Poignant perspectives

Spanning the badly damaged Sursock Palace to the sand-dune-like silos at Beirut Port, a new collection of work by the Lebanese photographer Dia Mrad on the aftermath of the August 4 explosion takes visual storytelling to new heights, as ArtScoops discovers

Dunes of Beirut

In the aftermath of the explosion at Beirut Port on August 4, 2020, haunting images of the carnage and destruction were splashed across our screens, many of which will stay forever etched in our minds.

Amongst the poignant reminders of that fateful day were several pictures taken by Dia Mrad, a Lebanese photographer who has long combined his architectural background with a passion and talent for visual storytelling. Mrad’s photos quickly became a major talking point on social media, not only for their powerful portrayal of scenes and subjects but also because of the different perspectives they offered. Several of these images, which included damaged buildings of historical importance and close ups of the silos at the heart of the blast, are now being exhibited in a show he’s aptly titled ‘The Road to Reframe’ at Arthaus Gemmayzeh. The exhibition runs from June 16 to 31 and is free to enter to the public, with the profits going to charity. A selection of Mrad’s work is also for sale on ArtScoops.

Mrad described being given access to the site of the blast at Beirut Port to take photos as too good an opportunity to turn down. “I knew I could convey something different by getting so close to where it happened,” he said. “However, while the south block has been stabilised, the north silo is moving constantly and could collapse, so the dangers there were very real.”

Gibran Khalil Gibran

The silos marked a shift away from Mrad’s usual line of photographing the majestic palaces and other buildings that play a vital part in Beirut’s heritage. However, he decided to adopt the same approach in this new, very different project. “I think of myself as taking portraits of buildings and this is what I did when shooting the silos, with plenty of experimentation, exploring every possible angle and spending a great deal of time there,” he said.

The result is a powerful series of photographs in which the mountains of grains appear as majestic sand dunes, gloriously golden in colour against the towering, ivory-hued silo – a scene he has termed ‘The Beirut Desert’.

Mrad explained that he felt an instant fascination with the site, noting the way that the sunlight and clouds, together with the ongoing fermentation, played with the colour of the grain. “The trees added incredible detailing too, as did the birds, which I discovered were living inside the silos when they flew out one day eerily, like bats – a scene that made me think of Gotham City,” he added.

Trees of Apocalypse

Other photos that will be on show at the exhibition include images of Beirut’s glorious, historical buildings taken before the explosion, as part of long-term projects, and afterwards. Asked how he felt about shooting these once majestic structures after the blast, Mrad stressed that he still felt able to see their beauty, even faced with their badly damaged facades and interiors. “I think it’s because I can still see traces of what was there before - so somehow, these buildings still impressed me, even when broken,” he said. “Also, since we have so many ruins and abandoned houses in Lebanon, coming across derelict buildings is not that unusual, sadly.”

Mrad’s signature trait of finding an unusual perspective in his work is once again to the fore in his photos of the interiors – something he often achieves by working from a balcony or window, for example, looking in, which offers his audience a unique, intimate view of the scene. Skewed shutters and twisted balcony railings beckon the viewer into rooms of pathos and chaos, where antique furniture is scattered, upturned or in pieces across floors shrouded in dust and plaster, under semi-collapsed ceilings. Somehow, even amidst this disarray, there is an orderly symmetry to Mrad’s work – a nod to his architectural background – with key, iconic structures framed in identical ‘before and after’ compositions.

Birds of Hell

When asked, Mrad said that the photos he took inside Sursock Palace remain uppermost in his mind. “I’d always wanted to see the interiors of this incredible building and now I was able to do so, but ironically, only when it had been so badly damaged,” he commented. 

While audiences might not see a link between the photos of the silos and the interiors, Mrad is keen to point out the common themes that exist and the level of responsibility he feels to share his work. “The objective of capturing our heritage through buildings and landmarks remains the same, since the silos are also set to become part of our history in a way,” he said. Mrad, who is supporting the Beirut Heritage Initiative in their efforts to undertake the reconstruction of buildings of architectural importance that were damaged in the explosion, added: “These have been historic times in every sense of the word, and, while tragic on so many levels, I’ve had a front-row ticket to capture everything that’s been happening, which has been a huge motivation to deliver.”

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