Views from Home: Frames of foreignness and belonging in Beirut
A Conversation between Corinne May Botz and Heather M. O’Brien
This text is included in the photographic book like the delayed rays of a star, published by Seaton Street Press
Corinne May Botz: I realized the other day that you were in my Views from Home class at the International Center of Photography (ICP) ten years ago. It’s hard to believe it was so long ago, and it means so much to me to know the course still resonates for you.
Heather M. O’Brien: It was insightful to revisit the syllabus since your course opened up so much for me and continues to do so, especially with this project. Initially I was going to be in the Documentary/Photojournalism program at ICP. I’m glad I ended up in the Creative Practices program since my work took a conceptual turn beginning with your course.
CMB: Knowing the political/organizing components of your practice and life I can see why documentary was initially your inclination. That part of you still comes through in your work. Thinking back to the Home class you were looking at addiction in an unconventional way through family photos, letters, and space. It’s interesting to see how your work has developed.
H'OB: I worked for the artist Martha Rosler after ICP; it was an intense yet worthwhile experience––a pre-graduate school boot camp with aesthetics and politics on steroids. At the same time, I worked with two close friends from ICP, Erica Leone and Felisia Tandiono, on a collective project called Work Progress Collective (WPC). We were granted the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council SwingSpace residency on Governors Island where we focused on a project that connected the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers and images of the Wall Street crash of 2008. My work was moving in a social direction and it wasn’t until I started graduate school at CalArts that I was able to take a step back and reflect. Maybe I’m always going back and forth within these two circles––a bolder, more political approach to the quieter work within domestic space.
CMB: Tell me about your move to Beirut and how this led you back to interior space.
H'OB: The first year I was here I couldn’t pick up a camera. I had the documentary-critique voices in my head (Rosler, Allan Sekula, etc.) and 2016 was a heavy moment to be an American in the Middle East. I was daunted by the possibility of exploitation. I was born in 1983, the same year as the Beirut barracks bombing and the height of the Lebanese Civil War. I grew up with the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and post-9/11 rhetoric. I’ve been constantly conditioned to fear this part of the world, but I always questioned that narrative. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more critical about U.S. policy and imperialism.
When I arrived to Lebanon, I was observing but wasn’t comfortable with bringing my camera to the street. Teaching photography to students from the Arab world, there are a lot of questions that I have about not being from here but having a position of power within academia. It wasn’t until I was here for a few months that I moved into my current apartment, which is so opposite from the small apartments where I lived in NYC and LA. You feel an echo the moment you walk into the space. There’s beautiful light and the architecture comes from the Ottoman and French mandate eras. There aren’t many of these buildings left. I started quietly photographing once I became more settled in the space. It was a therapeutic way for me to slow down and adjust to the new culture and chaotic city. In contrast to photographing the loud streets outside, it felt warm and easy to make images inside.
CMB: The pictures are so intimate and the house feels like a place of refuge, but the outside is always hovering. I think of the home as a place of voyage and I can see this expansiveness through some of your images that brings to mind Georges Perec’s The Species of Space. He zooms out in scale from the page to the whole of the Universe.
H'OB: When I showed the early images to Jean Marie Casbarian she thought the way I photographed Beirut through the windows made the house feel like a prison. Perhaps at first I stayed inside as I was adjusting to the cultural changes. But the space is much more contemplative than confining. You used the word voyage, and I really identify with that. Beirut is a beautiful, frenzied, and diverse city. Various religions and people of varied backgrounds live within an extremely dense space. Walking into my apartment I was immediately drawn inward, looking out to a maze through fractions of light created by the windows.
CMB: In my project photographing the homes of people with agoraphobia, I learned a lot about how the home can be both a prison and a haven. Moving to Beirut must have been a big change from the sprawling vastness of LA. Living in New York City, I’ve found it essential to see even a sliver of sky from the window and of course what you describe as fractions of light. I interpret the light in your images as designating time and transformation. Can you talk about the metaphor of light in your images?
H'OB: It has to do with the passage of time, which goes back to the work I did in your class about my brother, addiction, and family photographs. It’s about putting an old photo in a room where light falls on it through the window to make a new photograph. In this project I use an image of my childhood home and one of the towns I grew up in. It feels very active to me––to place an image on the wall and shoot it anew. In some ways I’m trying to break nostalgia, but this process can also make the image more nostalgic, so it’s an oxymoron in that way.
CMB: The way you move around photographs points to the photograph as an object. The repetition of photos in your images also brings rhythm and a sense of time passing. Through this way of seeing, new information becomes apparent and helps counter the static or nostalgia.
H'OB: I place past photographs into different light paradigms to bring them into the present, which makes me think about the future. Especially now, with the capitalist system we’re in, we aren’t staying in the same homes for a long time, so that mobility is of relevance to me.
