First Image Festival turns Beirut into outdoor gallery

Taking place in more than nine venues across Beirut, the festival features 600 photographs by 122 photographers from 25 countries.
Saturday 14/09/2019
“Beirut” by Nabil Ismail. (Courtesy of Dar al Mussawir)
Capturing magic. “Beirut” by Nabil Ismail. (Courtesy of Dar al Mussawir)

BEIRUT - Beirut and other parts of Lebanon have been turned into open galleries displaying photos from around the world in the inaugural edition of the Beirut Image Festival promoting photography culture in the Arab region.

“The dream has finally come true. The idea of having the event concerning photography has been circulating for quite a long time,” said Marwan Naamani, a photojournalist and one of the organisers of the festival, which runs through October 5.

Taking place in more than nine venues across Beirut, including galleries and public spaces such as old souks, the Roman baths archaeological site in the downtown area and Ain Mreisseh corniche, the festival features 600 photographs by 122 photographers from 25 countries, selected from a pool of more than 3,800 images.

It was organised by Zakira (the Image Festival Association) in collaboration with the Union of Arab Photographers and Dar al-Mussawir and with the support of Beirut Municipality.

“When we made an open call for participation, we did not expect to receive such a large number of entries. The response was enormous. Entries came from more than 700 photographers, including professionals and amateurs, from the Arab region and internationally,” Naamani said.

“The final selection of photos that made it to the exhibitions was done by a committee of professional photographers, editors and artists,” he said, adding that the works reflected the diversity of the photography world, including news, documentary, travel, experimental and conceptual photography.

“We can say it is one of the first festivals of its kind in the Arab world in terms of scale and broad focus. It covers a large variety of themes placed under the general title of ‘Around the World,’ has diverse photographer profiles and broad participation from the Arab world,” Naamani said.

Participating photographers were from India and Canada, in addition to Europe and Arab countries, including Lebanon, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, the Maghreb and Gulf.

The festival featured conceptual and personal shows specifically commissioned for the occasion.

One is “Lebanon 1919” showing historic photos of Beirut from the Albert Kahn collection, and contemporary “Beirut” by Lebanese photojournalist Nabil Ismail. Other projects include “Fisherman of Ras Beirut” (Beirut waterfront) by Naamani that sheds light on the dying profession largely caused by the pollution of the sea near Beirut and “Lebanon Prison” by photographer Haitham Mussawi on poor prison conditions in Lebanon.

Naamani said the event is an occasion to celebrate pioneer Arab women photographers Karima Abboud, a Lebanese-Palestinian, and Marie al-Khazen, from a prominent Lebanese family. They played important roles in introducing and spreading the culture of photography in the region in the early era of the profession.

“Karima Abboud was a professional photographer,” Naamani said. “She had a studio in Bethlehem and specialised in women’s portraits. She had access to women whom men were not able to [photograph]. She did also draw and colour the black-and-white photos. It is like doing Photoshop today.”

While not a professional photographer, Khazen produced work including portraits and photos of daily life, mostly in northern Lebanon.

Khazen’s photographs provide a glimpse into the life of the affluent society in the early 20th century as well as scenes from the daily life of ordinary people, their customs, celebrations and works.

With its large scope of photographers and subjects, the festival links and presents diverse cultures through the chosen images, Naamani noted. “It is definitely a platform for photographers to interact, exchange ideas and get to know each other through Beirut Image Festival’s website and Facebook page. It also gives photographers a great exposure.”

The exhibitions are to be taken to Saida and Tyre in southern Lebanon, Tripoli in the north, Baalbek in eastern Lebanon and Hammana in Mount Lebanon.

“Our main concern is to engage the public at large to come and see the photos and learn about the importance of photography. That is why we insisted on having the photos displayed outdoor in public places in addition to indoor galleries,” Naamani said.

“The aim of the festival is to show the importance of photography that documents history. It brings historical moments to a standstill. Photos have a historical value and are still very important in the age of videos and multimedia.”

Building on that experience, the Beirut Image Festival seeks to become a replicable model that promotes photography in the Arab world as a means of communication, dialogue archiving and artistic expression.

For its 2020 edition, Beirut Image Festival will be organised under the theme of “remembrance.” Naamani said.

“It will be about our memory through photos,” he said.