Ziad Antar, the Lebanese photographer who is currently in residency at The Delfina Foundation speaks with me about his latest project ‘A Portrait of a Territory‘ , and how the experimentation of cameras and film have always been the focal centre of transforming his ideas into still or moving images. Elements that have been taken from today’s world, Ziad shows them in their natural state, without any human interference. Through the film and camera lens, we are shown a story. However, he explains that nothing has been suggested or imposed through the works, and that the images simply speak for themselves.
Antar has been working with photography and video since 2002 when he directed his first documentary on the French photographer Jean-Luc Moulène. He has made several documentaries for the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya. Antar’s work has been shown in numerous exhibitions including The Mediterranean Approach and The Future of a Promise, Venice, Italy (2011), Sharjah Biennial 10 (2011), the New Museum, New York (2009), the Cittadellarte, Pistoletto Foundation, Biella, Italy (2009), Sharjah Biennial (2009), Tate Modern, London (2008), the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2006) La Cabane, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2005) and the Taipei Biennial, Taiwan (2008). He was nominated for the Ukrainian Pinchuk Foundation’s Future Generation Prize in 2010. Ziad Antar was born in 1978 in Saida, Lebanon and now lives and works between Paris and Beirut.
NM: What inspired you to become a photographer and live the life of a photographer?
ZA: I was always interested in image. Even before I became interested in still image and photography, I always had a video camera in my hands. So, it started from this need to record basically, without any intention to make work out of what I was recording. But as a first choice of camera, especially video camera, I was interested in this recording (device) and then this increased with time. Especially when I started to work as an assistant at the Arab Image Foundation, working on the series of Hashem El Madani, the work of Akram Zaatari. I had a closer view on the work of photography: black and whites, studio, street photography in Lebanon. I was searching on all the images of people and portraits. I somehow had an idea other than a video because a video is a basic camera that everyone has, you know? I didn’t build anything on it. I was young and I had this small handy cam. So my first experience this, when I was faced with the quantity of images and photographs and a big archive. I started to ask myself more about the image. That’s how I was inspired, and then I decided to study film. So film and photography are still moving images. Like this I built up my will.
NM: How do you choose your subject matter? Is it something that you are drawn to or repelled by and there is a need to share it or tell a story through your work?
ZA: No, definitely not a story. I don’t know how I choose my subjects actually.
I am very practical. I used to make videos based on the subject that was always related to the experimentation of the medium. So, if you want a precise answer on subject, I don’t have this. For example, my videos are always related to music or another type of art. It’s dealing with how to create a video and transform an idea into video. Photography is a bit different but it’s the same way as to how I experiment with still image. I don’t know how… subjects or projects. I prefer to call them projects. I start with something simple related to photography and the history of photography and I build up on it. For example, the book on Sharjah or on the UAE…
NM: Which leads me to my next question… what drew you to work on Portraits of A Territory? Was this something you were thinking about over time?
ZA: I was interested in all the products scattered on the docks in the Emirates. The way they were wrapped like sculptures scattered one by one by one. All the products you can imagine were on the docks. From weaves to batteries to telephones to milk to coffee to clothes to small cars, to anything! They were wrapped and they were handling these onto small boats to go to other parts of the world between India and Pakistan, China, Iran and the Arab world. So, first I am always interested in photographing as a form of documentation and the photography of products.
NM: So you would photograph them in their element without any interference?
ZA: Yes, exactly. This subject interested me, if you want to discuss about subjects, but I arrived to a project by the end of it. The subject of products interested me, because photographically speaking there is this process in photographing products, which is found in my culture of photography in the French school of Patrick Tosani, Jean-Luc Molene, and Jean-Marc Bustamente. And then at the same time it has a very social and economical aspect to it, and also political, that tells you about the trade and the history of the country. So, I wanted to do something around it, so I started to photograph the docks, and when I finished the docks I continued and then this linear thing was the whole coastline, little by little.
NM: In the talk with the Tate (Jessica Morgan) I saw a lot of buildings in your photography – why buildings? Is it for architectural reasons or did you also see them as sculptures just standing out?
