First Person

War Stories

Rita Leistner’s “portraitscapes” of Lebanon, 2006. NMA nominee: Photojournalism & Photo Essay

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TYRE Israeli planes dropped tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets on southern Lebanon during the war. This one points the finger at Hezbollah’s leader: “Hassan [Nasrallah] is playing with fire and that is why Lebanon is burning.” Signed, “The State of Israel.”
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HARET HREIK, BEIRUT Bilal Haider and his family, along with other residents of this suburban neighbourhood (a Hezbollah base), salvaged all they could from what was left of their homes.

I had no idea how I was going to shoot the story of the 2006 war in Lebanon before I got there. You never know what you’re going to find. Once I was there, I spent a few weeks feeling rather helpless. But this is an important part of the process for me; I look to my subjects for guidance. The idea for the “portraitscapes” had been evolving for several years, and while it was in the back of my mind during the war, it really came together after the ceasefire. The destruction was so widespread there was a risk of its becoming mundane to photographers. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote: “To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street.” I made an effort to shoot scenes of wreckage when the light was good because it increases the impact of the photograph. The point is not to make a beautiful picture of something ugly but to make the picture compelling, so people will really look at it. What interests me most about portraits is the way the subject becomes a kind of co-author. Subjects know I will be showing the photographs to other people, and I think that awareness deepens their gaze. As a result, viewers feel a close connection to them. I owe everything to my subjects for allowing me into their lives. I went back to Lebanon recently with my translator and fixer, Nariman Hamdan, to see some of the people I photographed and to bring them my pictures. In most cases, people want their stories to be told, and they put their trust in journalists — or in anyone with the means — to tell their stories as best they can.”

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RASHIDIYA PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP, TYRE In an unusual twist of fate, Lebanese people displaced by the war, like this woman and her child were taken by residents of Palestinian refugee camps.
Portraitscapes in Lebanon during the 2006 summer war
NABATIEH Suleyman Awad, an employee of the Al-Kaynan Free Clinic, posed by several of the mobile clinics and ambulances bombed by Israeli warplanes.
Portraitscapes in Lebanon during the 2006 summer war
TYRE The day before the ceasefire, in a final show of power, Israel increased air strikes on suspected Hezbollah-held locations in Beirut and southern Lebanon. Firefighters worked tirelessly throughout the war, often to little effect.
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NABATIEH Seventy-nine-year-old Fatima Taher hid under a fig tree in her backyard on the last day of bombing. “I reasoned I would rather die under a tree in my garden than be scooped up from the rubble by bulldozers,” she said.

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