Lebanon: Beyond mass media

July 19th, 2007 | Posted in Other
    Alex Selim, The Daily Star Thursday, July 19, 2007


Photo, Lens on Lebanon: Amani Bzei in the village of Zibquine, with Eric Gottesman.

Project empowers members of hardest-hit communities to express their own stories and opinions about conflict through photographs and videos…

BEIRUT: Last summer’s war with Israel drew the world’s attention, once again, to Lebanon in a state of siege. During the 34 days of bombardment, most of the stories and images about the war came filtered through the mainstream media. Some journalists and photographers for both domestic and international press outlets reported their stories with a tinge of their own or their employer’s political bias. Lost in such coverage was the perspective of private citizens who lived through the upheaval.

Lens on Lebanon, an international grassroots documentary project that was formed during the war, is actively trying to correct that perceived mainstream media bias by empowering Lebanese residents from all walks of life to tell their own stories through photographs and videos.

The organization provided equipment, technical training and artistic support for participants living in affected areas so they could creatively document their experiences with photo-narratives and video diaries.

Lens on Lebanon presented its first screening session last Saturday at Hamra’s T-Marbouta Cafe, where an exhibition of photographs remains on view through July 30. Organizers have also posted the videos and photo essays onto the Lens on Lebanon Website.

Some of the films and videos dealt directly with the war, others with the political issues that surrounded it. Some showed images of destruction, while others showed the banal details of life in refugee relief centers and bombed-out villages.

“We are becoming more aware of the power of the community to record conflict,” says Samar Maakaron, one of the organizers of Lens on Lebanon. Maakaron joined the project in January after returning to Beirut from London, where she earned a master’s degree from Goldsmiths, a prestigious art school associated with the University of London. She stresses the importance of regular citizens expressing their own perspectives, especially if they aren’t normally represented in the popular media.

“People need to say things that are not on Al-Manar TV and Future TV, not on mainstream TV,” she says.

One of the films screened on Saturday, entitled “Martyrdom,” was created by a group of participants from the Dahiyeh. It showed a mother articulating her feelings about her son’s martyrdom. The filmmakers asked other women from the area whether or not they would offer their husbands or sons as martyrs. The responses were as surprising as they were diverse.

Another participant, Sahar al-Bashir, attended a Lens on Lebanon workshop at the Blue Mission Training Center for Community Development in Sidon. She says the project offered her an opportunity to voice an independent opinion.

“If I were working for Al-Manar, I would have said, ‘I love the war,’ and if I were working for Future I would have said, ‘I hate the war,’ but I said it as I really felt it,” explains Sahar, a 21-year-old student who is pursuing a degree in media and documentary studies at the Lebanese University.

Bashir’s film “Amin (Faith)” follows her sister Amin as she tours their village, which was heavily bombed during the war, and describes her feelings about leaving home. The film ends with Amin saying: “It wasn’t my decision to start or end the war or to be for peace or against it. Everything is imposed on us. But the only thing I’m sure of, no one can impose on me my love [of] my country. I love my country from my heart.”

Bashir credited the organizers with encouraging her and her fellow participants to “find stories that they lived,” and giving them the freedom to choose their subject matter, and to film and photograph and edit it themselves, with help if help was needed. “It was really our work,” Bashir says.

The Lens on Lebanon project began when Mahmoud Zeidan, a Palestinian who was born in the Ain al-Hilweh camp and is a human rights supervisor for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and Diana Allan, who is completing a doctorate in anthropology and film at Harvard University, traveled to South Lebanon last August and began conducting training workshops with a handful of Polaroid, digital and video cameras.

Zeidan and Allan began with their own funding. They developed more workshops. Lens on Lebanon now holds two workshops a month in the Dahiyeh (hosted by the Sadr Foundation), another two in Sidon (hosted by the Blue Mission) and yet another two in Ain al-Hilweh. The project is currently being funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Oxfam and the London-based group Lebanon United, among other supporters.

The workshops focus less on the technical skills of operating a camera than on building the themes that participants use as a foundation for their work. For example, a workshop entitled “Reflections after the War,” held in the Dahiyeh, aimed to create short films addressing the effects of the 2006 war on the community’s sense of national identity. Another workshop entitled “The Other,” held in Sidon, encouraged women to make photo essays about, well, “the other.”

One Lens on Lebanon participant, Jamileh al-Amin, who is in her 50s, came to Maakaron’s “The Other” workshop doubting whether or not she would be able to use a camera to create an artwork.

“She thought that it was too late for her to learn,” Maakaron recalls. “Society would tell her that it was for her kids to learn but not for her.”

However, as the discussion continued in the workshop, she became more comfortable and more enthusiastic about the project, though as one of the more serious people in the workshop, she also doubted whether or not she could have a sense of humor with her photo essay.

But Amin’s work, entitled “About the Other,” is one of the more incisive pieces in the exhibition at T-Marbouta, and it hinges on genuine wit. The photo essay features pictures of a woman in various outfits transposed with photographs of mannequins wearing different hats. It includes Amin’s narration, which states: “Why [is it that] when my daughter is fashionable and sexy, I find her very pretty, cute and cool, but the other girl on the street dressed in the same way has bad taste and probably no decency whatsoever?”

The Lens on Lebanon project certainly fills a void in terms of media coverage devoted to conflict, but when asked if the project also serves a therapeutic purpose, Maakaron is quick to ask: “For whom?” In answer to her own question, she notes that the project is just as fulfilling for her as it is for the participants.

“We don’t like to say that we’re making miracles. But we are making little differences.”

Lens on Lebanon’s exhibition of narrative photo essays is on view at the T-Marbouta Cafe in Hamra’s Pavillon Center through July 30. For more information, please call +961 1 352 302

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