CMB: One of the interesting things about teaching Views from Home at ICP is that the students are coming from around the globe with different cultural understandings of home. They rarely have access to original physical locations so interesting tactics are used to recreate/explore memories in the present. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again,” and of course it’s a presumption that people have a home in the first place so I think it’s a very interesting starting point. Most of the students are living in temporary NYC apartments. Notions of dwelling, traveling, transience, and homeland are reoccurring themes.
H'OB: I relate to that idea of transience since I’ve moved around quite a bit since I was a child. Now I’m more eager to dwell and really steep in a place. In terms of tactics, I was just re-reading Moyra Davey’s Long Life Cool White before this conversation. Davey talks about photography and accident, “the notion of accident has had many meanings, from “decisive moment” to “photographing to see what something will look like photographed.” Often times I shoot in my home because I want to put distance between me and domesticity. I wish to see this way-too-familiar space within the confines of a new frame.
Davey also refers to Martha Rosler, “one possible response to Rosler’s argument [about documentary] would have been to create instead a world of one’s own.” This move away from the photograph as document to focus on a particular interiority is certainly something I’m drawn to.
CMB: Mary Douglas said, “home starts by bringing some space under control.” In your images, chance moments are created by the use of objects within the home. The camera creates a distance and reveals the performance of making a home. I was also thinking about Moyra Davey before we spoke and one thing that struck me was how you both use your home as your studio. We know through the contact sheets in your house that this is also a working space. I can relate to that as well although sometimes by necessity and not choice. Davey prefers her home as her studio. Historically, especially during high modernism, there’s a dichotomy between home and studio, and the domestic is negated. But the domestic space as studio creates interesting opportunities.
H'OB: I prefer to have my home space rupture and bleed into the studio space. When you walk into in the apartment the first thing you confront is large room with two desks and lots of wall space––what has become my studio space. Often the laundry drying rack ends up in the studio and I love that. Plants and gardening have become a focus for me here because there’s so much concrete. Being on the balcony with the leaves ends up being a big part of my day, that carries into the photographs––bits of the garden end up inside.
CMB: Can you tell me how shooting film has helped shape the project?
H'OB: Film for me is always about forced time between the moment of the shutter click and the reveal of the image. Thinking about Davey again, film allows for more accidents. It also offers a gap for one’s emotions to shift, to look at the picture in a new way. I shoot with my grandfather’s Canon AE-1. He was an air force bomber pilot who used his camera during World War II. So I’m also thinking about this camera’s generational shifts in terms of gender, space, and time.
CMB: This seems like a good segue to talk about your film, also shot in your home, which follows the philosophical and psychological thoughts of a young woman growing up in Beirut. You had such a compelling main subject, Noor Tannir, how did you come to work with her?
H'OB: Noor was a student at The American University of Beirut where I teach. We started building a strong dialogue and rapport, especially in my Video Art class. She was an Art History and Philosophy major; I loved her references as well as the energy and questioning she brought to the courses. As an educator I thought to turn the tables and offer her a platform to teach me a bit about her history within the city.
CMB: It was a great idea to use your own home as the site where she speaks in your film.
H'OB: Most students here live with their families until they get married. It’s rare they have their own apartment. I wanted Noor to feel comfortable whilst away from her family space. Often there’s so much that young people can’t open up about in the presence of their families. I also wanted to shoot in a domestic space that would draw a parallel to Beirut’s history, particularly since Noor talks a lot about history in the piece.
CMB: By putting her in your space you invite community into your personal space. You also make a strong connection between the filmmaker and subject, which goes back to the film’s wonderful title, dyad gaze.
H'OB: Thank you. The dyad gaze refers to my first real gaze on Beirut, through and alongside Noor’s lens. In this sense, I’m drawn to Trinh T. Minh-ha’s notion of “speaking nearby” instead of speaking about. I struggled with the decision to not put my audible voice in the film, but I felt that my voice is so much a part of it in a visual sense––both through how the city is shot and how Noor is responding within the context of my home. There’s also an influential film I should mention––In Complete World by Shelly Silver. The filmmaker confronts people on the streets of NYC to ask them intimate questions about their happiness, how much money they would like to make, do they feel responsible for the Iraq War. It weaves the personal and political together in a unique way. Silver doesn’t put her own voice in it, it’s just this long series of responses, and yet her voice is extremely present through the editing tactics. This strategy was really important for me.
CMB: It’s always a hard decision to make––how much of the filmmaker or photographer’s presence to directly include. I didn’t question your decision. We know you’re there and it would have made it more into a talking head interview if we heard you asking the questions. And it’s not that––it’s much more personal. Is this the first time that there is a subject’s voice in your work?
H'OB: There was a piece I did as part of my thesis exhibition at CalArts called bits of colored cloth that focuses on the voice. It’s a performance piece that’s read in the round. There are three women readers, all of whom are not from the U.S. They recall their first memory of seeing the American flag––the power and complications of that symbol. The work takes cues from Augusto Boal and is more theatrical in its approach; dyad gaze is perhaps a more intimate and personal testimony.
