Sélim Harbi: Beirut Visual Itinerancy

Sélim Harbi is a documentary photographer who lives between Berlin and Tunis, where he was born in 1982. He is particularly interested in the possibilities that digital offers for experimenting and re-inventing photographic narration. After studying at film school in Berlin, he talks here about creating the series he devoted to the city of Beirut in 2011, “Beirut Frames”. Highly committed to promoting a “southward-looking Southern gaze”, Sélim Harbi co-founded the pan-African collective “Afreekyama” and is currently involved in organizing the second edition of an African collectives workshop to be held in Gabon in 2015.

Q: Sélim, could you tell us about your path? How did you get into photography and have you decided to make it your profession?

A: I don’t know if we can talk about a path as it is still unfolding! But there have been two key phases in my life: the first in Tunisia, and the second in Germany, where I studied. The first corresponds to my childhood and adolescence. My father used to take photos, and I would look in awe at his camera, a 1970s Yashica, which he was very attached to. He would photograph me during Eid celebrations, weddings, and other family events. We would also go to the photographer’s studio, and we’d spend time looking through the family albums. Then I went to Germany to continue studying economics. I took my father’s camera with me. Through its lens I discovered both myself and Berlin at the same time. But it was when I later entered film school in Berlin that I really began to discover the medium. I started to grasp all its narrative possibilities and the world of photography in all its complexity. This phase was a real learning curve in terms of improving my technique, shaping my gaze and mixing with professionals.

After film school, I did a BA and then an MA in documentary photography. Then I started working as a cameraman for television and various other organizations, and finally on my own projects. That’s where I’m at now.

Q: For the series here, you went to Beirut in 2011. How did you put together this project?

A: I went to Beirut in April 2011 with a film camera, a load of 400 ISO film rolls, and no fixed idea. I had read up on Lebanese history, and I had grown up listening to the music of singer Fayrouz, who, for me, truly incarnates this city’s spirit.

Once there, I let my gaze peruse the city. I walked, I met people and listened to them. Beirut is a pretty difficult equation: scarred by the memory of the war, it’s a torn city, but also a city full of life. The contrasts are striking, architecturally too. Personally, I discovered the city through photography. This work thus grew out of a kind of visual itinerancy, out of my encounters and walking.

In this photo, taken in old Beirut (Beirut al Qadima), a child is running out of a dark archway. Behind him, there’s an old 1980s Mercedes and the sun beams caress the old walls. What really caught my eye is the disparity between the moment and this deep sense of passing time. For me, the running child is the incarnation of the young Lebanese nation that’s seeking its path, fleeing the unknown, the darkness, the weight of the former generation (which the old Mercedes reminds me of; my parents had one), looking for the light, for the future. The walls of the old town seem too restraining, suffocating, even if they too are full of stories and life.

For having spent a long time walking these little streets, the walls tell the story of a still joyful and bright period, before coming across a house in ruins, which recalls that the madness of men that has been through here.

In this second photo, taken in Ashrafiya (the new town), a group of Syrian workers are resting in front of a construction site in the new business district. For me, this photo captures today’s Beirut really well: a cosmopolitan town that’s full of social and urban contrasts. The Syrian workers and other immigrants flock here en masse after each conflict that rocks the region. They find what they’re looking for in construction, an area where there are jobs. These immigrants, who dream of improving their living conditions, earn peanuts while others become richer still. Beirut is a “bling bling” city par excellence. So, it’s above all this feeling of the inaccessibility for the workers that I wanted to accentuate here.

Q: In the final rendering of your work, you at times associate several shots, which are sometimes reframed. So, after wandering through the city, how did you work on editing the series?

A: I’m someone who really likes experimenting. Indeed, I never imagined visually recounting Beirut without adding music or ambient sound. When I wandered through the city and throughout my whole stay, I had a very strong filmic impression; I really sensed a narrative, as the situations in which I found myself were all closely linked. A narrative imposed itself, as it were, putting images into place, almost involuntarily. Everything converged towards a continuation, a spatio-temporal continuity. To give one example among others: I happened to be in the street one day and heard kids playing football, then heard the sound of bells. Ten minutes later, the muezzin was calling to prayer. I continued my route, and spotted a mother calling her child from the balcony: “Tony!” I continued, came across a guy who was soaking up the last rays of the day’s sun on his face. Opposite him, a clockmaker was quickly shutting his shop to go to pray. I continued walking and crossed paths with the kids who were now looking for the ball that had been kicked into a ruin by a cemetery. There was Tony, bringing back the ball…

When I was editing, I thus wanted to try to bring out the cinematographic side of this city, to create something where we feel a certain rhythm, the idea being to show moments, glimpses of life and spaces that I saw and felt. I have, for that matter, also created a multimedia object. Once again, cinema has caught up with me!

