Jack Dabaghian’s photographic homage to Lebanon’s Druze
PARIS - Photographs are a casual occurrence, taken with a tap of a screen to show friends where we are or who we’ve run into. We may be in yoga pants or work clothes. And the photograph is one of thousands in our phone’s memory storage.
Photographs have become disposable but a photograph was, and often still is, a recording of history. Today, that historical recording is democratic. Each individual decides what is valuable and whether to share it. This wasn’t always the case.
In the late 1800s, to have an individual’s photo taken was to create one of the few visual records of a person’s existence. Today, these photos act as historical records.
People who were not photographed in that period left a gap in history. It is with that in mind that Lebanese photographer Jack Dabaghian compiled “Les Maitres du Secret” (“The Master of the Secret”), a homage to Lebanon’s Druze community.
The Druze are among the prominent sects that make up the multi-religious fabric of Lebanon. They number about 300,000 in a country of around 6.1 million people and globally count about 1 million.
The Druze religion is an offshoot of Shia Islam, however, Druze typically consider their faith to be a religion on its own. It’s an amalgamation of other faiths, based on the teachings of Plato and Aristotle but injected with elements from Buddhism.
Defined by loyalty and social cohesion, the faithful are predominately spread out among Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The intricacies of the religion are not widely known, even by many Druze. Only religious figures are granted deeper access to the faith.
That communal cohesion means that the Lebanese Druze have not allowed someone to photograph their community with the level of access granted to Dabaghian. That Dabaghian is not a member of the Druze community makes his access and in-depth documentation all the more intriguing.
Dabaghian said he won access partially through persistence but also because of meeting the right people at the right time. Because of their small numbers and an ever-globalised world, some Druze are worried their traditional way of life may not last.
Many minority communities have faced difficult times in the Middle East. The Islamic State terrorised Iraq’s Yazidi community, while Iraq’s Christian communities have all but disappeared. The Druze are not under imminent threat but there is an erosion of everyday life.
They are seen walking the streets or driving trucks with the men in their sherwal — loose baggy pants — with a similarly cut waistcoat and a white skullcap or the women with a flowing white veil, covering their face more loosely than the typical hijab. These are the faithful and the religion states they will only shed those clothes if their lives are in danger.
Today, many Druze have shed the traditional dress. These are called the Juhhal or the non-initiated and have no distinguishing traits from other people in Lebanon.
With regional and communal challenges in mind, Dabaghian was warmly received by the community but he also had to go through a meticulous process.
“When I first decided to shoot the Druze, I spent 12-hour days in the library studying their history, history of the Middle East and the history of photography,” Dabaghian said recently.
He said the Druze opening their community felt like a profound experience — the most important of his career. Not only was he being granted in-depth access, he had the opportunity to fill a gap in the recorded history of an entire group of people.
“The Druze were barely photographed by the travelling photographers who started roaming the Levant area shooting pyramids, Jerusalem, Baalbek and their inhabitants but not the Druze,” Dabaghian said. “This is the gap I decided to fill.”
He said a modern camera wouldn’t do the community or the project justice. Instead, he used a technique from the 1850s known as wet-plate collodion.
“I bought a modern large-format camera in Modena and got my 1860 brass lens adapted to the camera,” he said.
The result was a sleek but heavy contraption that could capture beautiful black-and-white images imbued with a soul and the rough edges of an era before the iPhone became the most popular camera on Earth.
“People would ask me during my exhibition, ‘What filter did you use,’” Dabaghian explained. “I had to tell them there’s no filter.”
Dabaghian spent weeks in the Lebanese mountains. He’d pick one area a day to set up his camera and create photographs. Photos range from architecture to landscapes but most are portraits of people, including Druze women, who were even harder to photograph in the past than men, he said.
“I’d photograph one person and they would tell the next and the next and the next,” Dabaghian said. He found a willingness in the community and because he spent such a great deal of time, he built a level of trust with his subjects.
Dabaghian developed his photos in a makeshift darkroom he put together with folding tables and blackout curtains.
The exhibition booklet he’s compiled is nothing short of profound. The camera swallows darkness, making Dabaghian’s use of light and shadows feel as though the subjects are emerging proudly not only into the light but from a bygone era. The contrast speaks to being engulfed in a modern world while finding solace in the light that tradition can bring.
My favourite photo is “Hala and Alaa,” showing a boy and a girl dressed in traditional clothing. The right side of Hala’s face is hidden by darkness but the left side expresses a royal calm, as though she is buttressed by the support of generations of ancestors. Alaa is more relaxed, laying on a plush couch, slightly behind Hala. His face adorned more with boyish wonder. Both children seem to understand the significance of what is happening in their own way.
This significance was not lost on Dabaghian, who has committed himself to carrying on this project. He has returned to Lebanon to work on a more fleshed-out book. He said he planned to visit neighbouring countries to meet the Druze communities there.