BEIRUT: For decades, Lebanon has had an image problem. Perceptions of the country were shaped by pictures of war taken by local and international photojournalists, who were in good business in the latter decades of the 20th century. Now, Lebanese photographers and filmmakers are shooting a different side of the country, using their craft to challenge one-dimensional views of the country and the wider region.Eliane Haykal, a 39-year-old university lecturer from north Lebanon’s Batroun, has had an interest in photography her whole life. “As far back as I can remember, I liked taking photos as souvenirs,” she told The Daily Star. “I’m always afraid of losing moments and losing people, maybe from experience.”
In 2006, Haykal’s photography took a new direction when she started uploading her photographs to one of the growing number of stock imaging websites. In 2009, she chose to switch to Shutterstock, which was fast becoming one of the leaders in the industry. Today, the service hosts 140 million images and 7 million video clips, uploaded by its 250,000 worldwide contributors who make money whenever one of their images is used.
Uploading to Shutterstock offered two main advantages, Haykal explained. First, as each image is scrutinized by a curator, she had a critical sounding board from which she could develop her photography, both technically and stylistically. This is especially valuable to her since she has no formal photography education. Second, selling images via the service provided her with an additional income. This remuneration was initially used to finance equipment upgrades, but it subsequently became a valuable means to help fund her love of travel.
Subsidized by her photography, Haykal and her husband traveled abroad four times in the past year. Although profits from the images rarely cover the cost of an entire trip, the couple said they managed to break even on a recent visit to Venice’s famous Carnival, after one of her photographs sold well online. These are not relaxing holidays. Haykal says she meticulously researches each destination and often wakes up before sunrise to get the best shots. “When there are tourists, you can’t shoot anything,” she said.
Haykal does not mind the extra work. “The idea that something I shot, someone paid money for it – it’s crazy how happy you get.” Her dedication is also turning into critical success: One of her photographs, of a Slovenian church, was recently selected as a National Geographic Editor’s Favorite.
While photography has helped to sate her appetite for foreign travel, Haykal is equally keen to use it to explore her home country. “It’s a way to discover Lebanon. If I wasn’t shooting for the purpose of selling, we wouldn’t go to as many places as we want to.”
She is not just looking to expand her own horizons, but also those of her audience and customers. “I like shooting stuff in Lebanon that people are not aware of,” she said. Often she uses detailed keywords when uploading her images to showcase the country’s individuality. “We have a place in Lebanon where there are flowers specific to [the country], so I bought books to describe these flowers using their scientific names.”
Haykal hopes that showing new perspectives will help those living in the country strengthen their ties to it. “People from Lebanon are leaving the country ... I think when people know their history they will be more attached to where they are.” This mission extends to raising awareness about some of the country’s socio-political issues. Haykal shot a number of photos during Lebanon’s garbage crisis, which she said also sold well.
Amateur photographers are not the only ones challenging entrenched perceptions. In 1999, Najat Rizk set up the production company Firehorse with her partner Mouna Mounayer. Since then, the company has been shooting in Lebanon and around the Middle East, accumulating over 4,000 hours of exclusive footage in the process. Now, Rizk hopes to use this footage to add another dimension to narratives about the region.
The producer and entrepreneur is no stranger to breaking new ground. In 1999, she said she became the first woman to make a film about Hezbollah. In her most recent venture, she and Mounayer have secured funding from major leading venture capitalists, Middle East Venture Partners, to set up TRI-ARC, a stock footage licensing platform for footage focused on the Middle East. The new business will be launched on Oct. 11 at the Business Warriors conference, hosted by the Movenpick Hotel, where Rizk will be a keynote speaker.
Rizk told The Daily Star that there are two main aspects to the new business. She is working with Shutterstock, with whom she has signed a contract to help distribute their enormous archive of stock footage to a large international market.
Besides stock footage, she is also working with a content provider to make educational videos about the Middle East that look deeper than the stories of conflict that dominate international media coverage. One of their first such videos is a video about Palmyra. “We have exclusive footage of Palmyra before ISIS [Daesh], so what we have done, instead of telling the story of the destruction, we decided to tell the story of the glory and the history of Palmyra.”
Targeting the education sector is deliberate. “I believe to change the perception about the Middle East you need to start at schools and at universities ... around the world.” Equally, she hopes that the company’s enormous footage archive will improve regional news media stories by adding a layer of context. “Broadcasters, production companies, they buy a lot of footage from around the Middle East so we’re complementing the stories ... with extra footage that they usually don’t have access to.”
Rizk decided to move back to Beirut from Dubai to set up TRI-ARC. She said the difference between the two cities is stark. “Dubai is a city not hindered by security issues or political issues. ... In Lebanon, the security plus the political scene gives you a lot of headaches and heartaches.” Technological difficulties are also an issue: “The internet situation is quite poor.”
But she is convinced that she is in the right place for her project. “I think Lebanon deserves people to come back and launch their businesses from here,” she said. “The ecosystem is encouraging.”
It is clear Rizk feels an intense pride in her home country and wants to shape its image. “I don’t want anybody to tell stories about us from their point of view,” she said. “I want to tell it from my own point of view.”