ZA: In the project of Portraits of A Territory, I photographed them as elements on the seaside that represent the coast or are found on the coast. They are the urban structures on the coast. It was for this reason that I shot a lot of buildings, especially that in this project there is the aspect of the boom and the fall and this had a direct impact. You cannot feel this let’s say if you go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi and spend 2 days there. But you can feel this here through several elements – one was through the buildings that were stopped halfway or through others being destroyed. So these elements were important parts of the project.
NM: So going on to my next question about that, you showed buildings that were vacated or unfinished due to the fall or lack of resources; were you trying to make a point or poke fun at what’s going on in the world today? So much importance being placed on these buildings and then all of a sudden there’s no value and they are left empty? Were you trying to make fun of or show the humour in this?
ZA: No. I never criticise at or work this way. I’m not making fun. It could be humorous but I prefer we look at these images as a whole. The buildings accomplished or unaccomplished, or the products or the docks, sand dunes, empty coasts, pipe lines, factories, ports… all these are the elements of the whole project that can make a point of view. When you see the whole package together of the images, you would understand that it’s not criticising but it is. It’s not making fun but there might be some ‘funny’ images. I’m not suggesting anything. I am just making a point of view on the whole coastline stating it in its actual status today. I am presenting it as a document. There are too many elements that you can take from one image but the whole should be taken from all of the images. To criticise was not my intention at all. Even when I took shots with expired films, for example the Burj Khalifa. I don’t intend the image to send a message. I don’t believe in this. I don’t do this.
NM: Actually on the point of using expired film rolls and old cameras – do you want to project an image of something that comes from today’s world but because of the quality of the film it looks like it could have come from another time?
ZA: To tell you the truth, this point of view was there somewhere. I took all these unexposed films and with them I took shots of modern structures. Somehow I was re-imagining the time and putting these modern structures into 40 years ago. But I did not fixate on that only. The project, at first, was purely experimental: to make an image a success with film rolls that expired in 1976 and that were badly conserved. They endured water floods, humidity, there was even a fire in the storage of Madani. So in the beginning it was trying to make an image, and then when I succeeded, I was starting to translate this as you said it – imagining it from another time. I also had my own personal point of view, for example, like a tourist in New York shooting buildings or bridges. The form changes, like the living cells that die. There is a living material somewhere and my point of view was living, changing, developing over time – but what you said was part of the project.
NM: There was an interesting point on you never re-shooting the same site twice (on Portraits of A Territory). Didn’t you ever feel dissatisfied with any shots you may have taken and you just had to go back and revisit that site? Or was there that element of detachment, if it turns out great then great, if not then let’s move on to the next site?
ZA: It depends on the project. For example in my project on Portraits of A Territory, it didn’t make sense to. Because I was losing light and the deterioration of light on the image was my direct line. In French we call it “il n’y a pas des photos ratés…” nothing is considered a bad image. I can go back for the whole project but not for a particular image or a site even though this element is important, there was nothing called a failure, I took it as I shot it. But in other cases would I repeat a shot? Yes I would. For example, the images I showed you from the Motorcycles Series, these are my portraits, pure portraits. If one image is not good then should I repeat it? Of course I would. So it depends on the project.
NM: So for you it’s more about the journey and the process and not really the outcome? The experience?
ZA: No, not even this. It depends on the project, the concept. On the coastline, the elements are found there and you can capture them with digital cameras, non- digital, with your i-phone. My project was to work with the light. How these elements produce the light and how that is reflected on my negative using these simple plastic cameras. The images were taken like a sequence. So one blurry image or one badly taken image was not considered bad. I shot it and I continued. The idea of the project… you decrease the ratio of failure, especially in this project, it was clear. I am going to shoot in this way and that way and I discarded a lot of failures, I decreased them. I have 1500 images and from that the book is there, and the story is there.
NM: Moving on to your Products of a War series and Veil series, the subject matter is very clear. As a photographer do you remove your ‘self ‘ and your feelings in the relation to the subject? Are you the silent observer?
ZA: You are saying this because they are photographed on a white background and are taken out of their context.
