Up until a couple of months ago, you could see Joe sitting in front of his shop in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud: always in his suit and his worn-out, narrow tie; always happy to engage in a conversation and offer whoever approached him the good plastic chair, coffee, cigarettes and his old memories. All this in front of a shop so full of things that you could not even place a foot through the threshold.
Anyone would suspect that the shop had much of value – or at least of interest – in it. The stacks of LPs, the curiously hand-painted photos, the posters from the 1960s. An invitation to a kebab party, broken watches and a replica of Mona Lisa lying in the midst of in the rubble – all this certainly gave that impression.
We started talking, and I found out that he is a fellow photographer.
Three self portraits
Here are the facts and fictions of Joe’s life. He is born as Kevork Tashjian in 1931, in the Armenian camp in Beirut’s Quarantina. At the age of 14, his mother dismisses his aspirations of becoming a priest, takes him out of Catholic school and finds him employment at an optic shop. By this time, at the dawn of the 1950s, Photo Surprise was a common marketing strategy. This meant to jump on people in the street, quickly snap a photo, and hand them a business card with an address from which they could pick up their photo. Kevork, it turned out, was very good at it.
After this chance encounter with photography – of all things – it was love that would come to guide his career as a photographer. His next employment was at a photo studio – not because he wanted to learn more about his newly acquired trade, but because the girl behind the counter was so damn beautiful. For the next couple of years, Kevork writes her love poems, receiving in return his nickname Joe: the girl had translated Kevork to George, which became simply “Joe”. But she would not consent to marry him.
Joe, heartbroken at 19, quits his job, but soon after opens his own studio called Photo Joe. Who knows, maybe the niece of a successful studio owner in downtown Beirut would happen to stroll down the narrow streets of Bourj Hammoud, see the studio, and at that instance know that he still loved her.
As matters turned out however, the love of Joe’s life would be another: a beautiful, Arab girl. But again, love turns sour for Joe when his mother walks in on the love birds. This insults the girl who walks out, never to be seen by Joe again. Today, when Joe shows people her generously coloured portrait, he never omits to say: “She was the love of my life”.
During the Lebanese civil war, a runaway bullet hits Joe’s studio and sets it on fire. A nightmare for a photographer. The negatives and prints which had not caught fire were soaked as Joe tried to put it out. Only about 30 to 40 prints of his work survived.
Then, a couple of months ago, Joe sold his studio, which many years ago had been turned into a music shop. At the same time, Joe too had changed course and became a song writer, a maker of mixed tapes and the best supplier of 1970s Italian love ballads. Today, you can find him behind his backgammon board on the pavement of his Bourj Hammoud street. But, along with his shop went his suite, his tie and the Clark Gable-style moustache. This has now grown into a beard.