Lara Atallah: As the Past Fades From View

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A photograph from Lara Atallah's "If Walls Could Talk" exhibit, which is on display at the Ayyam Gallery in Beirut until 20 June.

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Friday, June 8, 2012

Lara Atallah’s photo exhibit “If Walls Could Talk” documents the slow decay of an abandoned public school on Bliss Street. The stacked chairs and chalkboard scribbles (“I respect my teachers and my classmates…”) are the few artifacts of the living, long since strangled by browned vines and coated with layers of dust.

Atallah’s photos tell a story that has been told many times before – the sight of urban ruins in Beirut is commonplace, as is the wanton destruction of architectural heritage. Yet the young photographer’s departure from the trodden narrative is her desire not to “romanticize” the decay, but to show the reality of gentrification.

The photos of the crumbling school are extra potent considering that the early 20th century building is scheduled for destruction. In its place, a condo will rise. Surprisingly, the exhibit material didn’t reference this background – even though the photographer has pointed this out online – so the ruined building seems placeless, like it could be any house in Beirut.

Atallah describes her mission as primarily social, not aesthetic – photography is “a means not an end,” she said. The photographer’s intent is noted, but is it possible that the pure documentary qualities of photography are being overstated?

“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience,” observed Susan Sontag in her 1977 classic On Photography. Atallah’s photos are vivid in color and the angles highlight the deadness of the place, belying clear aesthetic considerations. If photography was just a means, the photos wouldn’t be on display at a gallery.

Atallah’s written thoughts on visually documenting a changing Beirut alternate between whimsical and gloomy. Whereas she sees each city dweller as a “unique individual” that adds “flavor” to his environment, the city is a “victim of gentrification…drowning under the loud noises of bulldozers.” It’s a set-up of good and evil, with buildings coming to possess human qualities.

An unintended consequence of hosting the exhibit at the Ayyam Gallery – located at the base of the flashy Beirut Tower – is that statements in the exhibit literature like “Modernization brings a lack of authenticity, erasing the soul of a place,” take on new relevance when you step outside. You get a sense of what’s to come when the subjects of Atallah’s photos fade into memory.

“If Walls Could Talk” is on display until June 20 at the Ayyam Gallery in the Beirut Tower across the street from the Zaitunay Bay shops.

Comments

thanks for sharing the Lara showing the a great composition among the chairs which is looking like old history a very old distort sight

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