Interview with Serge Akl, Co-Founder of Photomed
Interview with Serge Akl, Co-Founder of Photomed
Serge Akl, you are the director of the Lebanese Office of Tourism in Paris but you are also cofounder and vice president of Photomed Lebanon. In your opinion how does organizing Photomed or similar artistic activities help the tourism sector?
Organizing any big event which has to do with culture or art in Lebanon, gives a good image of Lebanon abroad, and that’s a key issue in promoting anything positive that has to do with Lebanon, especially tourism. When we organize cultural events of the size of Photomed, which is not only a Lebanese event but also a regional event covering the Middle East and all of the Mediterranean countries, we are talking about something qualitative and interesting. Art may set the standards to the kind of discourse Lebanon can have with neighboring countries. And when the Lebanese and international press talk about culture in Lebanon, and for this event photography, it gives a qualitative image of a cultured and civilized country to the world. And that’s how we can add an extra argument for people to visit us. So let’s say it has to do with making sure the content of international press is not only related to political and security issues which most of the time are negative, it’s making sure Lebanon can fill the pages of international magazines and airwaves and radios and TV channels with another kind of information, a positive one that is of interest to the international traveler. The international traveler may visit Lebanon because of the sea and the mountain and the archaeological sites, but he can also visit because of cultural events taking place here, and his interest for what Lebanon has to offer in terms of creativity.
What is Photomed Liban? And why?
Photomed is a very qualitative Mediterranean Photography Festival created in Sanary, in France, six years ago. Photomed Liban started three years later in 2013, when Photomed central whose aim is to export the festival all around the Mediterranean, asked our Office to help organize Photomed in Beirut. In June 2013, I invited the organizers of Photomed to Lebanon and we started contacting different public and private institutions in order to find partners, and 6 months later we organized the 1st edition of Photomed Liban, in January 2014.
Since then, it is becoming more and more a qualitative event with growing interest from the Lebanese and international public, and from partners who want to become sponsors and be part of the Photomed family.
Do you have a photography background?
I am not a photographer myself but I like photography as an art form and also as a communication medium. I’ve been sponsoring photography events for over a decade now. I really became part of the photography world in 2007 when, after the 2006 Israeli war, and all the destruction and bad propaganda, it became impossible to talk about tourism anymore, and for a couple of years we were not able to seriously invite foreign tourists to spend their vacation in Lebanon. So instead of remaining silent as to tourism communication, I thought it was time to adopt a different kind of approach : an approach based on culture and the arts,because artistic news is always news whether there is war or not. That’s when I had the idea of organizing and producing an important photography exhibition in Paris in June 2007 at the Cité International des Arts : “LIBAN!”. I called upon many of my photographer friends, but I called upon their artistic skills not their media skills. I ordered an exhibit that had to do with the 2006 war but with no images of the war.
It turned into a big success in Paris and when we sent the project to Francois Hebel, the director of the Rencontres d’Arles, one of the most important international photography rendez-vous, he was very interested and invited our exhibition to the OFF section of the Rencontres d’Arles, in July 2007.
So we exhibited in Paris in June, and in Arles just one month later.
This made me realize the impact that culture could have on the positive image of the country. In Arles the response was huge. We had many visitors: big names in photography; all the French and international press came and spoke about “LIBAN!”. And I understood that even in times of crisis we can still feed the international press with positive information from our country. So the success of this exhibition encouraged me to pursue this field as one of the main projects of the Lebanese Tourism Office in France, and for example, we became sponsors of Paris Photo in 2009.
We are witnessing the emergence of a young generation of art collectors do you notice a similar interest in the art of Photography?
This is one of the benefits of organizing events like the photography festival. In Lebanon there are many galleries who work with photographers and promote them to the Lebanese and international public. Galleries like Janine Rebeiz, galerie Tanit, and others, have been around for many decades and they have been representing Lebanese photographers. Now it is true that the Lebanese public is still learning about the importance of photography as an art, and that’s how we see ourselves partners of the Lebanese galleries : in order to promote Lebanese photographers in Lebanon and abroad, and also in order to better promote the art of photography in general. It is true there are few collectors in Lebanon who buy photography, but I believe that the work of the Lebanese galleries throughout the year, as well as festivals like Photomed, encourage the growing interest of the collectors and the public in this art. And that’s why at the festival we try to engage the public with different events like the portfolio readings and photography workshops. Also, for the fourth edition in January 2017, I would like to start building a stronger relationship with all the universities who have photography programs, and organize conferences to create stronger ties with photography students who will be the great Lebanese photographers of tomorrow.
How important is art in creating a dialogue between different cultures in general?
To us it is very important. The founders of Photomed created this event to bring the Mediterranean peoples together on cultural grounds. And in a way, by the creation of photomed in Lebanon, we are building stronger ties between Lebanon and France, on the one hand, and between Lebanon and all the countries of the Mediterranean, on the other.
Photography is a subjective art. You see the world through the eyes of the photographer, through the eyes of the artist. And most of the time it’s a work that has to do with the dialogue between the photographer and the public, and between the background of the Photographer whether he’s French or Italian or Spanish or Moroccan, and the public. He brings his own culture his own way of seeing things and that can only enrich the cultural discourse and dialogue between these countries and the Lebanese public.
This cultural dialogue and artistic discourse promotes better understanding between the peoples of the Mediterranean and hopefully one day between the people of the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, and the world. Communication through art and culture becomes the communication of peace. I believe that the best response to the culture of war and terror is the culture of dialogue and art.
Photography doesn’t have a nationality. It is the production of photographers from different countries and backgrounds, but it is a language in its own right.
Photography has been around in Lebanon since the beginning of photography in the end of the 19th century. Lebanese photography is a healthy one. We have photographers who have their works exhibited in very important institutions all over the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. They are internationally recognized and sought after by museums and galleries around the world. We also have a young generation of photographers who are developing their art and careers in a very healthy and serious way.
And thanks to the work of Lebanese galleries, to partners from the private sector like Byblos Bank and Solidere who are supporting actively the photography world in Lebanon, to the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Culture who both are doing their best to promote photography in Lebanon and abroad, we can say Lebanese photography is not only a healthy one, but also one with a bright future.