Tour of home

by Yule Heibel on February 15, 2007

In Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award (in Open Democracy), Mai Ghoussoub discusses a rivetting photograph by Spencer Platt, “Young Lebanese drive through devastated neighborhood of South Beirut, 15 August,” which just placed First in the World Press Photo of the Year contest. (Check out the whole gallery: well worth it.)

To see Platt’s photo, either visit Ghoussoub’s article or the World Press Photo Winners Gallery 2007 — all the images are significantly copyrighted, so I won’t copy & upload Platt’s photo here.

Ghoussoub links the image to voyeurism, noting that Helmut Newton’s photos first sprang to her mind when she saw Platt’s image. That insight lets her conclude that our position as a kind of voyeur is what makes the image work so well. Using an artful “capture” of real life, the viewer “face(s) human suffering and does not isolate tragedy from the ironies of survival,” at which point “the absurdity of being hits us in the face.”

When I saw the photo, my immediate response was slightly more particular, and personal. I thought that the indisputably glamorous-looking blonde in the red sports car’s front passenger seat could be a grown-up version of one of two little girls I knew in the late 70s in Munich. Their Lebanese mother, dark and very stylish, is the daughter of a wealthy, well-connected clan with businesses in Paris and Beirut. She ran then (and still does today) an avant-garde art gallery, where she gave space not just to known artists, but to struggling friends of mine. The girls’ German father, an improbably tall and wispy-thin blonde who nonetheless always managed to fold his lanky frame into his Mini Cooper, died in a car crash not long after I got to know him.

From the time they were born, the girls travelled from Germany to Paris and to Beirut to visit relatives. Their Lebanese family was (is) cosmopolitan, civilized, Francophone, enlightened, …and rich. And that’s the Beirut the girls knew.

When they were still little children, Beirut, including some of the family’s favourite places, was bombed. When the girls came back from that visit, they wanted to know why the swimming pools were gone, the promenades were gone, the houses were gone.

Of course the young women in Platt’s photo aren’t those girls I knew in Munich, but it’s not improbable to imagine that they would be predisposed to drive in an immaculate car (except for what looks like bird shit on the passenger door) through another freshly destroyed swathe of the city, documenting from a point that’s someplace between “tourist” and “native” the destruction of the civilized world.

Their parents’ generation was incapable of explaining or stopping the descent into barbarism then — why should they have any other way of dealing with it today, other than as voyeurs…. In that sense the photo strikes me as indescribably sad.

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