The global award in photography and sustainability

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

How do we make images in a country where chaos and ruins are prevalent? How do we report, not only on traces of war, but also on what war and disaster do to the image itself?

Wonder Beirut is an ongoing project based on a series of postcards from the 1960s and 1970s which are still on sale in Lebanese bookshops today, even though the places they depict were destroyed or altered in the bombardments or in subsequent reconstruction programmes. For this project we created a fictional character: the photographer Abdallah Farah.

Farah supposedly took photographs that were used to produce these postcards in the 1960s – and then burned them himself to record the impact of bombardments and street battles during the Lebanese civil wars. The burn marks track, very precisely, where these events happened – for example documenting the history of the first major armed conflict, which started in 1975, in a group of photographs called “battle of the hotels”. Drawing on archives and information gathered from newspapers of the time, the postcards were burned after the event, while retaining the essence of the photograph, i.e. its indexical function, the trace, the mark of the light – even if that light was the incandescence of burning fires.

In the first part of the Wonder Beirut project, we printed and distributed thousands of “Postcards of war” in order to re-inscribe this conflict within the history of Lebanon’s wars and interrogate the way in which this history is written and the moment when it will become visible. In the second part, “The story of a Pyromaniac Photographer”, we created new images, out of the destruction of the existing ones, often closer to the representation that we have of the city. The fire was a way to alter a stereotype represented in the former image while reinventing a photographic image with a new political significance.

On August 4th, 2020, the explosion of a large amount of ammonium nitrate destroying the port of Beirut and its surroundings leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless and killing over 210 people, harming more than 6000 persons was a human and ecological catastrophe that destroyed a third of the city. It also reactivated some images of Beirut under fire and brought back Wonder Beirut’s photographic installations to a current context altering their evocation.

Moreover, following the blast, many of the Wonder Beirut photographic prints and “Postcards of war” that were kept in our studio in Beirut got damaged and consumed by the explosion. The fire had destroyed them once again, and for good this time. Traces on traces, destruction on destruction…

When we received the nomination for the Prix Pictet, we asked ourselves how is our work related to sustainability? It made us realise that not only our country, Lebanon, but also our lives and our artistic practice were constantly threatened. A challenge that reminds us of the necessity of persisting, in our country and our region despite the political, social, human and ecological catastrophes that are projecting us into chaos and anarchy just hoping that after the disaster, there will be a possible regeneration….

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige