Surveying the damage to the Arab Image Foundation offices. Courtesy Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

The year 2020 will be remembered as a long string of tears. We haven’t yet caught our breath and another tragedy strikes. We tense our shoulders waiting for the next hit. On August 4, as we were just over halfway through this terrible year, images of pain, of Beirut in ruins, already a familiar scene, returned on our screens. I learned the news from a post by Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari: it showed the yellow-orange column of smoke caused by the explosion of about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the city’s port. “Two major explosions in Beirut… I am safe,” his caption read, already accompanied by more than 300 frantic comments.

Akram Zaatari: I was making tea in the kitchen when I heard a very acute and deep explosion. As I was heading carefully to the main living space, the shock wave reached my building accompanied by a loud roar. I threw myself onto the floor to realize the earth was shaking. All sliding doors giving northeast broke immediately and the main door to my apartment as well. The moment I stood up, I headed towards the broken glass and saw this giant terrifying cloud. It was too beautiful. I took three photos of it and a few of the damage at home and posted them as a way to say I’m safe, I have survived the explosion. Today, Instagram and Facebook are no longer only platforms for photography, they are Photography. I do not make the distinction anymore between taking a picture and diffusing it. Diffusing photographs has become an inherent function even in a camera.

Born in Saida, southern Lebanon, in 1966, Zaatari is part of a generation of artists whose childhood and adolescence were indelibly marked by the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990). Made of photographs, films, and installations, his work questions the production and circulation of images in the Middle East through a permanent tension between history and memory. He’s received international acclaim—his work is in most of the major international collections including MoMAand he represented Lebanon at the International Venice Biennale in 2013. Yet because he is deeply involved in the reconstruction of artistic and cultural infrastructures in Lebanon, including the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), he chose to stay in the city.

Akram Zaatari: Today people in Lebanon are outraged. They can’t believe that such an explosive material has been sitting in Beirut’s port for seven years. They can’t believe how irresponsible the whole administration of the crisis has been. They can’t believe the absence of the state while dealing with the crisis even two weeks after the explosion. Starting the next day, people were busy cleaning and helping others to clean and move rubble out of the way.

During his life, Zaatari has had some experience with explosions. He knows they can have a sort of spectacular, photogenic quality. At the age of 16, during the war, he photographed the bombing of Saida by the Israeli military. Years later, he returned to these images and transformed them into a large photograph: Saida June 6th, 1982. On August 4, when his post appeared on my phone, I first thought that he went back once again to his archives to continue to revisit his memory of the war. This was not the case.

Akram Zaatari: At 16, I was interested in capturing explosions while learning to use my father’s range finder as an exercise in capturing the decisive moment. At 36, through my art practice, I was interested in the impossibility of giving justice to the experience of “witnessing” explosions through simple photographic captures. Photographs always fell short in reproducing such an experience, fell short in reproducing the accelerated heartbeat and adrenaline rush that accompanies massive explosions! It’s why Saida June 6th, 1982 was an assemblage of many explosions that took place within five or 10 minutes, and which I had captured from my balcony on the first day of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. I reassembled them into one moment, one image, to amplify the effect of single explosions and bring the whole to the height of what I had experienced. It’s a reflection that can only take place at a distance from the event, and that process happened when I was making my film This Day (2003).

Back to the anatomy of explosions. At school, we learned that light travels at a different speed than sound, and the most typical examples given to us were thunder and lightning, because the sound always comes a bit later after lightning. But in a war-torn context like Lebanon’s, teachers also gave explosions as examples as well! If you witness an explosion, you hear the blast only some moments later. It is the application of simple physics. This time lapse between the image of an action and the sound it produces is primary to understanding what you witnessed and even calculating how far you were from the event. This time lapse to an explosion is like the hidden parts of a house that extend behind the tree in a photo, but that you know is there even if you do not see it. You know that there is a sound to the explosion that you just saw, but you also know well that the sound will take a moment to get to you. It’s like a cut in a film that binds two moments one to another while hinting at a hidden time in between. It’s this fold that will help you deconstruct an explosion. Nevertheless, in the Beirut port explosion, there was yet an additional dimension to consider.

