Growing up in Spain in the shadow of the Lebanese Civil War, Fadia Ahmad imagined elaborate fantasies about Beirut, nurtured by her parents’ stories. Reality struck in 1991, when the photographer came back to the Lebanese capital city: Beirut was not only nothing like what she imagined, but also made her feel like an outsider, who, unlike many, refused to identify with a certain religion or political party. “I realized I didn’t belong here, but to everywhere. I continued living in a bubble for many years, and it is only in 2012, when my project started, that I understood how attached I was to my city and my country, and embarked on a project to try to understand my roots, in order to understand myself.”
This awareness came at a pivotal period in Ahmad’s life, when she felt the deep impact her origins had had on her trajectory. She started photographing the city in an attempt to answer a fundamental question: Where do I belong? On walks long 10,452-steps – the number of square kilometers spanning Lebanon – going from the trendy Mar Mikhael neighborhood, crossing Beirut’s historic downtown, and taking her to the famed Sporting beach club, she took snapshots of her city as if on a rite of passage. Ahmad captured the living soul of a multifaceted city, with its unexpected details and well-known landmarks, its ruins and brand-new skyscrapers, its people at work and at play. Out of these images came a 2019 show, Beyrouth | Beirut, staged at the historical Beit Beirut, a mansion turned sniper stronghold during the Civil War.
The exhibition was later staged at Amman’s National Gallery of Fine Arts, but the COVID-19 pandemic put all plans for the show’s tour on hold. Then came the fateful August 4th, 2020, Beirut Blast. The explosion devastated not only large parts of Lebanon’s capital city, but also Ahmad’s own house. Deeply affected by survivor’s guilt in the face of vast human, physical and psychological damage, she poured herself in the production of a documentary, painting the portrait of the victims, and giving a voice to the Lebanese and to Beirut. “The film is in the continuation of my Beyrouth | Beirut artistic adventure, which sought to document a heritage that must stay alive, a soul that once existed and that must be preserved,” she says. “The neighborhoods I used to walk through on my daily journey are largely demolished. In the film, the city itself, its houses, its walls, its people, are interviewed, and given a voice.” The documentary is expected to have its festival run this spring, and will be streamed on major platforms.
This turn to the moving image did not come as a coincidence, as Ahmad initially started studying cinema, and later followed her passion for photography. “It was the only thing that made my heart beat: expressing emotions through a still moment. My artworks generate a vast array of emotions in the public, always eliciting questioning.” Ahmad has photographed the five continents, from beaches to carnivals to agricultural fields, on a quest to understand the Other. Her images are aesthetically diverse, going from black-and-white to saturated colors, from intimate close-ups to sweeping cityscapes, from the violent to the loving. Yet, throughout her work, she conveys a certain nostalgic feeling, a meticulous attention to feeling, and a desire to make out of the ephemeral an eternity, as if destiny had destined of the subject and frame. Today, undeterred by tragedy and setbacks, the fierce photographer is more than ever determined to carry on sharing her sincerity, and her thirst for humanity through her evocative images.