CMB: In dyad gaze, it is a beautiful combination of visuals with the narration.
H'OB: That means so much to me to hear. Being a photographer somehow helps with the editing process of image and sound. We’re trained to create momentum for the story and to not show everything in one image. For example, in the film Noor says something and then two minutes later we see the thing she was speaking about.
CMB: The night before I watched your film, I watched Chantal Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie. It’s really interesting in relation to the first film she made, Jeanne Dielman because both focus on women and domestic interiors. Her mom’s health is deteriorating and most of No Home Movie takes place in her mom’s bourgeois apartment, there are also scenes of skyping with her mom from afar and windy desert landscapes. A self-described nomad, there was such unease and restlessness in Akerman’s depiction of space. It was interesting to watch the films back-to-back since they both dealt with a central female character, belonging, and exile. In contrast, your film also has a strong sense of calmness that I found really beautiful.
H'OB: On that note I’ve recently been thinking about a film Allen Frame made called Going Home. Have you seen it?
CMB: I haven’t but I’d love to.
H'OB: It focuses on his mother and begins with her in the backyard with her walker...walking into the light. It’s very quiet and poignant. He screened it when I was at ICP and it’s always remained strong in my mind. Like his photographs, there’s a richness and depth of tone and color. His portraiture, and particularly how he lights his subjects has been really influential to me. Shadows are a key element in his work.
CMB: It’s amazing the way that light can communicate place and narrative in photographs. I also think about Uta Barth’s exploration of light, although her work is more about perception and erasing the subject or narrative. There’s a more performative quality to the light in your photographs, although in some of the more recent images you sent me, for instance the butterfly wings and the leaf skeleton, I can feel your hand more.
H'OB: Things are becoming a little more staged: waiting for the exact moment when a plane will go by, or placing a leaf on a particular notebook, or moving a clear vase into the light to expose the plant’s roots. It’s similar to how I move photographs on the wall to catch the light.
CMB: I love the new image with the sheets.
H'OB: You know me, I can’t stop shooting the sheets!
CMB: I know I noticed your Skype picture! (laughter) I interpret the crumpled sheets as a landscape containing past and future action that viewers can project upon. It’s the moment in-between that we encounter in your images. Is there anything else I should know about the new work?
H'OB: I love thinking about the sheets as a landscape with possibilities. On that note, I always find Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled to be the most political yet intimate photograph of bedsheets. In terms of this work, there is an innerness that I’ve experienced in Beirut, much more so than when I lived in the U.S. Perhaps it’s partly because I’m such an outsider here, so I find myself turning more inwards. And making a home space here has been so important to the work. It’s also been a way to psychologically deal with the vast change to moving to this part of the world.
CMB: Are you beginning to feel settled?
H'OB: I don’t know if Beirut is ever a place that you completely settle. But I think the relationships I’ve made with students and colleagues have helped me in immense ways. I’ve always been interested in a reciprocal teaching practice but here I rely on people a lot more, even in terms of where to go and get things.
CMB: That’s beautiful.
H'OB: There are a few images from my old house in LA and I’m thinking about those as bookends to the project. And I included some images of my partner Jonathan because it’s also a project about making a home with someone.
CMB: I had the feeling that you lived alone in the pictures and I mistook your partner for you. But I can see why it’s interesting to introduce a figure into the project. You are trying on a new role in a foreign country as well as within a personal relationship in your home.
H'OB: I can see why you mistook the figure for me because there is an immense sense of solitude in the work. But I think that’s also because it’s the first time we’re living in a house where we actually have space. I’m going to keep shooting. I’m still figuring out what I want to say through the images. It’s taking longer than expected, but I have to trust the process.
CMB: It’s interesting to me how artists determine when a project is finished. With something so personal in nature, I can imagine you photographing until you move out of the apartment but it seems that you have something more defined in terms of what you want to say. Is that something you can elaborate on?
H'OB: This work is open-ended and flowing compared to my other work which has a clear purpose, or something specific at stake. In school we’re trained to defend our work and ideas; it’s not often we find room for play. Being in Beirut has made me think deeply about inner life and the passage of time. I watch the light move slowly across my home and document it in a way I’ve never done before. Outside is moving rapidly but inside I move the camera gently, without specific intention. There is a sense of history to this space that is not at all like the history I learned about the Middle East when I was growing up. Perhaps this work is meant to offer another gaze of Beirut, one that is much softer than the one the Western media shows us. Too often we’re fed these bold one-liner narratives. My hope is that this work can reveal some nuance, the fractions between the light.
CMB: Yes, I love this work as a comment on belonging and foreignness. Despite the seclusion or respite from the external world, the outside is present in your images. Your house is haunted by other times and presences which you acknowledge.