NM: but they speak so much for themselves as well…
ZA: There are 2 things to consider: taking them out of their context is the first thing and secondly, I step out from putting myself in the story. Why? I take a step backward because whenever you take a camera and take an image, any image you are creating a point of view and you are saying ‘I’ – so you don’t need to repeat this so much. When I made the images of the veils in the refugee camp in Ein El-Helweh, even though the ‘I’ disappeared from the project, I was still present in the whole process. If I agree or not, I am there. My point of view is there. Now, you make another focus on the product whenever you take it out of wherever he or she or it was. Especially in the Products of War series, shooting them under wreckage or in the supermarket or in the hand of an Israeli soldier is totally different than bringing it into my studio.
This small practice of bringing the subjects into my studio, which was the balcony of my house with a white table; here was the subject and then I could decide how to shoot the products, or the products of war. The same thing was also there for the veils, the blue background was a ping-pong table. The Palestinian NGO where I was working received the table as a gift. So, we made the veils on that and that subject is also there in its’ simplicity. But I prefer this vague point of view. I don’t want to create a clear point of view on what I want to say, for example, on the veil. I prefer to present the veils as a form… I don’t find the words but a form that is a representation of the young girls there.
NM: The external state whether it’s war or a football match, is always reflective of the internal state of the human mind. It reflects that. So, when you see all these empty buildings or the veils or products of war, did you ever feel sorry for that object because it comes with its own history in any case and it’s own story. Do you feel a connection to these objects that have gone through trauma and that kind of experience, even though they are inanimate?
ZA: My answer is very short. There is something in photography related to sadness. I don’t feel sorry or pity and all those feelings but there is something sad. I think because with our practice, we immortalise one second when we capture it. If I take your image or the image of this (fridge) we feel that we can keep the image forever. The truth, subconsciously, is that on the contrary you are killing it because you are stopping one second of it. So there is something sad in any subject, so I do not need to add more sadness to the trauma or drama, you would not be able to handle it. It would be too much. I don’t like this. There might be something sad but there is also hope. You cannot imagine the sadness of the images of the veil and how happy we were while working on the images and the energy in the refugee camp. The girls have so much hope. The people there, you can’t even imagine. No trauma or drama. More inspirational and hope with their difficulties, people would like to create and would like to live. There’s sadness, yes but I do not add to it.
NM: What artists do you personally admire and find you have drawn inspiration from?
ZA: It’s difficult for me. I have a lot. In photography I’ve been inspired by Nobuyoshi Araki, the Japanese artist and before Araki, I was inspired by reading a lot of Japanese literature like Tanizaki. I have a lot of inspiration so I cannot take any one in particular. I am also inspired a lot by non-art. I produce olive oil, so this is another inspiration for me.
NM: Do you ever doubt what you are doing while in the process of doing it?
ZA: Sure, of course. However, when I start a project I never stop but doubts do come in sometimes at the beginning of the project sometimes in the middle or end. For example, when I shot the policemen, I didn’t have any doubt. I was sure that I was making something very good and look, the project stopped, it ended up being a failure. When I started to shoot the coast in the beginning, I had some doubt and strangely it ended up as a book and an exhibition and the project that I was very sure of that I knew what I was doing stopped halfway.
NM: What are you working on now and why in London?
ZA: I don’t have a key project yet. I came because I wanted some energy and I find this city very energetic. And I felt that at this moment I want to live this. For this reason I came and The Delfina Foundation can provide you with what you need.
NM: I heard you are working with a camera without a lens, how is this working out for you?
ZA: I think this has failed actually. I can show you some images but it was experimental. Maybe it’s premature to talk about it and I took shots of London with it but I don’t know.
NM: You never know…
ZA: Yes maybe one day I will do a book with all my projects that did not work.
NM: That’s my next question, what do you do with all your film?
ZA: Unexposed or exposed?
NM: The negatives…
ZA: That’s a problem. Some friends told me to put them somewhere safe in an archive. Actually I have them in 3 parts: one in Saida, badly preserved in an aluminium case. Privacy is an issue in Lebanon – for example I can arrive and my mother or sister or brother or father has changed its location and I end up finding this small compartment on the balcony! Another part is at a friend’s house in Paris and a 3rd part is where I do the printing. So I have 3 bad locations, so I need to think about this. But this is how I live actually.
(images courtesy of the artist)