Work / Photography

What Myriam Boulos’ shots of the Lebanese revolution tell us about photojournalistic ethics

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Myriam Boulos

When Time magazine published Myriam Boulos’ photographs to accompany an article about the ongoing Lebanese revolution, social media in the country went off. As is the way in the Twitterverse, people piled in to express their outrage about how Beirutis were depicted in Myriam’s work, suggesting that it was not how the protests should be presented to the outside world. Almost instantly another wing of commentators sprung to Myriam’s defence, commending her vision and defending her right as an artist to capture the mass movement (which has seen more than half of the population take to the streets) in a way that felt right to her. Whichever side people fell on, the backlash raised some interesting questions: What responsibilities do photographers have when capturing monumental political moments? And can reportage photography, however journalistic in style, ever really be neutral?

Myriam’s photographs capture a wide variety of responses to this people’s revolution. There are young couples joyously taking selfies on streets packed with protestors, three topless lads climbing onto a scooter, their T-shirts tied around their faces like makeshift balaclavas, and Barbie-like women, caked in make-up with gleaming teeth. They’re camp, kitsch, playful and fun. There’s a Martin Parr-like humour in their tone and an energy that instantly transports you among the people. Writing as a white Brit, but someone who is also relatively familiar with the city, the images capture something of my experience of Beirut. It’s a city of extremes, with tradition and bling sitting side by side. The images show the strength and passion of Beirutis, and their ability to turn anything into a brilliant party, even in testing circumstances.

However, for many, the tone jarred with the seriousness of the political changes afoot, which have seen the government resign after growing anger at corruption, wealth disparity and the mismanagement of public services. Quizzing Myriam about why her images sparked such a reaction, she says: “I think there was a backlash when the Time article was published mainly because in a way the text misleads my images. And because some of them show violence.” Myriam is speaking here about two shots, one of protestors smashing shop windows and another of three beautifully made-up women walking in front of a flame-engulfed street. Although these are in no way indicative of the whole series, the presentation of Lebanon in this way (especially given many Westerners first think of the country’s 15-year-long civil war) hit a nerve. “Also my images showed people from different social classes,” she says. “These two things provoked reactions linked to classism and representation issues here.”

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Myriam Boulos

When the protests started, Myriam saw photography as a way of documenting this incredible expression of political awakening, largely for herself. “I had to take photos,” she says. “I didn’t take these pictures as a photo-journalist or as an artist. I took these pictures as a Lebanese citizen who is taking part in the revolution in her own way.” Whereas her normal practice is what she terms “slow documentary”, with in-depth research and clear intentions, this ongoing series was different. When shooting on the streets, Myriam doesn’t have pre-constructed images in her mind; her approach is far more spontaneous.

“My pictures are like a collage of everything that is happening in me and the life happening outside of me,” she says. “I usually understand what I was looking for after having taken the pictures. In the context of the revolution, everything is happening so fast and my approach is clumsy,” she says. “The boundary between reporter and artist isn’t clear. It disturbs people. Sometimes it disturbs me, too.”

While the content of Myriam’s series aggravated people, one suspects that it was also her playful, slightly trashy aesthetic that riled the haters. “I would say that my aesthetic doesn’t look like me,” she says. “I am shy and discrete. My images are loud and almost politically incorrect. I use a direct flash to put the light on things that are hidden by society.” The aggression that Myriam faced – and still faces – poses the question: What should reportage photography look like?

A photograph, no matter how naturalistic, is still a moment that has been specifically chosen – above all other possibilities – to communicate a specific narrative. “I can’t talk for everyone, but I think my pictures kind of portray my mood through the revolution,” she says. “It’s a mood I wouldn’t even know how to describe right now. It is very contradictory, we don’t even have the time to put it into words or articulate what we are feeling.” In some ways the diversity of Myriam’s images – depicting violence and goofy celebrations, but also people doing normal things like smoking and taking selfies – makes them a more honest depiction of the mass movement (which included people from all walks of life) than a worthy, serious and far more predictable realism, itself tailored to a specific type of headline.

“I think that photographers have a responsibility,” continues Myriam. “I think that we all have a responsibility, because we are the revolution. But should this responsibility affect self-expression? Photography has always been my way of participating in life. My way of questioning society, its people and my place among them, and also resisting society, and in this case, the government. I think the backlash is very interesting in this context, but none of this justifies the bullying.”

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Myriam Boulos

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Myriam Boulos