The inaugural edition of the Beirut Image Festival starts Wednesday, ushering in a month of photography exhibitions in the Lebanese capital and other locations across the country.
It’s organized by the NGO Zakira (the Image Festival Association) in collaboration with the Union of Arab Photographers and Dar al-Mussawir.
Seventeen Beirut locations, like the Roman Baths and Ain al-Mreisseh Corniche, will provide outdoor exhibition spaces, along with indoor venues including Beit Beirut and art galleries. Sidon’s Khan al-Franj, the Lebanese National Theater in Tyre, Baalbeck’s Roman Ruins and art spaces in Tripoli and Hammana will also host shows.
The festival boasts 600 photographs by 122 photographers from 25 countries, selected from a pool of over 3,800 images. There’s a large regional component, with more than half the participants coming from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.
“The number and the quality of the work was more than we expected,” said Ibrahim Dirani, director of Dar al-Mussawir and a member of the festival’s steering committee. “We were planning for smaller-scale activities but since we had the material we went for more locations and more photographers.”
The organizers say it’s one of the first festivals of its kind in the Arab world. (Photo festivals also run in Amman and Cairo, for instance.) Dirani said it’s distinct from the now-defunct Photomed, previously held in Beirut in connection with a festival in France, in its scale and broader focus. Indeed, the BIF program appears to have cast a wide net for themes and photographer profiles, and supports broader participation from the Arab world.
The concluding days of preparations went forward under a cloud of political tension, with an Israeli drone attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs in late August and an exchange of fire at the border between Hezbollah and the Israeli military the weekend before the launch.
Dirani expressed hope that things wouldn’t escalate. “We did a lot of effort to pull this together, to invite a lot of international [guests], to make Beirut a really vibrant city during this month,” he said, noting the added program of regional activities.
Two exhibitions open Wednesday – “Lebanon 1919,” showing historic photos of Beirut from the Albert Kahn collection at the Roman Baths, and “Beirut” by Lebanese photojournalist Nabil Ismail at the Beirut Souks.
Opening Thursday, and up only through Saturday, is a group exhibition at the National Library in Sanayeh. Don’t panic if you miss it: Photos from this location will move to various venues in the city, including Nijmeh Square, Masrah al-Madina, Hamra Urban Gardens Hotel and Riwaq cafe in Mar Mikhael.
A group show at the Tourism Ministry’s Leila Solh Hamadeh Hall also opens Thursday, focusing on photojournalism and documentary photography. It will feature work spanning from regional conflicts to France’s “yellow vests” protests.
Those wanting to see as much as they can should study the program carefully. Outdoor shows generally run the longest, but opening and closing dates at all venues vary enormously and some shows run for a very limited time.
One of the short exhibitions (Sept. 9-14) is at Beit Beirut. It throws the spotlight on archive images from two women photographers from the region: Lebanese-Palestinian Karima Abboud and Lebanese Marie al-Khazen. They will be accompanied by three other exhibitions showing at Beit Beirut only.
“Karima Abboud was a professional photographer,” Dirani said. “She had a studio. She was specialized in portraits. She had access to the local families and the women, so she got photos, mostly portraits, of women who men were not able to [photograph]. She did postcards, she did coloration.”
“We cannot say if she is the first, but she is one of the first to be a professional photographer as a woman” in the Arab world, Dirani said. Abboud was based in Bethlehem.
While not a professional photographer, Khazen produced work including portraits and photos of daily life, mostly in north Lebanon.
“Part of her collection is with the Arab Image Foundation,” Dirani said, “but we got our [images] from the Mohsen Yammine collection.”
Khazen’s work will travel to Sidon’s Khan al-Franj and the Warche 13 Art and Civic Space in Tripoli’s Mina district later in the month, while Abboud’s work will go to Tyre and Baalbeck. “Abboud has photographs of the Roman Temples” in Baalbeck, Dirani noted, “so they will be very close to the original location 100 years ago – it will be an interesting juxtaposition.”
Gallery venues include group shows at STATION in Jisr al-Wati and CUB Gallery in Badaro, while Haitham Moussawi’s solo “Lebanon’s Prison” will be up at Letitia Gallery in Hamra.
Dirani said the gallery exhibitions mostly focus on conceptual or personal projects – works that “don’t fit a lot with an outdoor exhibition.” The show at STATION “will include works of photographers from mostly Middle Eastern countries, all young, emerging. We have themes on identity, women in Yemen, themes on home and belonging.”
Rola Jawad’s “A Fisherman’s Tale from Saida” is showing only in Sidon, while Badr Safadi’s “At this place, until the fall of night” is showing only in Tripoli. A short exhibition in Hammana in early October will move to Dar al-Mussawir, and there will be a talk at Hammana Artist House on themes including the environment and climate change.
Ramzi Haidar, founder and head of Zakira and Dar al-Mussawir and co-founder of the Union of Arab Photographers, said seeing the festival come together was “a dream come true.”
“Part of our goal or mission is to promote the culture of photography, mostly among emerging and coming generations, because we live in a culture of an image, a photograph,” he said.
A veteran photojournalist from Lebanon’s south, Haidar said his love for Beirut was translated through the festival.
He said he wanted for the coming generation “to say that someone came and gave this [event] as a gift to this city.”
Perhaps the political situation will allow it.