Directions Beirut-style: turn right at the beginning of Hamra Street opposite the Ministry of Tourism and after the little place that sells knafeh, walk towards Clemenceau past the Wardiyeh gas station, then make a left turn at the adjacent interior design store to end up in front of a small, bright yellow house with beautiful green shutters, half hidden among the surrounding houses. You have found Dar al-Mussawir, literally “The Photographer’s House,” a new space for photography and photo enthusiasts.
When visiting the Dar on a late December day, there are lots of things going on already, although the place has not officially opened. There have been two rounds of workshops and a third is starting this week. Participants can choose from three different courses: Introduction to photography, Black and white photography and Photoshop for photography. All the workshops are held upstairs in the yellow house, where facilities include a dark room, a studio, printing facilities and training rooms. Downstairs a café will open soon, with a gallery space for local artists to showpiece their work.
Dar al-Mussawir is the creation of people from Zakira, an NGO started in 2007. Zakira, which means “Memory” in Arabic, works with the aim of promoting and preserving the value of photography and images in society. They have done two major projects already: Lahza, “Moment” in Arabic, in which Palestinians kids from Lebanon’s refugee camps were taught basic photography skills, and After Lahza which organised advanced photo workshops for 250 Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers across the country. Zakira’s third and current project is to provide young people with resources for developing their skills, such as setting up studios in Lebanon’s major cities. Ramzi Haidar and Ibrahim Dirani, both part of Zakira, spoke to Mashallah about their work with Dar al-Mussawir.
Haidar is a renowned Lebanese photographer who has travelled the world working for Reuters, Gemma, and 25 years for AFP. Creating Dar al-Mussawir was his idea, and it came out of a vision of creating a place for people to meet around photography. Finding a suitable place was a challenge: Haidar and the others searched for a long time in order to find the house. “I had coffee with a friend one day in Hamra when I heard about this place being empty,” says Haidar. “It’s 75 years old, and was in a neglected and run-down state when we moved in. We renovated and painted it, and fixed everything.”
He continues: “Now, the place brings new life to the neighbourhood. The neighbours love how it’s turned out, and passersby who see the yellow façade from the street often stop by. It’s unique in Beirut, really.” Indeed, at a time when many of Beirut’s old houses are being demolished to make way for new buildings — the worst sort of trading a city’s soul and heritage for instant profit — initiatives like these are important.
The restoration aspect aside, it is photography that’s at the center of Dar al-Mussawir’s work. “The house is a space where people can meet, work, learn, teach and talk about photography, and where they can show and get feedback on their work,” says Dirani. “We want to create a place to deal with images as stories. The classical meaning of photography, if you like, where photos convey messages. Because, although there is a growing interest in society for photography, there is less real discussion about photos.”
In contrast to galleries whose main aim is to showpiece works, Dar al-Mussawir is intended to be a dynamic space. Lining the walls are shelves with an impressive collection of old cameras and accessories, most of them from Haidar’s own collections. Visitors who don’t have their own equipment are welcome to make use of the Dar’s cameras. In addition to that, Haidar and Dirani offer their feedback and advice. There is also a small but growing library with photo-related books and magazines that are donated or deposited by people who support the house. Finally, opposite the library is something rare to this digital age: development facilities for black and white photography. “Black and white is an art,” says Dirani. “And it’s great for learning about photography. But not many people are into it, because there hasn’t been a place for it in Beirut. Now, people can come here!”
Although the place has not had its opening yet, people already come here to meet and work. “So far, we’ve relied on networking and word of mouth,” says Dirani. “But in a month or so, when the café downstairs is open, we’ll have an opening for the whole house.” In the future, both him and Haidar hope that Dar al-Mussawir will evolve as a place and meeting point.“I hope to see some really good work coming out of here,” says Dirani, “and to be part of bringing the art of photography back to the centre of the cultural world.” Haidar envisions similar things: “I want the space to be all images. All images and people talking about the images.”