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Lebanese talent exposed at Photomed.

Summary: Non-commercial photographers can struggle in Lebanon, where state grants for artists are non-existent.

SANARY-SUR-MER, France: Non-commercial photographers can struggle in Lebanon, where state grants for artists are non-existent.

Nowadays Photomed is providing an alternative of sorts. Under artistic director Jean-Luc Monterosso, founder of La Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, and his deputy Simon Edwards, the festival just kicked off its third edition in the southern town of Sanary, in Bandol, on the island of Bendor, and in the city of Toulon.

This celebration of Mediterranean photographers and images is rapidly gaining recognition for the high quality of the work on show, its low-key ambience, and for striking a good balance between exhibiting work by top-notch professionals and that by younger and lesser-known ones.

In previous editions, Turkey and Morocco were guests of honor. This year it's Lebanon's turn, with the exhibition "Young Lebanese Photographers."

The show is curated by the Beirut-born veteran photojournalist Tony Hage, who migrated to Paris in the late 1970s. He has worked for many Arab newspapers and magazines over the years and eventually set up the Toromoro Press Agency with Lebanese photographer Roger Moukarzel.

Some of Hage's early portraits -- Dizzy Gillespie (1981), Catherine Deneuve (1983) and Youssef Chahine (1984) -- are being shown alongside the main exhibition.

Photomed's selection guidelines rule that candidates must live and work in Lebanon, and never have exhibited in France before.

"Young Lebanese Photographers" features work by Joanna Andraos, Emile Issa, Mazen Jannoun, Ghadi Smat, Caroline Tabet, Tanya Traboulsi, and Lara Zankoul -- six of whom were in Sanary for the opening. (Andraos and Tabet had in fact showed their work at the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in 2007.)

Photomed provides young artists with an opportunity to rub shoulders with such photographers as Fouad Elkoury, Costa Gavras, Nino Migliori and Bruno Mouron and Pascal Rostain -- the indomitable Paris Match paparazzi. These iconic figures are complemented by younger photographers from Greece, Slovenia and Morocco.

For young Lebanese, such international visibility is particularly valuable, since, as they are well aware, Beirut can quickly become like a fishbowl.

"The public in Lebanon is very small [and] you can get quite demoralized working there. Nothing is moving," said Smat, whose images were selected from his series on Beirut. "This show has given us a boost and now we can go back and find the energy to work again."

Smat feels his photos of Beirut reflect "a republic that has not matured sufficiently since its origins.We are in a permanent state of adolescence."

Jannoun's works will be familiar to some as his complete Lebanese coastline series was exhibited at the Institut Francais last year, and published in a book entitled "Watercolor."

Like Smat, Jannoun works in commercial photography and advertising to make ends meet. He believes that "reportage is the strongest way of putting your finger on a wound to show what is wrong."

Issa's "Shadows Project" is a studio work depicting a beautiful, yet ghostly woman in a dilapidated room. She expresses his search for a city and its identity in a disintegrating environment.

These themes recur in Tabet's "Perdre la Vue" (Losing Sight) series, in which she deliberately blurs images with a slow shutter speed and her breathing.

Following a photographic itinerary that begins and ends with the interior of Ashkal Alwan, Tabet's images depict interiors leading to exteriors. These indistinct visions reflect her feelings about a city she loves to photograph, one being razed beneath demolition and property development.

One of the exhibitions running parallel to "Young Lebanese Photographers" is "Urban Obsession," featuring the work of the late Gabriele Basilico.

In 1991, Basilico was among those Dominique Edde commissioned to photograph the ravaged Downtown Beirut. Basilico, Robert Frank, Raymond Depardon, Rene Burri, Josef Koudelka and Fouad Elkoury produced a most extraordinary body of work that was published in a book entitled "Beirut City Center," now out of print and selling for close to $2,000 on the Internet.

Elkoury, who has trawled his vast archives for an exhibition of his own work at Photomed, recalled how paralyzing and intense the vision of destruction was in 1991.

"It wasn't a normal mission," he said. "We all lived in the same house and there was a natural jealousy in that we all wanted to know what the other was doing and yet we were very conscious that this was a unique moment."

Basilico's obsession with cities and their evolution is mirrored by many of the Lebanese photographers who find in Beirut a city in constant and often heart-breaking transformation.

"Young Lebanese Artists" includes "Stalker" (named after the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film), the first exhibition of Andraos' digital work. Andraos, who collaborates with Tabet in the Engram Collective, has a theater background. This is evident in her unsettling stagings of ghostly figures in a mansion.

Interested in the traces of Lebanon's civil war, she said she was inspired to do the series after meeting 90-year old Abu Emile, caretaker of Linda Sursock's villa. When Andraos asked Abu Emile about his son, he replied that he couldn't remember if he actually had children. "He is the caretaker of the villa's memory," she observed," but he has forgotten everything."

Traboulsi's work explores her childhood memory of a Lebanon that no longer exists, and her experience of isolation -- both as a child immigrant, and after repatriating to Lebanon.

In "Seules" (Alone), Traboulsi stages herself and her alter ego in bed, in her kitchen and working at a table. "It's about isolation, and friendship with myself, about learning to be alone, making peace with it, and becoming strong from it," said Traboulsi, whose new project works with the concept of home.

The youngest of the photographers, 25-year-old Zankoul, has contributed a series called "Tcup." This brightly colored, eye-catching pop art features a friend of hers variously posed in an enormous polystyrene cup that she painted and dragged to various locations around Beirut.

The images represent different states of mind within a dreamy, Alice in Wonderland-like world. Like several of these photographers, Zankoul (whose day job is in an office) is self-taught. She said she's always had an interest in photography but was afraid to choose it as a vocation.

Young photographers may get little help from the Lebanese state, but in France they have a friend in the indefatigable Serge Akl, head of the Paris-based Lebanese tourism office.

Following Israel's 2006 bombardment of Lebanon, Akl decided that, if he couldn't get people to travel to the country, he would promote Lebanon's image abroad. He bet on culture, knowing it would resonate with Europeans.

Akl is everywhere, whether a Mazen Kerbaj book signing, a Rabih Kayrouz fashion show, or at the Lebanese pavilion at Cannes. For Photomed, Akl secured some state financing for the event and also got BankMed to participate. Now, part of Photomed 2013 will be shown at Solidere's The Venue in January 2014.

Tony Hage is hoping that the art exhibited at Photomed will give visitors an idea of the work's "quality and artistry" and lend credibility to a form that was non-existent when he and Elkoury were the same age.

"Young Lebanese Artists" is up at Sanary-sur-Mer's Espace Saint-Nazaire until June 16.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 30, 2013
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