Lebanese Photo Bank documents the tragic history of Lebanon. The collection comprises of fifty years of photographs, from the country’s birth in 1940s to 2008. The Photo Bank houses the works of 63 photographers and more than 150,000 photographs, making it the largest and most comprehensive collection of Lebanese photography in the world. Eleven of these photographers sacrificed their lives to take these images. The photos capture the ravages of war and the fleeting moments of peace. They portray a resilient and remarkable people, who defy the guns of invading armies and the horrors of civil war by surviving, and by rebuilding, time after time.
The photographs in this collection tell the story of Lebanon. They give raw, unflinching accounts of the last fifty years—they are the first drafts of Lebanon’s history. And it is an extraordinary history. The early Lebanese state was a confabulation of Western designs, created for the imperial interests of Europe, notably the French and the English. The country’s multi-confessional society—Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Druze, and more—was forged together by a quota system whereby each group was allotted a number of posts in government. This arrangement was to remain fixed over the years, despite demographic changes and aspirations for a popular, one-person one-vote democracy.
Added to this volatile mix was a massive refugee population of Palestinians expelled from their homeland by the creation of Israel in 1948. These Palestinians were legally invisible—they were not granted citizenship in Lebanon, nor were they allowed to return to their homeland. Palestinian guerrillas from Lebanon launched a low-intensity struggle with the Israeli regime to the south. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s various confessional groups competed for power and influence. The contradictions and tensions inherent in such as system exploded in the mid-seventies, creating one of the twentieth-century’s longest-lasting civil wars.
The civil war raged for 24 years, pitting every faction and confessional group against the other over the course of fighting. To add insult to injury, Lebanon became of a chess piece for regional powers—Israel invaded repeatedly and occupied parts of the country, while Syria extended it’s influence by financing assassinations and proxy armies.
Ceasefires came by 1989, but the country continued to explode in paroxysms of violence. Repeated Israeli invasions turned much of the country to rubble, while Syria continued to be the eminence grise.
The wars may have ended for now, but the healing has yet to begin. Healing can only occur when the sources of the conflict are examined and held accountable. Many in the Middle East call for the past to be buried, for the Lebanese people to start afresh. But without critically examining the country’s wars, the Lebanese people can never move on. The Lebanese Photo Bank aims to help disinter the past and put it on trial, for all to see and learn from.
Naim Farhat started this collection over twenty years ago when he came across images as he rummaged through his attic. Over the years, Farhat rescued thousands of these images from oblivion. The Farhat collection does not seek monetary gain from these images, but rather hopes that they will play a role in bring Lebanon’s history to account. For when the country is fully healed, the world will once again know Lebanon for its beauty, not its guns
By Anand Ghopal