Beirut Photographer: Revisiting Stories of the 1982 Lebanon War
A photojournalist returns to Beirut to unpick the stories and people behind his iconic images of Israel’s 1982 invasion.
Filmmakers: George Azar and Mariam Shahin
In 1981, George Azar, a Lebanese-American, crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon.
He carried an inexpensive camera, less than $100 and a desire to change the way the Arab world was portrayed by the US media. He began taking photographs. But within a few months Israel attacked Lebanon and war broke out.
Suddenly immersed in a world of gunfire and terror in an unfamiliar city, George chronicled the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) guerillas, teenage snipers and civilians living through what became one of the bloodiest summers in the history of the modern Middle East.
Now, 30 years on, he returns to Beirut, retraces his steps and unpicks the stories and people behind some of his most iconic photographs – those that were published and many of which were unseen at the time.
By Mariam Shahin
We began the making of Beirut Photographer in 2011, as the 30th anniversary of the siege of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacres approached.
George Azar, my partner, had arrived in Lebanon in 1981 as a young photojournalist. We wanted to take a journey into the past, to find the people he had photographed before, during and after the devastating 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
In the beginning, the plan seemed straightforward – we would fly to Lebanon with his photos and search the locations where they were taken, thus slowly finding out what had happened to each of them, like a detective story. We would look for the faces in his pictures in the Beirut neighbourhoods where he spent much of his time, and in the Palestinian refugee camps; both densely populated areas where close-knit communities have long memories.
What I, as the co-director, failed to foresee was that George, just like the people he had photographed, was also a victim of war. For more than 30 years he had bottled up memories – pushed to the back of his mind, where neither I, nor, for a long time, he had the ability to access them.
In one instance, we drove by the mansion of the late Lebanese President Camille Chamoun three times. On each occasion George would say: “That’s the Chamoun mansion.” But it took him months to tell me, and the rest of our production team, why the Chamoun mansion was relevant to our film.
In 1982, the seaside mansion in the town of Jiyeh, south of Beirut, had been seized by the Israeli army and turned into a temporary prison, where George, along with Palestinian and Lebanese fighters, had been held captive.
“It was only for two or three days,” he said. It may only have been three days but it took him 30 years to talk about it.
This experience and several other similar incidences made our team acutely aware of how our fellow journalists and filmmakers are affected by the painful memories of war and its consequences.
George’s interaction with the people in the film, the people whose lives he had captured with his camera three decades before, was an essential part of the story telling.
Some never knew he had taken their photograph – others recognised him immediately and gave him a warm embrace, like long-lost friends.
Initially George was very wary of how people would react, whether they would be angry at him for having captured their pain and moments of despair in his photos. But by the end of the film, George had developed a warm relationship with survivors that were captured in his images.
For the people in the photographs, a trust had been restored; journalists do not always just snap their pictures and walk away, or think of them as mere objects.
Sometimes they care, sometimes they come back, sometimes they give you back the moment of your life that they had captured. Those moments were important to them.
For the photographer, it was clearly a journey of healing. For 30 years, he carried feelings of regret about the people he never knew or had left behind.
In Beirut Photographer , we see that the old pictures George had stashed away had value to him. His photographic subjects and the documentation of an important period in Lebanese and Palestinian history, now, more than ever, bring into context the turmoil which continues to plague both of these nations.