by Zalfa Halabi
September 7, 2018
“How do you perceive a city you call your home? I’ve been asking myself that question for a long time now. I first tried to answer it by going around town and capturing what is left of Beirut’s heritage when I quickly realized that to me, it’s the people that make the city, they make it a home,” says photographer Salwa Eid. Inkblots, her first solo show, which featured a selection of her most recent works, ran from June 26 –July 19,2018 at 392rmeil393 Gallery and showcased photographs of ten anonymous citizens, selected by the artist for the way in which she believed that they embody the city of Beirut, her hometown. Consisting of twenty photographs displayed in pairs of two images each per person, Inkblots stemmed from Eid’s desire to invite the photographed subject to be an active agent in the construction of their own representation, and that of the city they inhabit.
Eid first took up photography in 2012 at Dar El Mussawir, a local and regional hub that offers training programs, equipment, exhibitions, and lectures. After beginning with an introductory class, she rapidly moved on to more advanced coursework, including instruction in black-and-white film photography, lighting, and retouching. Eid developed a fascination for the creative possibilities that traditional—rather than digital—photography can offer, particularly through multiple exposure, the process of capturing more than one image on the same film. “I want viewers to understand that the images in Inkblots are not Photoshopped, that I did not manipulate anything to bring them these portraits. They’re all a genuine result of what the subjects are actually seeing,” states Eid.
To create the body of work for Inkblots, Eid first invited a given subject to her studio and captured her or his silhouette against an overexposed background. Then, she lent her camera to the person in question, and wandered with them through Beirut, allowing the individual to capture their own perception of the city. To her, the process is as important as the final outcome. Through experimenting with double exposure, in a well-paced and unhurried progression, Eid made images that invited viewers to examine them closely and carefully, like one would with a painting.
“It’s very nice that on my shooting days with the people, I’m getting to walk around with them and see their side of Beirut. Lots of places are common to all, like the sea in Raouche, the Ferris wheel in Manara. And sometimes it gets more interesting, when they take me around to places where they show me ‘their Beirut,’ their personal views based on personal experiences or memories,” explains Eid. In CARD VII (2018), for example, the participant took Eid to her deceased husband’s former barber shop and then invited her to her home, where the woman captured pieces of furniture filled with emotional value. In the image to the left, the destroyed tiles from the now abandoned salon form the widow’s silhouette. In the counterpart image to the right, the woman’s profile is a composite of images of woodwork from the couple’s old dining chairs.
Similarly, most if not all of the pieces in Inkblots are filled with deeply rooted personal memories in private and public places resulting in compositionally powerful images laced with personal recollections. Within a single image, multiple layers collide and align to create accidental textures and shapes that imbue the photograph with dynamism, as in Card VIII (2018). In the image to the left, the inanimate figure that forms the central pole of an amusement park ride in the famous Lunapark in Manara (which has now become a Beiruti landmark), overlays the subject’s profile, creating a transfixing alignment. The person and the figure mesh into one entity by virtue of being flattened into a single image. In reality, the proportions of the figure are larger than that of the human character’s, but fit right into place in this image. Its counterpart image also entrances, the color and texture of a familiar-looking chipped wall that lines a typical Beirut alleyway, melding with the subject’s complexion. Here, quite literally, the character becomes the city: Beirut is his skin; his skin is Beirut.
Inkblots tells a story that resonates with Eid’s own beliefs about the city of Beirut. Each of the ten characters in the photographs corresponds to an inkblot card from the projective personality test known as the Rorschach test. Developed in the early 1920s, this controversial method of measuring psychological function serves a different purpose here: to bring to consciousness both the personal and the collective unconscious to characterize Beirut, a city where people and places are intimately connected. To tell a holistic story of a defying city like Beirut is a near impossible task. Instead, Eid has constructed a narrative of what Beirut is to the people in her images, the totality of which in turn makes up the fabric of her own “Beirut”. With Inkblots, Eid successfully restores the meaning of documenting reality in a media-saturated world through an exhibition that amounted to a kaleidoscope of overlaying perceptions, raising questions about subjectivity, agency and intentionality in photography practices today.
Salwa Eid, Inkblots, ran from June 26 –July 19, 2018 at 392rmeil393 Gallery, Beirut.