A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. The aphorism has proven powerful, driving journalism’s drift toward tabloid-format newspapers and glossy magazines that go big on photos and short on words, which, it’s assumed, readers won’t read.
Documentary filmmakers George Azar and Mariam Shahin are working on filling in some of the gaps in Azar’s archive of war photos.
“Khaled is a little boy I have a photograph of, in Jiyyeh,” Azar recalls. “We were trapped in a house together under Israeli fire. In the picture he’s terrified in the corner.”
Azar had come to Beirut in late 1981 as a photographer to cover the war for the Associated Press. Khaled was a Palestinian refugee from Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp.
“He’s not the focal point of the image,” Azar continues, “but his whole life turned in that moment. He lost his opportunity to have an education. His family was dislocated.”
“They didn’t have school records for him in Ain al-Hilweh,” says Shahin, “so they wouldn’t let him in the school system ... he was 12 then. He’s 42 now.”
“I found Khaled,” Azar continues. “He works in cement in Beddawi ... When he saw the photo his reaction was haunting.
“First he remembered me, which was a surprise. He said, ‘I remember you and I remember we were trapped together and you were taking pictures. Then where did you go? Why did you leave us?’”
Azar and Shahin’s latest documentary project hinges on interviews with people Azar photographed during the 1982 Israeli invasion, the 30th anniversary of which is this week.
“This is a personal story,” Azar says. “Really it’s about photography and the transitory nature of photojournalism, the fact that you enter people’s lives at a very critical moment and capture it on film for one-five-hundredths of a second. Then you often don’t see these people again.
“I always felt as though I didn’t fully know what was happening in front of me. I was a young reporter and the war was intense and confusing and it had conflicting narratives.
“The film’s about what happened in that image in that moment, who the people were, what got them there. It’s also about what’s happened to them since then and who they are now and what Lebanon is today ... All these people with incredible stories walk among us.”
Azar and Shahin are longtime collaborators. Though the subject matter of their work is widely varied, it tends to have a regional focus. Recent works have examined the Israeli army’s changing relationship with Turkey, the Zionist state’s systematic monopolizing of water resources in the occupied Jordan Valley, and the fledgling Parkour community in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp.
They say they’re surprised at how successful they’ve been in tracking down some of Azar’s subjects. “We’ve located between 15 and 20 people, between Lebanon and Palestine,” says Shahin. “We’ve made a strategic decision to interview several of the PLO fighters who were here and who were able to return to Ramallah, Jericho and Gaza. In fact we met one of them in Beddawi, where he was visiting his family.
“Another part of the film is set in Shiyah, with a group that George became most personable with because he followed them day by day. [When we found them] they all recognized George. It was a very warm reaction.”
“They were fighting with Amal,” Azar recalls, “all between 13 and 24 years old at the time.”
“We’ve also made a decision to interview people about the lives of people captured in George’s photos who died, to speak to their families and visit their graves ... You can’t have a film about the war and the people in George’s photos without mentioning that several of these beautiful young men have died.”
Some of the searches have come to nothing. One person that Azar would like to find is a young man he photographed in Martyrs Square in 1992 who used to peddle pre-Civil War photos of the place.
“People tell me he was a fixture down there,” Azar says. The photo was published “right around the time of the reconstruction. It got a lot of play and was even cited in a book of art criticism ... The fact that he was selling photos, and the fact that I make and sell photos, it has some resonance for me.
“There was a terrible bomb at a flower shop on Jeanne D’Arc one day,” he continues. “I took a picture of a woman lying in the street after the explosion. She still lives around here where they still run a flower shop.”
“The lady lying on the street is Ghanwa Ranjah Taqqoush,” Shahin adds. “The family also lost a son that day, Abd al-Rahim. She was unconscious for a month after the explosion.”
“The interesting thing is that she didn’t recognize herself in the photo,” Azar recalls. “‘No,’ she said. ‘That was the wife of the PLO officer who’d been targeted.’ Her son looked at the picture and he told her, ‘No, mom that is you. You can tell from the bracelets.’”
“We made an enlarged version of the photo of Mrs. Taqqoush,” Shahin says. “They sat around and scrutinized every aspect of the photo, down to the smallest detail.”
“There’s a whole geography of this image,” Azar says, “one that includes the people in the photo, the cars they were driving, the clothes they were wearing. The richness of these photos is something I only barely understood ... It’s all very humbling.”