In July of 2006, during a bout of intense border battles between Israeli armed forces and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, a photograph made by Stephanie Sinclair achieved a broad second life on the Internet when it accompanied a post on food writer and Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain’s blog; Bourdain and crew had been filming an episode of No Reservations in Beirut and were “trapped” in the city owing to the destruction of the airport and an naval blockade effectively halting departures by Americans from the Gulf states. The photograph had originally appeared on March 12, 2005, in the Travel section of the New York Times with a story by Scott Spencer about the nonchalant nightlife scene in Beirut following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The image was described in the Times as “Love among the ruins at the war-themed Beirut club known as 1975,” and on Bourdain’s blog with the following caption: “Prewar partygoers enjoy the music and atmosphere at 1975, a bar whose theme is the country’s civil war.”
The odd syntax of the cutlines suggests that “the war” was an omnipresent future, past, and present entity. Regardless of the date the image was made, though, its placement in the context of stories about a “live,” ongoing military flare-up, even amid the larger ceaseless tragedy in the Middle East, makes the powerful suggestion that Beirutis party even as rockets and air strikes devastate the buildings around them.
Either taken by itself or analyzed as a construction of cultural otherness, Sinclair’s photograph, of a group of women and men in a strikingly decorated and lighted club, creates a nearly Petri-dish perfect lab example of multilayered abjection with clear references to Nineteenth Century realist paintings depicting “the Orient.”
To be fair, Sinclair, the founder of the Website photobetty.com, works and lives in Beirut and her body of work undoubtedly is good-hearted and intended to promote compassion for people in war-torn regions. Yet this photo in particular serves practically as a literal illustration of the perils of filtering information through the omniscient lens of Westernization (and male identity) outlined in Linda Nochlin’s essay “The Imaginary Orient.” In general as well, Sinclair’s work often depicts women in distinctively Middle Eastern settings as passive, silent, prone, lacking agency (and even dead).
Its resemblance to a carefully executed realist painting is also one of the qualities that make this photograph so beautiful, appealing, even captivating. The frame has the ineffable “it” quality that defies verbal processing.
Formally speaking, the photo is rectangular, with a horizontal orientation. It is split vertically into nearly even light (top) and dark (bottom) halves. The top, lighter portion of the photograph shows a rough-surfaced wall against which lean two unilluminated lanterns and several boxes. The wall is marked in script with what appears to be black spray paint and is pocked with small, irregular holes no larger than an inch or two across. Recessed track lights or spot beams point up from the photo’s light/dark division line, casting cones of irregular light up and throwing the pockmarks into greater shadow. A molded spine or support further divides the top portion of the wall into two, vertically bisected halves.
In the bottom half of the photo, seven people – five men and two women – are seated or reclining on dark green pillows in an “L” shape around a low table. (The knees of an eighth person poke into view from the far right.) A dark banquette rises from the floor behind the five people facing out of the photo to about two feet above their heads. Two of the men are smoking (actually lighting up) and some loose tobacco on a spread-out napkin is on the table. The central “couple” in the photograph are both wearing red shirts and black pants, and their feet and shoes are the only ones visible; the lower bodies of the other people melt into darkness at the bottom of the frame. The other clothing show besides being in the dark is also of dark shades of blue, green, and brown. The two men of the “couples” are related in posture, leaning in toward the center of the photo, forming a sort of triangle with the women (and a smoking man) inside it.
Compositionally and subtextually, right down to the illegible script and atmosphere of decay, this photo shares some of the qualities enumerated by Nochlin in her discussion of works by Jean Leon Gerome and Eugene Delacroix. The clubgoers, though seated together, are not really acting as a group. Nor do they show obvious cognizance of the photographer – though much, including the painterly composition of the scene and the ambient lighting level, suggests this image is an arrangement between subjects and Sinclair. The smoking men are looking at their lighters and cigarettes rather than at their companions, though the man in the extreme left of the frame – the man with his back to “us” – is turned to face those seated near him. The two men accompanied by the women are the only people smiling; the women themselves are not. The central figure, the woman, reclines with her eyes half closed, her mouth set, tired or bored, as one of the man reaches across her body. The other woman makes an indeterminate gesture as her bent knees reveal blue jeans. Even though this is a bar setting, no one is holding or drinking from a glass or bottle.
Viewed in an information vacuum, this photo could be of any people in any nightclub at any time over the past 30 years – it could be at Limelight in New York City during a late 1970s theme night, or it could be an expat boite in the Ixelles cartier of Brussels, Belgium, last night. Used in connection with news stories about Islamist extremists, though, this image cries out for individuation of the people shown in it, and in fact not having information about these people in particular turns them into those people, a generic group of “Middle Easterners,” not the specific Lebanese Christians or Muslims, or tourists from Cardiff, they might actually be.
Now, this is an over-deconstruction of this image in the manner of iconography studies of painting. More interesting is its function as illustration for the texts by Bourdain and Spencer. Spencer’s piece, which features two other photographs of Lebanese nightlife not taken by Sinclair, is an exercise which might be criticized as “conventional” Orientalism, pitting the nightclub-going, West-loving, non-Muslim-extremist population of Beirut – a group repeatedly described in terms of its youth, beauty, and primitively joyful music-making – against the party-pooping insurgent terrorists of Hezbollah as a seemingly unobtrusive, civilized guest from the West provides analysis.
Bourdain’s lengthy blog post (subsequently reprinted on slate.com) is actually more sophisticated, and considerably more dramatic, as it takes place in the midst of the border war. Yet it is Bourdain’s work that uses Sinclair’s image – the singular visual – more insidiously. Like Sinclair, Bourdain, the sworn enemy of both Rachel Ray and celebrichef endorsement deals, has much to recommend him. Yet the very premise of Bourdain’s Without Reservations – an American gourmet, albeit rough-hewn, goes to “exotic” places and toughs it out with the locals, all of whom are primarily concerned with various aspects of hunting, gathering, and feasting – is a recipe for abjection. Further, Bourdain sets up a further dichotomy between tourists (the other others) and travelers (us), who can gain understanding of the millennially vexing problems of the Levant by watching his television show, reading his blog – and viewing the photos which accompany it.
Bourdain, Anthony. 2006. I watched beirut as it burned. The Independent (London), September 30, 2006, sec NEWS.
Spencer, Scott. 2005. Turn the beat around. The New York Times, March 20, 2005, sec 6; ‘T’; T: Travel Magazine.