Georges’ series ASNAM explores Lebanon through a comparison between his childhood memories and the change of landscape in the country. Georges has been photographing the increase of Christian statues across Lebanon over 18 years. Bethany spoke with Georges about his project and wider body of work, his approach to photographing a place he holds a past relationship with, as well as his future plans for the work.
Can we start by exploring what drew you to this project and how it began?
It is a long story. I was born in Beirut, but I left Lebanon when I was 16. I started returning every three, four, maybe five years, and in 2000 I decided to document these returns. After three trips, I realised I was not recording what I had planned to, Lebanon in the present, the country, but things relating to my 16-year childhood there, my past life. Then came this idea of comparison with reality, in which I compared new material with older material. The process changed a lot after 2007. In the beginning, there were only photos, and slowly documents, photo archives, family 8mm footage, came in, then objects with a migration history. For example, in 2010, I found in one of my drawers in Lebanon a collection of old pictures of saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ, which teachers would give to us when we were good at catechism. Among the stories I was constructing with the new and old material came this reality of the statues. While I was living in Lebanon, there were very few statues, but I noticed them appearing in different Christian areas. As opposed to state or mayoral decisions, the people were erecting them. This phenomenon attracted me, and I started documenting it with the idea of comparing it to the small icons I found. So it relates to the whole project but has its own existence – like a chapter of a story. I started to document it, especially in crowded areas, where the statues seem devoid of their original sacredness. Usually, statues are in churches, sacred places or monasteries, and then there they are in front of a gas station, under a bridge, in the middle of a traffic jam. They inhabited unusual spaces in the city that are in-between public and private. This aspect is compelling because public space is almost inexistent in Lebanon. It is different from Britain and Europe, in Lebanon, everything is private or owned by the municipality.
So the statues are a small chapter in a larger story that you were documenting and also represent issues in Lebanon more widely. I was wondering about reclaiming identity and territory, particularly after the civil war. Could you tell me more about that and how the statues transcend the role of purely religious symbols?
That also stems from the in-existence of public place. A public place is where dialogue happens between different communities and religions. In Lebanon, you have at least 18 branches of Christianity, Islam and other sects. Since public space is inexistent, putting statues that represent a sect or religion marks a territory. Territories separated during the civil war; instead of reuniting the country to re-allow Christians to go to Muslim areas and vice versa, segregation exacerbated at the end of the war. I think it is a mixture of fear – wanting to represent identity to show superiority but fearing a loss of identity or traditional beliefs.
You also have to consider that Islam cannot represent Muhammad, so the territory is not claimed in the same way. But statues and icons are part of the culture of Christianity. In Arabic, the word asnam means both statues and idols; it is playful, suggesting two sides of the same thing. So, I was curious about representations of faith in the Christian communities. These communities are depicting their beliefs with a statue, but also through where they put it. Putting a statue in a church or monastery is not the same as putting it in a lane or a gas station. There is a gesture of a person or community, and there is a strange sacredness in this hidden human gesture. It is not void from sacredness. There is an agreement within a small neighbourhood to reclaim the public place and put an identity, a statue, representing their belief. It is a small democratic gesture, not somebody imposing on them. I am always interested in these gestures.
What do you think photography, as opposed to other mediums, can reveal about the interactions between symbols and the multi-faceted religious and cultural identity of the communities around them?
I use photography to document aspects of lives, but the research draws from my personal experience of the place. There is a gap between the experience of the territory and the territory I document. And the relation between the two is material for my research – I work on long periods and trace the timelines between the experience and the territory and the actual documentation. And then I put these two into comparison. I call this the comparison of reality: you take one reality at a certain point of a timeline and compare it with another and draw something new. The result is this mixture of the two realities. And it is fictional; it becomes a new story. I use the idea of sedimentations of reality in my work, too – like a geologist, looking at eras over time. There are layers – sometimes holes – and when you put an icon as I had from school next to the picture of a statue, it is like opening a small hole to look down through to other layers.
Concerning that, what is your process? What kind of choices do you make?
