Patrick Baz – the Older, Wiser War Photographer Explores Lebanon’s Social Fabric

Nélida Nassar   02.05.2016

Patrick Baz has used his camera for over thirty years to document the many wars and other conflicts which started in his homeland, Lebanon, and plunged the neighboring countries —Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Syria — into similar torment. He also recorded the suffering and savagery inflicted elsewhere by battles, from Sarajevo to Mogadishu to Kandahar. He started as a freelance war photographer in Lebanon in 1982, and his images have garnered many awards, including the Picture of the Year (POYi) twice. When Agence France Press (AFP) hired him in 1989, he became part of the group of photographers who created AFPphoto, building AFP’s MENA photo network and picture desk.

With the onset of the Lebanese hostilities photography became his way to participate and bear witness. In the process he learned that conflicts always fail to solve problems and ultimately make them worse. Baz concedes that it is very difficult to remain neutral in a fighting zone, but insists it is essential to do so. Editorially, AFP is governed by a network of senior journalists and has a council charged with ensuring that the agency operates according to its statutes, which mandate absolute independence and neutrality.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 brought Baz’s first experience as a war photojournalist. To be confronted by an army occupying one’s homeland enraged him, but it also taught him how to remain a fair-minded observer. To complete his mission, “he had to juggle nationalities and faiths, borrowing surnames in order to cross checkpoints and thus to survive. He dodged kidnappers, negotiated with a pistol pointed above his head, came under fire, and flirted with death. He sometimes helped carry the wounded, sometimes stepped over the dead. He went to sleep to the sound of car bombs and woke up to the thunder of artillery.” Slightly older than the present generation of war photographers he has mentored, he kept the younger ones, such as Fabio Bucciarelli and Javier Manzano, alive on many occasions. While some of his peers became wedding photographers, he specialized in funerals. He broke bread with fighters, bandits and killers, but he also found himself amidst people hoodwinked by lawless politicians and blinded by faithless religious leaders in a nation turning on itself, “a house of many mansions.”

He still carries two cameras with both wide and long lenses — because it is impossible to cover conflicts with only a short one — and a dozen kg of darkroom equipment. He used to transform his hotel bathroom into a darkroom as he is part of the generation that still processed negatives. But, the invention of the digital camera changed the way he works now. Robert Capa, the father of war photography used to say “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Since those days, photojournalism has changed with the evolution of technology and style. Moreover, nowadays, photojournalists are being targeted as never before, and wars have become more dangerous for them with the increased risk of being kidnapped.

For many years Baz has kept a journal — not unlike Capa, one of his heroes — which helps 
him exorcise his fears. It is a kind of therapy. Excerpts from his diary were published in 2005 
by Tamyras, along with a number of his images, and one hopes it will appear in its entirety sometime in the future. Always prepared, he carefully studies the geography and history of a country before heading out on a mission. His subject matter is hard-hitting, and has an impact even in the trenches. He covers mainly civilians but soldiers are obviously also part of the story. He never overstepped the boundaries of dignity or decency, always respecting the concerns of his subjects. But he often took pictures of people who didn’t want to be photographed because they were doing bad things.

British war photographer Don McCullin states that “it was easy to photograph war, but it would be much more difficult to photograph peace.” Baz concedes that if a photographer knows how to frame and shoot he can always take a good portrait of a guy firing an AK or injured people being pulled out from the rubble of a bombed building. Images of violence and death have more immediate impact on the psyche, while transmitting a feeling of serenity and peace is more difficult as it requires more skill.

Each battle Baz covered left its indelible mark on him. The seminal moment in his career, the one that changed his life, came when he finally wept, overcome by a feeling of disgust for strifes and a desire to grapple with his own demons. He stopped covering conflicts and is currently following a PTSD therapy to cure himself of ‘war,’ which can become an addictive and exhilarating drug. Part of the cure is a new photographic quest, undertaken in collaboration with Thierry van Biesen and an editorial board, entitled Fuck War Project. Two distinctive photographic styles and personalities coalesce to tell the story of these two symbiotic individuals (Baz and van Biesen) who grew up during Lebanon’s hostilities but took two different paths. Van Biesen embraced the world of fashion, art and advertising as an escape from bloodshed while Baz dove into it. And he continues to document the downtrodden and marginalized members of society, always humanizing them, as can readily be seen in his recent series on Beirut’s transsexuals. A specific ethos imbues Baz’s images, giving them their unique look; for he invariably injects life into his pictures of death and destruction. He now sees vitality and beauty everywhere, having moved from documenting war to documenting Lebanese social and cultural life.

Baz’s has already given us tens of thousands of seminal, emotionally charged images. Subversive and profoundly moving, they still often manage to convey a sense of humor. As Mark Twain once said, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”  The many powerful photographs Baz’s produced will long continue to bear witness to the horrors of combat. One hopes they will soon be of help in the much needed process of examining conflicts and attempting reconciliation. Meanwhile, now that Baz’s main sources of inspiration have shifted from the culture of death to the culture of life, we eagerly await the appearance of his Fuck War series. Given its title, it doesn’t sound like he has given up on war altogether as a major theme in his work. As incongruous that it may seem, is it perhaps the case that the series has no hostilities’ pictures and that absence is the point of the title or not? Baz will not stop surprising us.