This is an explosion that sounded far but exceptionally strong (it seemed nothing to worry about in my experience given that it was distant). However, the explosion triggered very large quantities of ammonium nitrate to blow up within a fragment of a second, which generated the white hemispherical cloud that’s quite apocalyptic and that disappeared within seconds, transforming into a destructive wave that hit the city all at once within at least a five-kilometer radius. After studying the images of the explosion, comparing them with what I experienced three kilometers away, I came to the following conclusion: The sound of the explosion travelled naturally at sound speed but the destructive shockwave that resulted from the explosion of ammonium nitrate (or else) and which started at supersonic speed began to lose momentum and was dampened as it traveled and destroyed all that it hit on its way. Consequently, it ended up traveling slower than the sound of the explosion that triggered it. At Beirut’s port the time-lapse between the explosion and the chemical blow was about a third of a second. Three kilometers away I heard a very loud and deep explosion that was quite a familiar sound that you’ve heard before. But 15 seconds later a destructive pressure wave hit. It was producing its own sound, made from walls collapsing and glass breaking, as it was moving away from the epicenter. This is why some people said they heard two explosions, others said they heard airplanes because that sound was similar to airplane humming or roaring. The effect of that destructive wave was similar to one of a tsunami after an earthquake.

Akram Zaatari. Saida June 6th, 1982. 2006

Akram Zaatari. Saida June 6th, 1982. 2006

Damage to the Arab Image Foundation’s Beirut offices

Damage to the Arab Image Foundation’s Beirut offices

In 1997, Akram Zaatari, Fouad Elkoury, and Samer Mohdad created the Arab Image Foundation (AIF). The goal of this Beirut-based nonprofit organization is to preserve the visual memory of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. To this end, they have undertaken an extraordinary work of preserving photographers’ archives, studio portraits, family albums, and other documents. The Foundation maintains a collection of over 500,000 photographs. Along with its conservation mission, AIF continues to initiate ambitious projects. The team, composed of a new generation of artists and researchers like Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, chair or the board of directors, and preventive photography conservator Rachel Tabet, suffered the full brunt of the August 4 explosion.

Rachel Tabet: We are all traumatized but determined to recover so we can continue our mission. Some of us had our houses destroyed, some were injured, and some lost people we love. Due to our close proximity to the blast site, the AIF building was severely damaged. At the office, the preservation department and the cool storage room, which houses our collections, took the heaviest damage. Despite the chaos and terror right after the blast, two of our team members were able to get to the office and secure our digital assets. The next morning, we were at the office to start cleaning.

It took us 10 days to clean the office and secure the collections. Our digitization lab has been turned into a makeshift storage area with minimal climate control, where all the collections now reside. We are currently assessing the extent of the damage to the collections, but so far it seems to be minimal. We are also working on rehabilitating the office and repairing the damage to our library which contains over 2,000 books. Together with 16 volunteers, we cleaned the books in our library one by one to remove dust and glass shards. More than two weeks later, we are still trying to maintain a balance between our duty to the collections, and acknowledging our shared and individual traumas, and the toll the explosion and its aftermath have taken on us.

Most institutions in charge of preserving large patrimony have an emergency plan in the event of a crisis. It has usually been prepared in quiet times in the hopes that it will never happen. And if, unfortunately, a disaster strikes, the problem lies in the gap between what was planned and what actually happens.

Rachel Tabet: We have been adapting to constant changes in Lebanon since the revolution in October 2019. When the pandemic reached the country in March 2020 and we had to work from home, we took it as an opportunity to revise and update our emergency plan, developed in 2014, because we knew we needed to be prepared for anything. When we went back to work, we made sure that preventive measures were taken and the collections were secured. Practicing preventive conservation over the years has gone a long way towards protecting the collections. For instance, all the heavy boxes in storage were placed on lower shelves, fragile materials like glass plates were secured with tightropes. Although the drywall collapsed and toppled the cupboards one atop the other, most of the boxes did not move. The boxes that did move were light in weight, and did not cause damage to other boxes. From what we have seen so far, the boxes took most of the damage on the outside, but the photographs and negatives, and even the glass plates are intact.

