“Why are you and your friends making so much fuss about this blast? That’s what a friend of mine in Paris asked me.
‘There are many blasts there, many wars. There were maybe 200 dead, thousands wounded. Okay but we’ve seen worse, no?’”
Photographer Ammar Abd Rabbo removes the spoon from his coffee.
“Yes we have seen worse. We have 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, then 10 years of war in Syria, but those 25 years didn’t affect my circle like those few seconds [of the Beirut Port blast]. It killed seven people I knew personally and wounded more than 40, some severely. It destroyed my house and damaged the houses of many people I know” in Beirut.
“This was unique. In a couple of seconds, you have this … In Arabic we have infijar, explosion, or tafjir, an explosion that somebody made. We have problems naming it, but we know the effects. It’s unique.”
Abd Rabbo was in Paris on Aug. 4. He says the next morning he was on a plane back to Lebanon, devoting the next weeks to framing the aftermath of Beirut’s short sharp shock.
A well-known figure in the MENA’s photography circles, Abd Rabbo was born in Damascus in 1966. He lived in Libya and Lebanon before the Civil War pushed his family to migrate to France in 1978. He’s covered conflict zones in in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria and been published in Time, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and Asharq al-Awsat.
Over three decades photographing sometimes interminable conflicts, he says, you learn to mimic the strategies of people who live through conflict involuntarily.
“You keep a map in your mind, learning where not to go to avoid getting yourself into trouble — the front line, the so-called safe areas, etc.”
There was no place for such strategies in the face of the abrupt, lacerating violence of the Aug. 4 blast.
“Some people I know died in their bedrooms,” he says. “They weren’t taking any risks. What’s the safest place to be, especially now with the COVID-19 business? Home. Most of the people I know were in their homes, watching TV or going to the window to look at the smoke of the port fire. This is where they were hit or killed.
“Risk management, was impossible. No one even knew the risk, but risk was everywhere. Ten minutes after the blast, you have to deal with it, with the changes to your life, the loss.”
Though best-known for his work covering conflicts, Abd Rabbo doesn’t see himself as a war photographer.
“I don’t like the word ‘war correspondent,’” he says. “I hate war. I try to avoid it. When I have to — in Aleppo or Iraq or Libya – I do it, but I’m a lousy war photographer. I’m often scared. You need guts to go to the front line,” he chuckles, “and I don’t have them.
“You see wounded people and bloated corpses, but one image shocked and haunted me for a long time. I was in Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo. Families were starving, and an NGO was delivering meat to families.
“One family got a piece of meat. I was doing a picture and this little girl, she was maybe 7 or 8, she opened the paper and looked at the meat and put her finger on it. It was clear that she didn’t know what it was. That was extremely shocking image for me.
“They say the camera protects you from emotion,” he pauses. “It explained so many things, that gesture — the hunger, the siege, the misery.”
Abd Rabbo’s been showing his work in solo exhibitions since 2012. Though that includes well-framed pictures from war zones, he’s also shot several series capturing nudes in incongruous exterior locations — most recently during Paris’ COVID-19 lockdown.
“To Beirut…,” his new show at Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery, is a charity exhibition featuring pictures he took after Aug. 4. He and the gallery will donate 75 percent of proceeds to the Lebanese nonprofit Beit El Baraka.
Though there are a few photos from Beirut’s post-blast demo a couple of days after the blast, most of the images are Abd Rabbo’s landscapes, especially the eviscerated port area.
“Sometimes they’re almost peaceful and beautiful, these landscapes,” he says, “but you’re not in Bora Bora or Hawaii. You’re in Beirut and a huge blast just happened. I like that contradiction.”
The photographer did photograph survivors of the blast, but it’s ethically untenable to exhibit such portraits in a gallery this way.
“There’s the difference between showing [dead and injured people] in the press, for information, and exhibiting them as artwork,” he reflects. “Landscapes give you the distance to see and to tell without being intrusive, without being a voyeur.
“I don’t want to be a voyeur. I want to tell how I was. I was shocked. I was experiencing a mixture of sadness, shock and pain because it’s a city I love, an area I love, where I’d go every day. I don’t want to contribute to someone else’s pain, seeing his son or father or daughter dead or wounded and exhibited someplace.”
In the attitude of the subjects of his portraits, the blast survivors, Abd Rabbo says he found something new.
“Most of the people I shot were extremely willing to share their experience and to show their wounds,” he recalls. “This is part of a new trend in Lebanon, to say, ‘I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to hide. I don’t want to turn away from the truth. I want to be blunt, and say yes, I lost this.’ This is what happened.
“Following the war, in the ’90s, many people in Lebanon were in denial, saying, ‘We don’t want to talk about this anymore.’ I remember some books that were released were really unwelcome. People were like, ‘Khalas. We’re done with the war. We don’t want to look at this. We want to see something else. We wanna party. We wanna dance. We wanna go ski in Faraya.
“Maybe this is part of the problem, part of what led us here. If people were more looking at their rulers, maybe they wouldn’t accept to pay for electricity twice, to pay for corruption everywhere.
“As soon as this blast happened, it was something they were shouting in the street: ‘We don’t want to hide it. Show everything. Show what happened. Keep it for memory. Share it. Tell it.’ I hear people talking about fixing their building. ‘Fix it but save the scars. We want people to remember what happened here.’
“This is very different, not only from Solidere but from everything that happened in the ’90s.
“I’d like this exhibition to be an eye-opener. ‘Yes. This happened.’ ‘Yes, we’re angry, and ashamed in a way, and happy, but we want to show it.’
“Perhaps this trend will last.”