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I’m not really sure where we’re going this morning, partly because it was late with arak in Hamra last night and my mind is fuzzy, partly because of the bewildering route from Jal el Dib out to the highway south, and the intense experience of traffic any journey in Beirut entails, which I’ll come to in another post, and in part because I don’t think anyone’s actually sure either. I do know we’re going to the South though, and D’s said that Jezzine is one of the few Christian areas there. At some point we talked about photographing here as a companion to the work I made in Maloula, Syria in 2008 and 2009.

Aziz, who’s from here and has brought us all down to see his father Maroun’s land, tells me about the Israeli occupation that lasted from the ’82 invasion until 2000 as we drive around Jezzine town, and up precipitous switchbacks and dirt tracks to the top of the hill above the valley. On the way back to Saida after sunset, he points out a hospital Hariri built which was stripped by the occupiers before they left, the distant hills to the south, and a village over a wadi, a mile to the north, from which Hezbollah fighters would mine the road under cover of darkness, targeting Israeli vehicles and those of the collaborating Southern Lebanese Army. We pass a Lebanese army checkpoint, abandoned Israeli lookouts on the tops above, and drive from what was until 2000, technically a country with which Lebanon is to this day in a state of war. You’d drive into a hangar below the road and switch vehicle plates before continuing your journey either way.

There’s a picnic afoot when we arrive to a pine forested hillside which is being developed as a camping and outdoor recreation centre by Maroun, complete with organic growing, horses and solar water heaters. It’s really good to be outdoors, away from the press of Beirut and the highway, and it’s relatively cool up here at 1200m. I decide to shoot with the Leica M3, partly as I’ve brought film, and fancy a rest from the slight accumulation anxiety of digital, and because it’s really easy to shoot too much with the 5dii, get distracted from just being here. We’re eating tabbouleh, hummus, mutabbal, meat and chicken on the barbecue; we’re drinking arak, measured 1:2 with water from an unmarked demijohn, and the company, view and pine fresh air make the shared meal even better.

I’ve left film in a bag in the car, so I borrow the key from Rea and walk down the track to get it, breaking into a downhill jog; I wish I’d known it would be like this to bring running gear. There’s someone behind a tree to the left, and they shift, it seems, to hide as I go past. I stop, get that this person is tied up, have a framed flash of an intriguing photo asking to be made, then field an Arabic request with my answer: I can’t understand, do you speak English? The scout, tied, parceled almost to the tree with thin jute cord, speaks over the tape that’s slipped from his mouth, ‘Mister, can you let me go?’ he asks. He’s a chubby boy of about 14, frightened and upset. I assume it’s some kind of fun scout game – there’s loads of them about, obviously enjoying themselves with a boisterous range of songs, games, rituals and activities – but he says no, he’s been punished by the leaders for shouting when one of them swore. I understand he’s genuinely done in, and he looks like the kind of kid who gets it all the time, so I decide to untie him. But first I ask him if I can take a photo. He says no, and I posture, half joking: maybe I won’t untie you then. He says ok, I take the best portrait of the last week then I get more and more indignant as I talk to him as I get to untangling the threads. Albert, Aziz and Karim have caught sight of a tree-bound scout, and, being former scouts themselves come down the track to revel in old-boys’ schadefreude; they see me loosing the poor, scared lad and laughingly ask me not to – he’s been punished, you don’t understand! I’m really pissed off now – the boy’s upset, he’s fucking crying, why would I leave him tied to a fucking tree! I let him go, consider showing him I’m deleting the photo, don’t, then watch as his two ‘leaders’, skinny slightly older boys with serious expressions and walkie-talkies come up the track and confront him about his escape. None of this I expected to happen.

Away from the scene and his dressing down, I begin to photograph scenes of the camp site, scratching the itch, feeling my way with compostitions, looking for form. I realise that digital is making me sloppy: shooting more, thinking less carefully. Surely one can fix up. I get a couple of rolls of Poundland 35mm from the car and D is walking back towards me, laughing. Apparently I shouldn’t have let him go, and now his swearing punishment – I misunderstood – will be worse. We joke about the neocolonialist white man rocking up with his arrogance, his ignorant, questionable intentions, intervening and making it worse for everyone. At least he’s learned not to ask the British guy for help again, I say. Metaphorical resonances abound, from T.E. Lawrence, Sykes-Picot, Balfour, to Al Qaida, Libya, Iraq and ISIS. Everyone else is highly amused: apparently my new name, the first of the day before I’m dubbed MI6 for lots of photos and hesitant answers later on, is UNIFIL.

