Within these walls

Hurt, hope and healing are among the themes explored in the work of photographer and digital content creator Ismat Mahmassani

Abandoned buildings are an all-too familiar sight in Beirut, with once majestic landmarks and places of architectural significance now sadly just shadows of their former selves. Dilapidated and unloved, many are patterned with cracks from years of neglect, while others are peppered with bullet holes, having witnessed key chapters in Beirut’s historic tale of war, peace and, most recently, a lethal combination of economic crisis, pandemic and horrific explosion. 

Returning to Beirut - her place of birth - from Dubai in 2018, mother of four and self-taught photographer Ismat Mahmassani, found herself walking past several of these buildings regularly and soon developed a fascination with them, moved by the way they’d been left to deteriorate, while gleaming new blocks went up nearby. 

“My friends told me that’s how things are here and that I’d soon get used to it, but I kept asking myself how these once-beautiful structures could be left to crumble in the middle of so much new development,” she explained. “I felt that their beauty and importance was completely unappreciated - that they had so many stories to tell, and for me, photography was my medium of choice.” 

Ismat began taking pictures of the buildings that caught her eye across the city, putting to use a long-held passion she’d first discovered years earlier when studying Law and Human Rights in London. Marriage and children meant time spent with her beloved Nikon was severely limited, both in the UK and in Dubai, where she then relocated. However, when circumstances brought her full circle to Lebanon, she found the inspiration she needed to immerse herself in photography once again, and a narrative she wanted to document and share. “My family left Lebanon when I was young due to the civil war, so when I returned, my love of street photography and the range of buildings I found here, together with the influence of my father, an architect, just all came together,” she said.

Once home and looking through her photos, Ismat was taken by the poignancy of the scenes she’d captured - the emptiness of the buildings, their crumbling, monotoned facades and lost grandeur. “The idea came to me that I could breathe new life into these abandoned places with some beauty and colour from the natural world,” she explained.

She began to experiment with digital overlays, opting for pretty meadow flowers and butterflies in summery hues to enhance the images. Bullet holes are cleverly and painstakingly filled with pink petals, while foliage bedecks a rusted balcony. In other works, green buds, signaling hope, have been added to the bare branches of a tree, silhouetted against a statuesque building, while butterflies dance in the foreground, suggesting hope that a new spring is dawning. 

Ismat likes to describe her work as ‘magical realism’, given that the digital additions are taken from real images, rather than created with paint or decoupage. “I truly believe that walls tell stories and are full of mystery – that nothing is what it appears to be – and this is one of the messages I want to share,” she said.

Perhaps one of the most eye-catching examples is a photograph of a house with a mural of the Virgin Mary on a wall completely exposed to the outside world, with added details of ivy tumbling down the wall and delicate yellow and blue flowers edging the subject. “I was helping with the clean-up in Gemmayzeh after the explosion of August 4 and suddenly looked up, which is when I saw the artwork. It was a very special moment and a scene I felt compelled to capture,” she said. 

While clearly possessing talent and ingenuity – something noticed by her tutor when she enrolled on a photography and digital content creation course in Beirut last year – Ismat lacked confidence, initially choosing only to show her work to a circle of close friends. Eventually she mustered up the courage to print one of her favourite photos and asked a friend who runs a gallery for her thoughts. “She immediately offered to display it there and to my surprise it sold,” Ismat said with a smile. Since then, interest in Ismat’s work has risen, with a selection of her limited-edition pieces in high quality, resin-coated photographic paper now available on ArtScoops. 

Ismat is now working on a new series of work which she describes as a story of hope and healing for Lebanon and beyond. “Photography is an ideal tool for expressing yourself, but what I see will be interpreted differently by each viewer and that’s incredibly satisfying,” she said. “I have stories I want to tell, but I’m just as interested in what my audience takes away with them from looking at my work.” 

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