Ségolène Ragu’s vivid portrayal of the Semiramis shows us the conditions in Lebanon during economic crisis
Only able to document a handful of residents, the photojournalist was initially worried that the project may look overly architectural, but the history of the people shines through.
- Yaya Azariah Clarke
- 1 August 2023
No matter how grand or obscure, we can always trust a building to tell us the history of a people. In Beirut, Lebanon, lies Semiramis, a once luxury and iconic structure turned to ruin due to the country’s economic crisis. Photojournalist Ségolène Ragu is bringing this building to light with her fervent documentation. Within her series, she captures the eroding exterior and warm interior with equal care – from worn pillars and smashed windows, to images of front rooms that tell an intergenerational story. All stemming from her childhood memories of summers in Lebanon, a home away from her hometown in France, she immortalises the stories of people who have seen much strife, and are now seeing threats of eviction. “Collectively, they’ve all been through situations that tell a part of the history of Lebanon – the supposed ‘golden age’, the civil war, exile, political assassinations, uprisings, and the consequences of the economic crisis that is still worsening, but also the story of family and sacrifice,” she tells us.
There is nothing like a cause that stirs you so profoundly that it changes the course of your life and purpose. In 2019, Ségolène was working at a local cinema and began documenting the uprisings – known as the 17 October Revolution. The report doesn’t just capture outrage and flames, but it shows us the quiet moments, with people in tents camping out and a group of raised flags, plus the camaraderie and commitment among the people. “This is when I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist,” she tells us. “My family also spoke to me a lot about the Lebanese Civil War and I wanted to understand what they had been through since then,” she adds. Ever since, she has had a particular focus on the fallout of these historical moments, placing them in the context of everyday life.
Ségolène was initially approached by French journalist and former Lebanon correspondent Thomas Abgrall for the project. “I was initially drawn to the building for its history.” One of our greatest shocks was that Ségolène didn't approach Semiramis with any visual expectation or plan – especially given its cinematic feel, and soothing and consistent palette. “This aesthetic matched because there was rarely electricity in the stairs, so the place was always quite dark,” she tells us. “In places there would be electricity or daylight but some of the inhabitants would choose to close their curtains, and I’d go with it. I always want the project to be representative of the inhabitants’ actual life.”
Semiramis has 22 apartments and only eight are currently occupied, but that doesn’t make for a scant project, it gives us a more intimate portrait into the lives of the residents. “Some of the neighbours didn’t want to be photographed for privacy concerns or because they didn’t want to get in trouble with their owners. This was a bit challenging because I don’t want the photos to be only architectural.”
When we come across news of turmoil and upheaval in cities and countries outside of our own, it can go by in a flash as we follow the beat of the cycle. It’s no wonder that Ségolène’s work is so faithfully vivid, as she is on a journey of filling in the gaps of her own history – and it is a journey that will surely continue to stir our memories.
GallerySégolène Ragu: Semiramis (Copyright © Ségolène Ragu)
Ségolène Ragu: Semiramis (Copyright © Ségolène Ragu)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.