We get back to the site from Aziz’s tour of the town, bustling in preparation for the beginning of Eid al Aadra, the Festival of the Vigin tomorrow, and the breathtaking views over the vineyard and the misty valley, and I sit and converse with Maroun; D suggested I should and he seems to be attendant of our talk outside his office. He’s got some funding support from a range of international donors, and is developing the pine forested land he bought some years ago along organic and socially responsible* lines. The aim is to bring more people and money to the area through tourism as a way of countering the complementary problems of depopulation and poor employment and educational opportunities for the young, who often leave for Beirut, or join the diaspora in Europe, Canada, Australia, the US. There’s no university here, and prospective students from Jazzine aren’t made welome at the university in Sunni majority Saida to the west. He also tells me about the local council’s powers to approve or prevent property sales to insulate the area from speculators, to control the legacies of the land here. The community will outbid offers to those who really need to sell to ensure a kind of homogenous continuity of ownership, apparently.

He shows me the polytunnel full of cucumber and a range of tomatoes, and I see for the first time fresh green chick peas and baby watermelon. He’s getting growing tips from one of Aziz’s Montreal friends, and I taste a few cherry toms and he gives me a stem of hummus to pick the green peas from. Beautiful. Maroun tells me it’s been a long day, and he’s been leading hiking tours round the woods for Saudi tourists since the morning. For the first time I notice evening fatigue behind his generosity and energy. I ask him to pose, shoot quickly, sloppy perhaps, and take my leave in the fading light, go to find them all packing the picnic away.

D tells me later that he’s said not to publish the photo of the bound kid as it’s not the kind of impression you want to give of the place. All her friends think it’s highly amusing that I intervened; I’m in the role of imperialist clown today. Maroun said too that he’d have done the same if he’d come across him, presumably not the prisoner photo part though, and he had a word with the ‘leaders’ about their discipline procedures: you don’t do that here.

Before we leave in the softening dusk, he asks after supplies of local pine nuts and honey, at the grocers opposite the park entrance, to send back with us. The suppliers are shut at this hour, and he says to D as they hug goodbye that he’ll send some after us. She tells him, no, don’t: that way people will return sooner. If you come to Lebanon, you should go there.

Fishing with George

With D and her family I went to the beach. They go to one of the many beach clubs along the coastal strip, this one at Jounieh. Most of the coastline is taken up with private developments, a range of vintages and degrees of exclusivity: this one is open to chalet or locker owners who have bought in for regular access, and who can bring a number of guests annually.

D says there aren’t any public beaches but if you look over the razor wire behind the crepe stand where the East African kitchen worker eats a shawarma, tired in the shade on her break, there’s a stony cove between the concrete platforms of the neighbouring pools, where a car and a VW van are parked, and a guy is sat alone on a towel. You can hear housey music on the wind from one of them. The white stones of the beach aren’t without their garnish of litter and flotsam, and it looks a bit bleak below the buildings behind, half built or semi dilapidated, but it is there and someone seems to be using it. But, public beaches you might go to on a regular basis if you prefer a seawater and chlorine pool to the cloudy sea, and bars and food and company and facilities, near North Beirut, not so many.

This is one of the places her father George comes to fish. He fishes a lot. I’ve always wanted to learn, but I’ve never really taken the initiative. Today I have a go, but mostly watch, between swimming and sitting in the shade. He quietly shows me how to cast, then after a while, how to bait the hooks with rolled bread, and how to notice a proper bite. They’re tiny fish here today, but catching them makes him happy, and it’s infectious. Swimming in the sea nearby his brother and I watch for a while before I join in, and Dory heckles occasionally while we tread water. He tells me George loves fishing because it clears his mind. I’ve always wondered at the guys by muddy lakes and canals, but there’s definitely something meditative about the rituals, quiet, the attention to the float when you wait for a bite that has a hook.

D says the day after he was married, during the war in ’82, he went fishing on the way to his law graduation, with the bombs in the background, and was late to the ceremony, his Josephine worrying and waiting with his smart shoes. We have dinner later, fish he’s caught and frozen, and the story is clarified: it was 3 days after their wedding, there weren’t bombs, and he missed the graduation, presented by the Minister for Education, completely; she’d brought his suit and tie, but not the shoes and there were none small enough otherwise. He grins, happy recollection retold with a wry punchline: he missed his graduation, but caught lots of fish – what’s better?


