is none other than the exhibition’s curator, Katya Traboulsi. Starling, too, is Jack Dabaghian’s blurry, grainy and terrifying photograph of a devastated parking lot of charred cars and several dead bodies witnessed by two men crying, but moving with determination into a maelstrom of death. In George Azar’s poignant shot of Jawkal, a young teenager, who is sitting alone, despondent after having lost his family to an Israeli bombing in southern Lebanon, not knowing, of course, that soon afterwards he will lose his own eyesight in another attack. And there are Patrick Baz’s surreal images of French musicians from the Orchestra D’arcy performing during the filming of a clip for a local TV station which today looks incongruous than high spirited.
Organized alphabetically by photographer and furnished with descriptive titles, the exhibition also offers a chronological overview, of the six exhibited photographers, all but one of them female: George Azar, Patrick Baz, Jack Dabaghian, Aline Manoukian, Samer Mohdad, and Roger Mokarzel. Most of the more than 54 images on display will be unfamiliar or, perhaps, dimly remembered by the general public but are significant in the coverage of the Lebanese war for the international media, as each of the six photographers became an outstanding foreign war photojournalist. The pictures range from the earliest efforts to bring the Lebanese War home to an increasingly literate and politically engaged audience in the different part of the country and abroad to recent images of the various warrior camps and the toll the war is taking on Lebanon’s younger generation.
The slash through the title, which reads as “Gene – ration – War” on three vertical lines is a clue to a fundamental tension in the show, between an exploration of war through documentary means and a survey of the aesthetics of war photographs. For the most part, the curator Traboulsi has leaned towards the former, organizing the exhibition more as a sociological study of war than a history or analysis of image making. The section headings reiterate the show alphabetical organisation by photographer but also reflect their different characteristic approaches – the wait, the engagement, the fear, the hopelessness, the humor and the aftermath – as well as the curious quirks and characteristics that war photographs often share, no matter when or where they are made, and whose suffering they depict.
Erase the captions, and most war photographs show only basic trauma and emotions: carnage, excitement, exultation, fear, and suffering. This is precisely what gives them their universal value. Mohdad’s image of displaced children at summer camp shows them engaging in their favorite activity, firing weapons (especially the most popular weapon of all time, the AK-47 or Kalashikov). Dabaghian’s 1983 image of a Palestinian fighter jumping over a trench protecting 120 mm mortar shells, east of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, as smoke billows from burning oil reservoirs stresses the raw materials of combat. And Manoukian’s 1985 photographs of pro-Syrian fighters during battles with Sunni Muslim fundamentalists defending Tripoli, whether on foot or seen against the wheels of a military vehicle, showcase the mechanized nature of warfare.
War photographs often share a tendency to postpone or complicate basic legibility.
What sense can one make of Azar’s image of an old man weeping uncontrollably after
a bombardment as children who have only known war crowd at the windows, seeming puzzled by his sadness. The double-take provoked by these images, the moment of confusion as one seeks for an explanation, is clearly part of their power, a way of capturing attention and compelling a second and even a third interrogation. Can these photographers elicit a moral response through their images or are all war photos generic? The show present successfully and sensibly one of the many facets of the domain of identity, memory and never a war again by raising many questions that the Lebanese have been attempting to answer both collectively and individually for over a decade.
Tamyras published a lush and beautifully designed 124-page catalogue to accompany