On the other hand, we failed to foresee something of this magnitude happening to the entire city all at once. We have always considered the risks to the collections, the premises, and the surrounding area, but not to the whole city and to such an extent. For instance, we had an evacuation route and meeting point set up, but the amount of destruction made it impossible for the entire team to convene in one place. We had a plan to evacuate the collections to a neighboring institution, the Sursock Museum, but this is proving difficult since the blast inflicted heavy damage to many of the city’s cultural initiatives, the museum included. It was still able to host our digital assets right after the blast, however.

We are still trying to maintain a balance between our duty to the collections, and acknowledging our shared and individual traumas.

Rachel Tabet

In a crisis situation, we are often inclined to think that responding to emergencies is enough to get us back to normal. But in the case of Beirut, emergency is a notion that must be thought of in the long term.

Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh: We are considering moving from our space. We need to find another appropriate space for the foundation. We will have to rebuild our cold storage room, which was completely destroyed. And we would like to do this taking into consideration all the challenges we were facing before the blast. These are related to the lack of electricity, but also to more conceptual questions like the reorganization of collections in the cold storage room. We have to rethink what it means practically and materially to preserve photographs, to generate critical thought and knowledge through them in a country like Lebanon today, given its economic and political instability.

We also need to replace all our digitization equipment and computers to be able to get back to the projects we were working on before the blast. The explosion paralyzed everything, and the intense dedication to the emergency response is exhausting. Nowadays, we are surrounded by many who show their solidarity, and we are deeply grateful for this support. But what will happen in a few weeks? The problems will not be solved, but Beirut will not be part of the focus of people’s attention anymore, especially when so many places these days need the world’s attention. The explosion in Beirut seems to be just the cherry on the cake of disasters.

AIF is a unique cultural institution. Its collections of vernacular photographs taken by ordinary inhabitants of the city, and also the projects intended to make them accessible to the public, were built by artists like Zaatari, Walid Raad, Fouad Elkoury, Lara Baladi, Yto Barrada, and Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, among others. Their work is remarkable not only for its professional standards, but also for the freedom and inventiveness with which it helped in rethinking the notion of collection. Their understanding of the photographic material constituted a true lesson for many historians and curators around the world. I still vividly remember my visit to the Grey Art Gallery in New York, back in 2005, and the breathtaking exhibition Mapping/Sitting, organized by Zaatari and Raad and featuring works from the AIF collection. Far from official narratives and museum orthodoxy, their approach to the photographic archive allowed them to write a history that was at the same time innovative, critical, and sensitive.

Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh: We would like to propose those touched by the blast to bring their damaged photographs for preservation treatment or digitization, or to deposit them until they find a new home. We need to discuss more in detail how this project can be made possible. Until now, we have all been completely absorbed by the emergency response. We are a small team of five employees. One is still recovering from his injuries. The board of directors is also working full-time with the foundation these days. And I think we have to be careful not to expect too much from ourselves in this already very challenging and emotionally draining situation.

We are also trying to help and work with smaller institutions or projects, who have paper-based archives, and who need our advice on how to clean, re-house, and preserve their collections. But we think it is our responsibility to collect personal histories through photographs or images more generally, of what has been happening in Beirut and Lebanon during the past year. We hope that collecting these histories can contribute to reflecting and making visible the problems the country is confronted with. All the recent events, the blast included, show that the neoliberal system we are living in is not working for the majority of the people.

All the recent events, the blast included, show that the neoliberal system we are living in is not working for the majority of the people.

Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh

After the August 4 explosion, Zaatari went rapidly to the Foundation, located in the Gemmayze district, less than a kilometer from the explosion. In the building shaken by the blast, he photographed the doors torn apart, the offices littered with shattered glass, and the devastated cold storage. Western art history is full of great examples of depictions of sudden eruptions of chaos into the quietness of domestic spaces, from the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder to Jeff Wall’s Destroyed Room. However, it is rare to see the heart of an institution holding such a valuable collection in disarray.

Akram Zaatari: The cool storage is the center of gravity of the Arab Image Foundation, its nucleus, its capital, and its most protected space. It’s a controlled climate, the safety of which is unnegotiable. Therefore, it is unimaginable for me to see a cool storage space in this condition. I had filmed that cool storage twice for my own projects (On Photography, People and Modern Time, 2010, and Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2015). That cool storage has become iconic in my own work. I was devastated when I saw it but did not want to share until I saw that the Arab Image Foundation team shared its own photos of it, so I decided to share mine as well.

During the Civil War and in the years that followed, Beirut was the site of modern ruins in the collective psyche. At the time, the Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé asked Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Gabriele Basilico, and a few others to come to photograph Beirut. Published in 1991, Beirut City Center, the book that resulted from this project, along with the endless looping images from the press and television, contributed to the lasting inscription of the city as a symbol of urban destruction. The Arab Image Foundation project was partly constructed in opposition to this iconography. By collecting pre-war images, studio portraits, family snapshots, and wedding photos, AIF repopulated the empty ruins and participated in a visual reconstruction of Lebanon. However, the images of a devastated Beirut have fiercely resurfaced since August 4, as if the city was once again haunted by the ghost of destruction.

Akram Zaatari: It looks like Beirut is a prisoner of its image as a destroyed, war-torn city. Images of great violence get more widely distributed than images of prosperous societies. It is how stereotypes find ways to become iconic, in the sense that they find niches in the imagination of a People, the imagination of a Time, of a location. They get burned into our memory and affect how we perceive other things in the light of what we witnessed. They shape our fears and seem to refer to future violence. And most importantly these icons get activated in the light of actual events. The Beirut explosion reminds some of Hiroshima given the shape of fumes (I find incomparable), or Oklahoma City given the substance that exploded, and reminds others of the Hariri assassination in 2005, or the burning of Beirut’s port in 1975. Photography has a great role in facilitating and accelerating such a process of making certain images iconic.

Historically, Beirut proved easy to fall into ruins. Its location within the Levant Fault System on one hand, its position in between civilizations often in conflict with one another, make it subject to either earthquakes or clashes and wars. Its small size and the multiple regional affiliations of its people form both its fragility and its strength. History testifies it has been destroyed completely and rebuilt again seven times in the last 5,000 years. The last destruction wave reached Beirut at the height of its fame, at the height of its modern period. Was the civil war that struck Lebanon one of the side effects of a modernity that Lebanon developed with no rules and no restrictions to its financial sector to urban development or to the right to arms? Or was it simply an ill-development of a modern state, broken by the regional forces active on it? In both cases, the image of ruins will continue to hit Beirut, like a recurring image, or an afterimage that gets activated in the light of actuality. Is this port explosion an augmented comeback of the 1975 fire that devastated the Beirut port? Or are both an outcome of the similar climates given a political system that can only thrive in the absence of transparency? It’s hard to distinguish an image from its afterimage, like distinguishing the sound of an explosion from its resulting shockwave. What is clear to me is that an artist’s reflection is rooted in the lag between these doubles; a presence, its shadow, an action and its sound, an explosion and its destructive wave.

Jeff Wall. The Destroyed Room. 1978

Jeff Wall. The Destroyed Room. 1978

Akram Zaatari is an artist and one of the three founders of the Arab Image Foundation. Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh is an artist, researcher, and chair of the Board of Directors of the Arab Image Foundation. Rachel Tabet is a preventive photographs conservator at the Arab Image Foundation.

To learn more about the origins of the Arab Image Foundation, read our 2013 interview with Akram Zaatari.