The International School of Choueifat, Damascus, 2011

The International School of Choueifat, Damascus, 2011

I’m going back to Beirut for the first time in almost 5 years next week, and I’ll be posting from there, refreshing this site and revisiting some of the work I made there, and in Syria. For some reason I posted this on FB as a precis, but I thought I’d put it on here too, so it’s visible off FB:

I don’t really post much personally, so to speak, on here, as opposed to repost, in part through FB suspicion, in part because it’s an odd way to communicate and it feels strange to say public things from a private space, and in part because when I used to blog, I’d do it elsewhere and post links, which somehow mitigates anxiety in front of an audience, and I’ve been out of the mode of blogging about photo work and projects and travel for a while. This might also be because that space in my practice as a photographer has been taken up with Some Cities. But I’m going to blog again shortly, update and revisit the writing and photography I did when I first went to Lebanon and Syria, in 2008. So I was looking back at old posts from Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Hama, cities that I was seduced by, love and love the memory of. I found this: and reading it breaks my heart for the memories of a place that has since been destroyed, people, many of whom are now dead, displaced, or seeking fearful refuge in our corrupt and deeply, multiply culpable nation. I’m not going to say fuck Cameron for his dehumanising comments about migrants in recent days, nor for the anti humanitarian disregard for our fellow humans in crisis displayed by this low and complacent excuse for a democratically elected government. Actually, I am…. Fuck Cameron. Next week I’m going to Beirut, via Athens, in part for personal reasons, and in part to work on a range of things, so I’ll be posting again, with photos. Comments greatly appreciated.

Sao Paolo

We joked that this was the Last Rain, the Covenant over, a Deluge to ironise our British arrival.

Lenghty enclosure, sleep-walking through terminals, interminable navigation of the night-fall city and windows blacked out; the unreadable look of a back-seat child, surely impossible through the dark glass. The sweet-dirty smell of the biggest cities. Whole streets graf-painted consonant in their staging of imagination over the grey walls surrounding. Then a hostal under the rain.

And wake early to snores and rain. Did some computer-work, a deadline materially impossible to fulfil, with the gods of art-tenders now, and me and Leon, into the grey jungle, chasing a legendary street of photographic retailers, our gold a pan-and-tilt Manfrotto tripod head. I thought I was getting trenchfoot by the time we got back, triumphant in our conquest of streets unknown and at least a little relieved not to have got in any scrapes.

Impressions of the city: I imagined a scale lke the Amazon, what it feels like to fly into the city airport they say. But now here, you’re in a place you can imagine continues onwards to the edge of the jungle, but the ring of the horizon is the limit of vision, and ours is a little bohemian quarter, Vila Madalena. Galleries, bars, graf and boutiques. It seemed like a long ride to the next stop on the metro, and out there… it’s big, grey, extensive….

In Vila Madalena no one sleeping on the street, too listless to beg, barefoot limbs protruding from low huddles of mottled blanket, unfocussed eyes and slow chewing of air, but out there, uncountable…

And us lot, busy, excited, tekky, waiting to move out, now the rain’s stopped…

48 Sheet has arrived…

Amongst the many 48 Sheet billboards appearing across the city today, you’ll find my two, on the Highgate Road. Many thanks to Stanhope Hall Community Centre Women’s Group and EC Arts. Check out the 48 Sheet website for the full programme of events and a map of all the artworks.

Steampunk FUNK!

Hello people! These were taken at Steampunk Funk on the tenth day of December, the year of our Lord two thousand and eleven, at bar 78. Brought to yous all by these guys amongst others.

The blue specks on one or two of the pictures are the result of rust from the newly recommissioned plumbing of the purpose built darkroom sink at the Old Print Works, colour inversed in the scan.

They are the first analogue photo products to come out of the place for a long time. I thought I’d leave the rust accident alone as it’s more- well- steampunk, maybe…

I’m doing prints of the pictures for sale: £12 for 5″x7″, £18 for 10″x8″, including postal or local to Balsall Heath delivery. Drop me a line! I hope you like.

from life

on the way to buy fresh vegetables,
sweeping moth powder
from the bed frame,
early morning light
on light switches
on a garish towel;

the sky and the frames of our place.

(september-october 2010, olympus 35sp, fuji superia 400,
developed dusty around the corner for 15p, scanned on epson v700photo,
retouched in lightroom)

Godsiff, Yaqoob and the two Josef(ph)s

I imagine you can make up your own mind on this one: a leaflet through my door in Balsall Heath, comparing one candidate to Stalin, printed by another candidate. Someone appears to be resorting to last minute propaganda. Unless it’s a double bluff.

Is it defamatory? Probably not, but it’s kind of outrageous… New Labour?

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