Q: Which films or filmmakers have marked this cinematographic impression you feel?

A: I think that directors such as Maroun Bagdadi, Ghassan Salhab or Ziad Doueiri with his film “West Beirut”, have magnificently managed to cinematographically transmit the city’s true spirit.

Q: In 2013, you co-founded the “Afreekyama” collective. What are your objectives and joint projects, and how, concretely, does the collective function?

A: Our objectives were clear right from the start of this collective that I founded with my friend Oualid Khelifi, an Algerian photographer and activist: to offer a more profound vision of the South, to look at the South differently. When I say “South”, I notably mean sub-Saharan Africa: a world that’s right on our doorstep, but which we have turned our backs on to gaze magnetically, and ultimately absurdly, northwards. And yet, between North Africa and the sub-Saharan countries, there’s an anthropological, cultural, historical and even religious proximity. So we felt that there’s a lot to rediscover and to say about this relationship, the idea being to find narrative bridges and to bring these two blocks closer together, blocks which are, in fact, a lot closer than we imagine. We would also like to rediscover, to actualize African identity in North Africa, this “Africanity” within us that we know so little about.

To do this, we have created a network of friends and photographers: Ishola Akpo in Benin, Moustafa Cheaiteli in Ivory Coast, Sophie Baraket in Tunisia, Raouf Madi in Libya and finally Mourad Krinah in Algeria. We try to exchange, to communicate ideas and information, but each of us is free to do what he or she prefers, to work with the medium that suits them best – photo, video, multimedia – so long as it fits in with the group’s philosophy: a southward-looking Southern gaze. There’s no hierarchy between us, just a committee that tries to carry out the editorial work, for example, by suggesting narratives, or finding appropriate publications to give us greater visibility. Our office is the internet, our meetings take place on Skype, but the collective now has a legal status and we are trying to create the best conditions to encourage all our contributors while continuing to produce content at the same time.

Q: Are you also thinking of ways to give your work greater visibility in both the South and the North?

A: Yes. Of course, our vision is definitely South-South, but our aspirations are more universal and humanist than ever. Reaching a curious and demanding audience wherever, in both the South and the North, remains one of our objectives, although it’s of course not always easy when you see the way in which the media of all formats function today. Making something that’s been put together independently visible is a real struggle because, very often, our work isn’t commissioned. We are of course well established on the social networks, but that isn’t enough. So, we are totally convinced that the only way to publish our work is for it to be excellently elaborated. We bank on its quality and originality, which it’s possible to achieve by also focusing on ordinary subjects that we thought we already knew well.

Q: Your commitment to this collegial approach does not stop at “Afreekyama”. You took part in the collectives workshop in Brazzaville in 2013 and are part of the organizational committee preparing its second edition. At present, what do you consider the stakes of this collective work with your African colleagues to be?

A: The collectives workshop in Brazzaville was a great opportunity to take stock of emerging photography all over the continent. We got to know the artists and collectives who are active today in Africa and who are doing excellent work. I’m referring, for example, to “Génération Elili” who set up the pilot workshop, and the “Invisible Borders” project. It sparked an incredible synergy between us and indeed we are preparing the next edition in Gabon.

What is at stake now is to ensure that we know each other’s work better and to create a strong network. Then, we will all be able to advance so that the quality of our work evolves thanks to these confrontations and exchanges. So, what I think is important now is the need to create an independent African photographic market, with local agencies, rather than being correspondents for others.

Q: You recently worked in West Africa on a colour series in which you’re re-interpreting the traditional masks you come across. From “Beirut Frames” to this work, to your documenting the Tunisian revolution, how do you choose your subjects?

A: In West Africa I worked on a documentary project that staged people wearing masks. Each recounts a vision of his or her reality on the African continent. I generally choose my subjects from one encounter to the next and depending on my inspiration. I also love dissipating the ambient banality of a situation or a character.

I think that the world of photography is evolving significantly today, and that the economy around photography is evolving too. There are no restrictions any more, no formal rules to follow. I adhere to the idea that we need to re-invent narration today, to experiment with the technical means at our disposal – video, photo, the comings-and-goings between the two, sound, etc. – to tell a story that I relate to and in which I find the echo of my thoughts.

Thank you for your time, Sélim!

-Leica Internet Team

Read the interview in French here. To see more of his work, visit Sélim’s website, or for more information on the Afreekyama Collective, click here.

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