"Photograph on Fire II," The original image was published in the book War Children, Lebanon 1985-1992, depicting shooting practice at the Syrian Nationalist Party’s Lion Cubs training camp in Mount Lebanon (1989) (all images by the author)

On August 4, 2020, 18:05, a deadly explosion occurred at the Port of Beirut. Experts rank its amplitude as the fourth largest non-nuclear explosion in human history. The damage is enormous. Two-thirds of the Lebanese capital was destroyed by the shockwave. The detonation was heard as far as Cyprus and windows were smashed at a distance of 50 kilometers. More than 200 victims were killed by the explosion and more than 6,000 injured. Tens of thousands of families found themselves homeless, taking refuge in other places across the country.

According to official sources, the explosion was caused by fireworks that caught fire in the hangar where they had been stored with several hundred tons of ammonium nitrate. Apparently, the accident occurred as a result of welding work carried out by maintenance workers at the entrance to the depot. Some say it was rockets in transit through the port of Beirut that exploded in the first place, causing the devastating blast that once again set Beirut on fire.

“Photograph on Fire IV,” the original image was published in the book War Children, Lebanon 1985-1992; it shows people living on the demarcation line in downtown Beirut, Lebanon,(1988).

Hence, a fire broke out in my workshop. Prints of my photographic work on the civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1991, in particular from the series War Children, caught fire. Other prints from the Beirut Mutations series also burned. Instead of trying to save them, my instinctive reaction was to take pictures of the scene with my smartphone, as if the fire could be a purifier of all the evils experienced during these years of moral and spiritual suffering. My homeland is dying from an incurable disease — corruption — a cancer that is slowly destroying everything. As I watched all these images burn and turn to dust, I was reminded of the Phoenician legend of the Phoenix rising from its ashes.

“Photograph on fire VIII,” The original image was published in the book Beirut Mutations; it shows luxury boutiques at city center of Beirut (2012).

I was 10 years old when the civil war broke out in Lebanon. Since then, I have the impression that my native country has continuously been on fire and bathing in blood: invasions of foreign armies, (un)civil wars, and historical conflicts. My art emerged in this tension. My work began to be exhibited in museums when photography was finally recognized as an artistic expression. When the Museum of Elysee in Lausanne and the Museum of Photography in Charleroi placed my photographs in their collections in 1990, the label or category “Arab photography” did not exist in the databases. It was necessary to create it and establish its foundations by setting up the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, which carried out the work needed for the inscription of this visual art in the modern era.

“Photograph on fire VII,” the original burning image was published in the book Beirut Mutations; it shows a demonstration following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on March 14, 2005.

When I watch all my artistic work scroll in front of my eyes a posteriori, facing these stories written with light, I question the border between reality and fiction, between a sentiment of acquired experience and a constructed sensorial impression. Isn’t this light / shadow, inside / outside, and reality / fiction interface the gateway to poetry? In the vision transmitted by my work on Arab identity, all paths cross in Lebanon.

Today my photographic prints burn in protest, facing the desperate crisis that Lebanon is experiencing. They also stand against the horrors all of humanity is facing. I want the purifying fire to be able to create a space of hope.

“Photograph on fire V,” the original burning image was published in the book Beirut Mutations; this shows the Martyrs’ square, Beirut (1992)

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Samer Mohdad

Samer Mohdad is the author of six books of photography and one novel, which all mainly deal with Arab identity issues and communitarian belonging. His work has received several awards and prizes and has...