How did you first become interested in photography? In 2002, I bought my first camera, a digital point-and-shoot, with the first bonus I received from my first job, working as a software developer. I grew up in a home without cameras, so photography felt important to me to document family moments. But it was never more than that until I moved to the United States a few years later to go to graduate school in San Francisco. The city had a lot of homeless people, which was a bit of a culture shock for me, and I thought that photographing them would raise awareness about their plight. Soon after, I realized how exploitative this was, so I stopped. It wasn’t until I returned to Lebanon that I felt the itch to photograph again. I focused on photographing candid moments on streets. The idea of unscripted moments and unposed faces appealed to me a lot, and it still does.
In 2016, you journeyed across the United States in an RV to visit and photograph the Lebanons of the country. How was your style or work informed by the American landscape? Before I went on my trip, I had only lived in Northern California and visited New York a few times, so my only experience in the United States involved big cities. It’s easy to shoot street photography in such places. But almost all the Lebanons I visited were in rural areas where there weren’t too many people around. So I had to overcome my somewhat antisocial behavior in order to establish some rapport with people before asking to photograph them. And wherever there weren’t any people around, I focused on rural landscapes. It was more of a documentary approach than street. Now, I enjoy going back and forth between the two genres, which weren’t too far apart to begin with.
What gave you the inspiration to recently complete a second US road trip? After visiting the 45-plus Lebanons in the United States on my first trip, I wanted to focus more on seven of them. The mayors of these towns had visited Beirut, Lebanon, in 1955 and were given cedar saplings by Zalfa Chamoun, then first lady of Lebanon, to plant in their hometowns. I found out that only one of the seven trees—in Lebanon, Ohio—had survived, whereas the others died in the nursery where they had to be kept for three years in order to acclimate. The nursery didn’t tell the towns they died and sent them different trees—Virginian junipers—instead, telling them these were cedars of Lebanon. So, on that first trip, I always had in the back of my mind the idea that maybe I should replace their trees with real cedars. Then, a few months after I returned to Lebanon, I received many messages from people in Lebanon, Nebraska, showing me photos of their 62-year-old fake cedar, which had been hit by lightning and split in half. That was the catalyst for the second trip.
How have these experiences changed you as a photographer? The two trips changed me a lot not only as a photographer, but also as a person. I wasn’t really a social person before, and I didn’t care much for talking with strangers. But the trips forced me to do this, and I was surprised that I enjoyed it a lot, listening to people and hearing their stories. In addition, even though I knew that the United States is a big country, I didn’t really expect to see the variety of lifestyles I saw. There were many areas that felt more third world than developed nation. People’s hardships are universal; it doesn’t matter what their background is. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I needed an American road trip to learn more about empathy, but I’m glad I have.
What are your tips for respectfully taking candid street photography? In terms of power dynamics, a photographer always has the upper hand, so it’s very important to be respectful and not take advantage of people. Smiling goes a long way. So does being unthreatening, both in appearance and body language. And if people ask that I delete their photos, I always honor their wishes. In a lot of countries, one isn’t obliged to delete photos if asked. But the law is one thing and ethics are another.
You recently taught photojournalism at Lebanese American University (LAU). What are the differences and overlap between street photography and photojournalism? Henri Cartier-Bresson is the godfather of street photography. Yet, he cofounded Magnum Photos, one of the most important photojournalistic agencies. Through the years, street photography took a more “artistic” route, with photos ending up more in books and art galleries as opposed to newspapers and magazines. Whereas both genres’ approaches are similar in that they both focus on unposed, unstaged photos—except for portraits—photojournalism has a purpose and street photography doesn’t. At least not anymore.
Do photojournalists need to learn any new skills today? They definitely do. From my contacts within news agencies and by looking at the jobs they advertise, I’ve seen that there’s rarely an opening for a photojournalist that doesn’t also require video skills, or for a reporter that doesn’t also ask for photography skills.
What do you think of photography at the moment, and where do you see it headed? Photojournalism and documentary photography are going through a rough period right now. Citizen journalism might’ve had many advantages when it comes to fast reporting in areas not easily reached by trained photojournalists, but the surplus it created in the number of photographers drove down professional assignments. The closure of many print media outlets didn’t help either. It’s not uncommon these days to read that winners from the yearly World Press Photo Contest had sold or were ready to sell their equipment and move to a different profession out of not being able to generate sufficient income. In addition, given concerns about post-processing and staged photos, there’s been an increasing skepticism about the authenticity and integrity of photojournalistic and documentary images. I’m not sure how this matter will resolve itself, but I hope it does soon.
What resources would you recommend to photographers who are just getting started? Books are the most valuable resource to acquire a better eye in photography. And I don’t mean books that teach techniques; I mean monograms and projects. Studying the history of the medium as such gives us a better perspective and informs our eye. I would also recommend one specific book: Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. In our day and age, it’s very important to add a humanistic element to photography, where subjects are respected and not exploited, and where the way they are perceived is much more important than the photo itself.