My art cannot do anything at all for any cause in the world,” says photographer and filmmaker Fouad Elkoury via Skype from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. “And that includes stopping the war in Syria or helping refugees across the Mediterranean.” Elkoury’s loss of faith in the power of art may be surprising from an artist whose career started in photojournalism, but it is an understandable response to a life spent walking in the wake of war.
Born in Paris in 1952, Elkoury rose to international prominence in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War. Elkoury’s rigorously composed photographs captured not only the material destruction wrought upon the fabric of the city but also the continuation of everyday life among the ruins. Although Elkoury’s photography was published as photojournalism in magazines such as Libération, for the most part these were not images of action. Rather, Elkoury’s interest was, and still is, the relationship between time and materiality: sandbags protecting a shopfront; brightly patterned laundry by a shattered wall; armed soldiers standing before an empty hotel swimming pool.
Door to Nowhere, St George’s church Beirut. 1991. Ink jet print on Baryta paper. 20x16cm.
In Elkoury’s work, the precise moment of drama is evident only as a material trace or a hint of something about to happen. Instead of action, Elkoury’s photographs from this period are imbued with suggestions of human narrative. Tanks, bullet holes and collapsed buildings provide evidence of the surrounding conflict. In The Farewell (1983), a woman pushes a man in a wheelchair towards the edge of the image, her gaze turned backwards to another man, sitting alone in Beirut’s Place des Martyrs. By contrast, The Sporting Club (1982), taken just a few days prior to the Israeli invasion, shows a hedonistic city ignorant of the violence to come.
Since then, Elkoury has made work that charts destruction, loss and the passing of time in dozens of different locations: from Rome to Detroit, Hungary to Istanbul. Each photograph uncovers the physical traces that still cling to sites of violence or upheaval, if you look hard enough: the Soviet military bases of Eastern Europe, now abandoned and part-hidden under grass and trees; a graphitized Athens underpass; the militarised zones of a divided Nicosia.
Burj el Brajne, Beirut. 1982. Ink jet print on Baryta paper. 16x24cm.
In the early 2000s, Elkoury found himself in a creative cul-de-sac and he even renounced photography altogether. But it was only a brief hiatus, and Elkoury has subsequently adopted an expanded definition of photography that also embraces text, moving image, and installation.
This June, Dubai-based gallery The Third Line held a solo show for Elkoury at Art Basel, Switzerland. It focused on interiors shot between 1982 and 1995 in war-torn Beirut and Palestine: domestic spaces such as bedrooms but also an opera house, a theatre, a garage and a hotel. All had been partially destroyed or hastily abandoned. There are no people in these images: their lives can only be guessed at by the places they have left behind; each its own small testimony of what was before.
Opera House, Beirut. 1994. Ink jet print on Baryta paper. 62.5x50cm.
More than any other place, Beirut features again and again in Elkoury’s work. From the Lebanese Civil War to the destruction wrought by the Israeli army (first in 1982, then again in 2006), the fabric of the city has been repeatedly destroyed and repeatedly rebuilt. But devastation has not only been caused by external enemies: the city’s 1990s redevelopment by Solidere, a company founded by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was also hugely destructive. “Beirut has been stolen,” says Elkoury. “It is not the city I know.”
Today, Elkoury is working on two simultaneous projects. The first is a series of portraits of Dubai ahead of the city’s hosting of Expo 2020. He has been visiting the UAE every few months in order to shoot local residents and admits to being surprised by the quality of the architecture and the speed at which the city has developed. A previous exploration of a similar subject (2005’s Civilization series) showed new office blocks and shopping malls rising out of the Emirati desert. With a focus on the construction of the future rather than the destruction of the past, this marks a counterpoint to Elkoury’s usual approach.
Azarieh, Beirut 1991. Ink-jet print on Baryta paper. 62.5 x 50 cm
The second is a moving image project that weaves together twin experiences of loss: at the personal level, that felt by a child for the loss of a parent; at the political level, the loss experienced by Palestinians as a result of the Israeli occupation. “It has taken Palestinians a lot of courage to resist the occupation,” says Elkoury; “it needs a lot more courage to accept that they have lost. The question now is what will happen to those who remain.”
Despite the sometimes brutal contexts in which he continues to operate, there is poetry in Elkoury’s work, and nostalgia—although it is hard to say what for. The way he speaks shares the lyrical sadness of many of his images. If he truly believes in the powerlessness of art, I wonder, why continue to make work at all? “Because I’m a human,” he answers,” and I have to fill my time and not think about death.”