Tattoos, tans and techno: the photographers capturing the unseen Beirut

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Ravers, semi-naked sun-worshippers, booming queer culture we meet the photographers chronicling a new generation of Lebanese shaking off the trauma of civil war

Parties are a privileged place, a space for exploration, a time for fusion, says photographer Cha Gonzalez. Theyre also the focus of her series Abandon, which looks at the way some Lebanese people have used nightlife and techno music in particular as a release after the trauma of the countrys 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. I knew a lot of people who were either born during the war or in exile, she says. What was put aside during the day came to light and their internal struggles surfaced.

Abandon is a pertinent theme not only for Gonzalez, but for all of the 16 contributors to an exhibition in Paris called Cest Beyrouth (This Is Beirut), at the Institut des Cultures dIslam. Gonzalez in particular seized on the citys dance scene, and later continued the series in Paris, where she lives, because there was something to say about countries that are very far from war as well. The war is inside us: how we feel useless, alone, bored, guilty, horny.

We feel useless, alone, bored, guilty, horny a dancefloor image from Abandon, 2018. Photograph: Cha Gonzalez

Photojournalist Hassan Ammar noticed a singular form of expression in Beiruts Shia community. Ammar had been away from his native country but was back covering ceremonial Ashura the 10th day of Muarram, the first month in the Islamic calendar when he spotted a man with a shaved and inked head. In a country like Lebanon, you dont see people with a face tattoo, he says.

Over several months, he interviewed men at tattoo parlours as they etched images of Ali (disciple of the prophet Muhammad) and Hassan Nasrallah (the secretary-general of Hezbollah) into their skin. The men told Ammar that tattoos provided a way to express their solidarity with Hezbollah without carrying out extremist behaviour. Of the typical tattooed subject, Ammar says: Hes not a fighter, he doesnt hold guns or go to war, but his message is, Im not afraid. Ammar also points out, however, that they dont go to pray. Some are partying every night and dating Their life is the opposite from that of religious people.

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A tattoo artist inks the chest of Alodi Issa with Shiite Muslim religious slogans in Arabic that read: Oh, the revenge for Hussein. Ali, Fatima. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

Patrick Baz documented a different kind of self-expression. His series Chrtiens du Liban casts a curious eye on Beiruts Christian community, clustered on the city outskirts. Baz was a war correspondent for three decades until 2014, when PTSD led him to stop relentless newswire work. After that, he shifted to this series. I was rediscovering my own country, he says.

In looking around with fresh eyes, this very visual presence and signage of the community stood in sharp contrast to other communities that do not have such a theatrical approach to their religion, he says, citing the more discretionary Shias, Sunnis and Druze among the countrys 18 recognised religious sects. The pageantry of iconography tall crosses piercing the horizon line or the circulation of colossal Jesus statues he documented are astonishingly cinematic,as if Fellinis Roma had beentransmuted into Middle Eastern set designs.

French-born street photographer Vianney Le Caers series also boasts a larger-than-life vibe. He was working for an NGO in Lebanon, and during morning walks by Beiruts Corniche became riveted by men he saw praying between working out and tanning. Les Bronzeurs is a striking depiction of masculinity. There was this element of Islam and nudity that was quite unique, he says. These men werent like anyone Id seen before in the Middle East.

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A Maronite Christian woman dressed as Virgin Mary during a procession marking the month of Virgin Mary in Jdeideh, Lebanon. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP

La Caer shot the series in 2015, at the height of the Islamic States power, and the fraternising of the Corniche crew provided a startling counterpoint, says Le Caer, to the fact that two hours away from here, theyre beheading people and all these atrocities are being committed in the name of Islam.

His series proved somewhat controversial in the exhibition: masculine camaraderie in this state of undress has been interpreted in different ways. The social codes are quite different there as friends, brothers, he says of the regional norms, but for a western viewer, it has this homoerotic vibe. (In 2016, the series won second prize at the Amsterdam-based Pride photo award.) The sexual orientation of his subjects is ultimately not his concern I really like the ambiguity, Le Caer says. Although it is typical to see these men at the seaside, some Lebanese viewers were scandalised by the works inclusion and thought it was not appropriate to exhibit it.

Not shot from below Policemen, 2007. Photograph: Ziad Antar

Ziad Antars Policemen series focuses on an easily identifiable trope: the uniform and its role in representing codes of power. He photographed about a dozen police officers alongside their motorcycles, individually, in a studio. I invited them formally I went to the police station.They accepted, but I dont know why, he says. Antar chose to shoot his subjects at eye level, thwarting the tendency to shoot people in power from below.

In countries where there are conflicts, there are so many abnormalities with respect to violence and guns and how people respect the laws, Antar says. You have different criteria to respect the reality of the country. Despite being a documentary series, the portraits could almost be from a kitschy TV casting shoot.

Yet Antar is keen to stress that showing a perspective on a region is not a shorthand for understanding a culture. Youre not showing the Arab world, he cautions of exhibitions that focus on a particular place. Rather, he says, its a way to show what artists from the Arab world are doing.

Its this kind of thinking that motivated Sabyl Ghoussoub, who organised and curated the show, to shake up how Beirut is perceived or imagined, and to assemble the disparate communities he himself weaved between as an outsider (he was born in France but has been based in Beirut for many years). This exhibition provides a visual counterpoint to the headlines-only understanding of a territory, one that can be othering and reductive, and offers a more nuanced understanding of regional complexities.

Quotidian interactions Doris & Andrea, 2018. Photograph: Mohamad Abdouni

Indeed, the thematic spectrum of what local artists are exploring is growing more expansive, as exemplified by Mohamad Abdounis work. His series Doris & Andrea spotlights a mother and sons tender quotidian interactions over several weeks. The fact that Andrea is queer is incidental to their relationship.

The series is part of the photographers pledge to represent the queer community. Growing up, Abdouni yearned for queer Arab touchstones. Of course there was western media, which helped a lot, but there was no regional context for it. That frustration led him to actively document the community. Queer history is rich, but its [preserved] through word-of-mouth stories you hear from older members. Its never something written down, photographed, filmed. I want to leave a trace. In 2017, he started Cold Cuts, a photo-journal about queer Arab culture; two new issues are in the works for 2019.

Abdouni is invested in chronicling not only the queer scenes existence, but also its increasing wilfulness. The community is less and less afraid. The law hasnt changed homosexuality is still illegal, crossdressing, regardless of sexual orientation, is still illegal but were just more courageous, fed up. Theres a desire for expression, a desire for conversation, a desire for change. He was delighted that this series is shown at an Islamic centre: its a powerful symbolic context. But while Abdouni has had a successful fashion photography career with global reach, working on fashion campaigns for Fendi and Gucci among others, his independent queer-focused projects have not yet been shown in his own city. Attention is gathering from outside, he says of the enthusiasm for Doris & Andrea. But I dont think the work that I do is as important anywhere in the world as it is at home.

Cest Beyrouth is at Institut des Cultures dIslam, Paris, until 28 July.

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