That is constant in whatever I do; I make films and work over very long periods, sometimes four years, sometimes eight, sometimes 20. The layers of an editing process produce the same kind of construction, where you layer different types of time and link them between scenes and eras. In the end, you see one film, but it has many layers. I started doing this kind of process in 2005, and it expanded to many aspects of my work: film, photography, installation, video. The sedimentation process is always related to the experience of territory, landscape, city; listening and walking – the peripatetic experience of things; the research of history, documentation, archives. And mythology, which transcends documentation to another level – it becomes more fictional. These are the elements that I play with to construct the story. I like documentary photography, but I do not consider myself a documentary photographer. I am always trying to push the lines of documentation, sometimes more towards fiction or experiments. The way I present the whole series is as an installation. Some of my work is on a table, on screens, and the walls, but I also do a lecture-performance. I start with two or three elements of the work, and I ask visitors to ask me about the parts that interest them. I do not have a defined timeline or story; it evolves with the participants, and I go into chapters of a massive archive. During this presentation, I also talk about how I work. It is easy to bring in the personal and the experiential and to relate things through the process. The process leads the performance.
There is a fascinating ambiguousness in your work, which I think relates to it not being clear-cut documentary photography – you are blurring these lines, as you say. Some photos are melancholy but playful; others are intimate but distant. Can you tell me more about these interplays?
One comes into the other. The melancholy comes from the fact that I do not live there anymore, it is not nostalgia but melancholia around going back to a distant era of life and telling stories about it, looking back at something I do not know. At times, my work leans to the obscene and to laceration, and others to the noble and to the sovereign. I search for the right distance of things: between somebody and me, a statue and me. There is a dialectical monologue between me and what I film and photograph. And it is important to find the right distance. When I decided to photograph these statues, I had to put them in context. I did not want to photograph the statue itself, because it does not have the same meaning unless you put a little bit of where it is, these crowded tiny spaces. Humour also plays a big part; sometimes, the statues are in completely surreal places. Where they are sold, how they are lined up on a highway and look as though they are hitchhiking.
Do you think your lived experience affected your perception of and approach to the landscapes you portray? You have touched on this a little in terms of the themes of melancholy and distance.
To the notion of landscape, I would also add ‘traumascape’. To put it into perspective, I am going back to a country where I had lived only through civil war; I was born two years before the start of the civil war, and I left one year before it ended. So, this landscape cannot dissociate from the traumascape. And I am not looking at the landscape as a person living there; I am what I call a self-exile. These returns are not returning to a homeland – my homeland was my childhood there. When I go back, I am discovering new territories, once-forbidden territories, through walking. During my childhood, it was not safe to walk the city streets. My work is related to the peripatetic experience; now, I am allowed to do it somewhere that is not my homeland, not my country. It is a bit awkward. I am not a Lebanese artist, living and experiencing life there, even though I was born there, my father is Lebanese, my mother is Greek, born and raised in Beirut herself. The experience of a self-exile is different, so I cannot compare it with reality.
The title of your series, ‘Let us Stop and Weep’, references a long poem by Imru’ al-Qais, who is sometimes considered the father of Arabic poetry. What is the significance of the poem to your work?
That is pre-Islamic poetry; it was spoken, not written. This one specific poem, along with another six poems (forming the Mu’allaqah), was for the first time written on a wall in the Kaaba in Mecca. The poet was the son of a tribal leader of one of the nomadic tribes in the area. Because tribes moved from place to place, the men would leave their wives and children to find water elsewhere. When they returned, they would sometimes find their tribes looted and destroyed. The poet stands in the ruins of his tribe and recites verses to give the men hope. Hence the title ‘Let us Stop and Weep’. The poem records the reality and history of these people and gives them the courage to continue. It comes at a point when everything is in ruins, but words can lift the spirits. I am interested in the experiential aspect of life, how it is placed with facts, reality and history. It is a beautiful poem in Arabic; It talks about the simple things in life: riding horses, the wind, the beauty of the landscape, the hunting scenes and bluntly erotic narratives. I’m also interested in mythical events and stories, not those linked to official history.
Would you consider this a finished body of work? Or is it something that will continue to evolve?
The last time I went to Lebanon was in 2019; the only difference was that there are even more of these statues. In 2003, when I took the first picture, there were few. So, it is a phenomenon that is expanding. I do not tend to put an end to things unless it comes naturally. But I have not been to Lebanon since 2019, so this chapter ASNAM has finished for me. I do not think I could do something more because I am not living there – it is not an unfolding story. The stories that I document are not current events; they are side-line, marginal stories that are compared with other things or aspects.
Finally, what is next for you? What other projects are you working on?
I have been working on a book about Athens that will be out in a month. It is a series of 50 photographs and two letters exploring Athens between 1998 and 2006. Some exhibitions I was supposed to be part of have been cancelled due to coronavirus, but I am editing a new documentary-type film about people going back to a village in Epirus in the north of Greece for one day, every year, to feast. It is about relationships with territory and ancestors.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.
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