Akram Zaatari is a crucial figure on the Lebanese art scene, both in his work with the non-profit making Arab Image Foundation, an invaluable archive of photos from the Arab World, and his own work, which is a complex meditation on the status of images.
His current exhibition at The Common Guild, The End of Time, incorporates work from Hashem el Medani, one of the photographers Zaatari has curated, alongside drawings made by Zaatari, and two films.
“My work with Hashem el Medani goes back to 1989. It’s a research interest which has to do with photography as it was practiced in the vernacular, which means at home or in a photography studio.
“I travelled a lot in the region in the early days of the Arab Image Foundation looking for samples of photographers’ work. After a few years, I met Hashem el Medani, who is from the same city as me” (Saida).
“I was happy to dedicate my research to this work. because I could think about everything in the 20th century through his archive, even indirectly, and I could take him as an example of a typical studio of that part of the world.
“I worked on identifying certain images, and have produced two volumes of publications, two volumes. The first was about looking at the studio as a space for trying out different identities like a theatre, and the second was four different public spaces, where would go out on promenades an be photographed. So both of those were typical photographs of Hashem el Medani, seen through my interests – the city as another theatre of photography.”
The photos in this exhibition concentrate on studio portraits, specifically of same sex couples playfully kissing, with an air of complicity between the subjects and the photographer.
As Zaatari notes, “the pose is the outcome of a negotiation between the subject and the photographer. He gives them options. because he has accessories which people can use to disguise themselves in the photos.”
While these photos may appear to the modern viewer to depict homosexual relationships, Zaatari ascribes their existence to the suppression of representations of heterosexual desire.
“This was an extremely conservative society, where men and women were not allowed to kiss in front of the camera. If they were married they would maybe be allowed to kiss, but the society was so conservative they would not think of kissing. So Medani always says that in his entire life, he did not take pictures of men and women, but photographed women kissing each other, playing the man and woman, and men kissing each other. So this is a picture that would be allowed to exist in a Conservative society, where nobody thinks of homosexuality.”
This, of course, is one of many instances where censorship has inadvertently resulted in creating something more subversive than what it was originally trying to suppress.
The End of Time
Homosexuality is dealt with more directly in The End of Time, a black and white 16mm film about two men’s thwarted desire, accompanied by a video work where a writer receives chat messages from an ex on a typewriter. Zaatari expIains, “ I always see these as the same film, but one is played with actors, and one is played through a script. It’s a story about the end of love, about separation, one is enacted as a dance, and one unfolds on a typewriter.
“The element of chat thrown into an analogue typewriter, is a way to displace the story in time, and make it neither belong to analogue times, nor our times, so that it stays outside time.”
This interest in exploring the evolution of media and how it affects them ontologically is central to Zaatari’s practice, as borne out by his pencil drawings of pornographic images made by men which they have uploaded to the internet.
He attests to being fascinated by “the archaeology of media, communication – unfortunately, I cannot see what’s coming up in the future.
“The shift in photography to broadcasting is amazing, because nowadays taking pictures is totally tied to diffusion of images, and communications. We speak, we chat and send pictures to each other through our mobile phones, so you cannot dissociate photography form communications anymore.
“Describing something (via photography) is no longer a description, but a broadcast. It has to be instant, and has to make it to the cloud, it has to make it to the public. So it makes you as a photographer more of a channel of diffusion.”
Zaatari regards this process as having fundamentally changed both the ethics and aesthetics of photography, and we can’t go back. “If you look at the amount of cameras produced on telephones, that’s more than the amount of cameras produced in the history of photography. So this is a revolution in photography. “
Most people in the West’s encounter with the 1982 Lebanon War on film occurred with Waltz With Bashir, a film which I share Zaatari reservations about, and is the direct opposite of Zaatari’s cooly lucid style. “It’s a fiction film, despite the fact that it’s based on real accounts. I wouldn’t communicate the same material in the same way. I don’t know Israel. I try and open my eyes to the complexity of the Israeli situation, but we are far from Israel, we cannot travel to Israel, we exist in two different territories.“
Letter to a Refusing Pilot
This is why when he tried to investigate the story of an Israeli pilot who had refused to bomb the school that Zaatari’s father taught at, during the Lebanon Israeli war of 1982, dropping his bombs into the sea instead – Zaatari was 15 and already taking photographs of the Israeli tanks invading his country – they both had to travel to Rome to conduct the interview. This would become part of his installation Letter To a Refusing Pilot, a work which would bring him to attention in the West when it was exhibited at the Venice Biennale.
This aspect of his work will be responded to by Dr Carl Lavery, who is presenting two films in response to the exhibition, as part of the Radical Film Network Scotland Festival – Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, and Jean Luc Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere).
When I tell Zaatari this, he responds, “Is he showing them together? Wow…They do represent two axes in my work, one of them is working on the history of the Lebanese Resistance against the Israeli occupation, which Godard strongly covered in Ici et Ailleurs (after Black September, the PLO were forced from Jordan to the Lebanon). “I love this film, because for me when I saw it, it was the first time I saw someone who was at the same time highly critical of how resistance propagates himself, oppressing its own population, and at the same time, recognising the justice of the cause. That it’s a just cause, but that it’s propagating itself in a Fascist way, and nobody had said it until he did, and as eloquently as he did.”
Ici et Ailleurs
Initially begun as an agit prop film with the Dziga Vertov group (the period in Godard’s filmmaking when he made purely political, and his most unwatchable films) to promote the PLO, he abandoned it to rework it in 1975, when “he realised that what the PLO was doing was harsh against its own people. I love him for saying it, and for recognising the power of the camera as a tool for war.
“I made a film On the Border directly in response to the Godard, a 45 minute film I made in 1997 by interviewing political prisoners who had served in prisons in Israel I was talking about the southern occupied zone and trying to portray life in it through stories political prisoners told me. But it was about how one looks at oneself, as a hero, it was dissociating between history as it happens, and history as it is told. It was focusing on the impossibility of communicating prisoners’ stories through prisoners themselves. Whenever they told you a story they would twist it, to show that they were brave, that they were innocent, which is very human.
“I picked up the idea of reenactment from Godard’s film, so I gave stories of people which I transcribed to others to read, so that figures would tell the stories of other figures. An axis of my work is political prisoners, and accounts of political prisoners, as a way of telling stories that have not been told.
“You mostly hear about them as fighters for a cause, but you rarely get access to their weak moments, to their fragility, so the research was about collecting intimate moments form the lives of prisoners as humans, but also trying to inscribe an anthropological continuum.”
Un Chant d’Amour
The only film made by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour is one of the ultimate underground films; financed and initially screened as a gay porn film, it would be the subject of censorship battles and obscenity trials as exhibitors fought to screen it, convinced (rightly) that it is one of the greatest short films ever made.
“Because it deals with the world of prison, and male to male desire, it relates strongly to my work. I’ve seen it several times, and every time I try to remember it, I remember it not graphically or structurally, but only as a feeling, which is strange.”
I can only agree with Zaatari that this will make a heady double bill, and a fascinating counterpoint to his work.
Akram Zaatari’s The End of Time runs at The Common Guild until 19 June