JOELLE ASSAF: ETERNALIZING MY BEIRUT

“I decided to use photography as an alternative to history and started to photograph the traces of war – to eternalize these places because they enclosed memories, stories, and proof of what happened. In my opinion, we all need a connection with our past, and that was mine.”

 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had to listen to my parent’s memories of the civil war (1975-1990) without really understanding anything. I would ask questions, but the only answer I would get was, “Read about it, you’ll understand.” Question was, what exactly should I read? Lebanon’s history books end in 1946, two years after the Lebanese independence.

 

BEIRUT, LEBANON - ABANDONED HOTEL - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
BEAUTY IN THE ABANDONED – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

I grew up in an old typical Lebanese house where I shared a bedroom with my older brother. Every year, my father would promise to give me the big room that was next to mine so that I could have my own bedroom. Every year, he would say that I wasn’t old enough, “Next year, I promise.” Time flew, years passed, and I never got that room that I always wanted.

Last year, I was sitting next to my father and told him this story, of how my wish every year was to get the room that he promised to give me, he smiled and explained why I never got it. The house we used to own was right at the border of the green line that separated Beirut between the Muslim west and the Christian east during the Civil War. That particular room that I wanted was empty for so long because it was facing the snipers from the other side of the line, and received many shell fragments throughout the years. At some point, my father decided to stop fixing the damages. “I had to admit and accept the fact that the room was always going to be damaged – I called it the condemned room. I knew all these years that I was never going to give it to you, I just couldn’t explain why, you were too young, and I was too afraid to lose you because of that condemned room.”

 

BULLET IN ABANDONED BUILDING - BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
BULLETPROOF – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

That little anecdote says a lot about Lebanese history.

When Alexxa asked me if I was interested in taking over the blog to get a look into life at home for me, I smiled and wondered what my story would be. What would be the look I would give into my world?

So, Jo here, welcome to my takeover!

 

ABANDONED BUILDING IN BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE LENS – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

As a small resume, I would say that I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon.

The minute I turned 18, I decided to leave everything behind, and moved to Montreal – that’s where I met Alexxa.

I moved there for many reasons, but the major one was that I was disgusted of my country, its people, and its policies.

 

GUARD INTIMIDATING AT PROTEST IN BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
PROTEST IN BEIRUT, LEBANON – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

When I decided to leave Beirut in 2013, I made a promise to myself: Never to go back there.

Montreal was a loophole to me, and ended up being the place where I was able to grow into the person that I am today. Four years there made me want to come back home and fight for what I believed in.

 

BEIRUT, LEBANON - PAINTING ON HANDS AT PROTEST - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
NO BLOOD ON MY HANDS – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

For as long as I can remember, my father always had a camera on him, trying to capture every moment of my childhood. That’s probably what motivated me into trying it myself – and I ended up sharing the same passion.

I first started capturing landscapes, then got into portraits until I realized the power of photography in a country like Lebanon.

 

ABANDONED BUILDING, WOMAN SMILING - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

I was working on a research for school when I realized that I had never seen a photo of the famous green line that had separated Muslims and Christians during the civil war.

That’s when I realized that photography could have helped me understand my country’s history. It could have served as a proof of the injustices, wars, conflicts that Lebanese people have been going through for years now.

 

LADDER HANGING IN ABANDONED BUILDING, BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
HANGING ON – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

A few years ago, I had an interview at a history research centre, and the interviewer asked me: “Why is history important for you?”

My answer was that I realized the importance of history with its lack thereof when it came to Lebanon.

 

POLICE OFFER INTIMIDATING MAN AT PROTEST - BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

I decided to use photography as an alternative to history and started to photograph the traces of war – to eternalize these places because they enclosed memories, stories, and proof of what happened. Because it was time to accept the presence of this war in our everyday lives, to stop pretending that nothing ever happened in order to get over it. In my opinion, we all need a connection with our past, and that was mine.

 

MAN MOUTH COVERED - SILENCED STREET ART - PROTEST BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
SILENCED – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

I also decided to move back to Lebanon, because I needed to see for myself what it meant to be Lebanese, what it meant to be part of a blinded generation, but mostly because I wanted to know my country.

So you’re probably wondering who I really am, well let me tell you something, I’m questioning myself a lot too. I would say that I’m Lebanese, but I sometimes feel less Lebanese than other people, maybe because I was raised in a liberal and ‘westernized’ family, maybe because I just started to communicate in Arabic, and probably because I was ashamed of my origins for a very long time. You don’t really choose where you come from, but you do choose where you’re going to. So I would say that Montreal was home to me, for a while. Montreal made me grow up and realize that I was privileged, which made me want to come back home – the real home, because I wanted to fight for my rights.

 

GIRL STANDING IN WINDOW - ABANDONED BUILDING BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
AWAKE – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Having been in Beirut for a few months now made me realize that I’ve been fighting the wrong way for a while – I’ve been accusing the government, the institutions and the corruption in my country for so long, when the real obstacle and the real problem was my parents and their generation that have been influencing us into believing what they thought was right, without ever giving us the whole story. They’re the ones who made us part of a war we weren’t supposed to live, and buried all the evidences and facts we needed to love our country more and belong properly in it.

 

FIRST PHOTOGRAPHY I EVER TOOK WITH MY FATHER - SUNSET, SUNRISE OVER MOUNTAINS IN BEIRUT, LEBANON - JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY
FIRST PHOTOGRAPH I TOOK WITH MY FATHER – JO ASSAF PHOTOGRAPHY

GET CONNECTED WITH JOELLE ASSAF

My name is Jo. I was born and raised in the post-civil war era in Beirut, Lebanon. One thing I realized while working in the humanitarian field is that you can’t change the world, but what you can do is tell stories and defy social amnesia, which I try to do through my photographs.

 

You can follow Jo on her blog www.joelleassaf.com and Instagram @joassaf here.


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