Dalia Khamissy, Lecture Notes (30.10.13)


Dalia Khamissy is a photographer born and raised in Lebanon. Khamissy majored in Photography at a Fine Arts University. Despite her classmates being heavily commercial and fine art based, Khamissy was always more interested in story telling, photo documentary and people. She wanted to tell the stories of others using photography as her medium.

Khamissy was just two years old when the civil war began in Lebanon in 1975. Although the war was reported to have ended in 1990, other conflicts and clashes were still existent, wars, which are ongoing even today. As a result, Khamissy’s entire life has been tainted by the horrors and realities of war. This has heavily influenced her photographic work and projects. Whilst her degree in Photography gave Khamissy a good basis to the technicalities of photography, she quickly became aware that research and context is of utmost importance. One must have a contextual understanding of their chosen story or project in order to elevate it toward its full potential and truth.

Khamissy wanted to tell stories of people, her dream being to work for the National Geographic. National Geographic provides free maps, photos, videos and daily news stories, as well as articles and features about animals, the environment, cultures, history, politics and world events, inspiring people to make a change and raising awareness of certain themes and issues since 1888. Khamissy has been successful in the sense of covering major issues! It all stemmed from Khamissy’s interest in women rights in Lebanon and the effects of civil war on the Lebanese people yet was in denial to the war that she lived. Everything radiated from Khamissy’s interest in people and their stories whose fates have been similar to hers and others from Lebanon.

In 2002, Khamissy travelled to Iran on a humanitarian mission. Creating photographs did not drive the trip. However, every spare hour Khamissy had she would photograph the streets and people of the area, whereby she captured her favourite image of all time: a monotone film image of a Bedouin girl. This sparked a passion for photographing such subjects. As a result, in 2004, she travelled to the border of Iraq, Jordan, where she lived alongside the refugees stuck there for 30 days. Khamissy wanted the work to be published but didn’t know how to and so had the work exhibited. Khamissy wanted to continue photographing such themes, people and issues, but realized that she must make money to continue in telling the stories that she wanted to tell.

In 2005, Khamissy got a job as a photo editor for Associated Press or A.P a multinational non-profit news agency. The work and schedule was difficult and consuming. It became even more extreme when one of the craziest wars broke out in the summer of 2006 in Lebanon, whereby two Israel soldiers were stolen and the region destroyed. Khamissy was working 16 hour days everyday alongside ten male colleagues: photographers, journalists and writers, all of whom wouldn’t even have time to eat. The reason for such chaos was that they were reported on an event which was current, ongoing and unraveling every second. They had to make sure the information they were transmitting onto the public wire was accurate, concise and as complete as possible. Khamissy didn’t take photos for 8 months.

She rekindled her passion for image-making and telling stories by pursuing a personal project. She travelled down south and documented houses, which had been left, abandoned and destroyed by the war. Khamissy felt the buildings reflected what the war did to her, “I too was left abandoned and destroyed”. Private houses became public and war was the culprit. Khamissy believes in private and intimate space, even knocking the doors of these empty houses before entering. It was peculiar for her to enter without permission someone’s long lost home. These themes of private becoming public, her own experiences of growing with the civil war as well as stories of others influenced and informed Khamissy’s latest project, “The Missing”.

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In 2005, A.P, asked Khamissy to go down and take photographs of a protest, which broke out. The event occurred when the Syrians left Lebanon after being in power for three decades. People were cheering in glee. However, some were protesting simply because they’re loved ones were still missing. 70-80 year old women were being mistreated by numerous police officers as they held images of their children whose fate remained unknown. This inspired Khamissy. As a result “The Missing” project became to be, which would attempt to uncover thousands of people who went missing during the Lebanese civil war and raise awareness. It’s estimated that 17,000 people went missing during the plight so it obviously something people should be aware of. Khamissy caught the attention of Benjamin Chesterton, after reading an interview with Khamissy. He was astounded by the gravity of the story and began working on the project to create a film on the subject.

Khamissy began photographing the mothers of those who were missing. The women go out and look for their sons whilst men go off to work, so is a true portrayal of the Lebanese social structure and gender roles. The images and issues addressed in the project are highly political, thus becoming potentially dangerous. Those who did the kidnapping are still in power in Lebanon, which makes the project extremely risky and controversial. This was a major concern for Khamissy. However, she is reassured by the fact many artists have and are covering the issue and the war itself has made these issues public regardless of her intervention. Whilst the stories of these people could put Khamissy in a compromising situation she’s certain that the subjects depicted are safe.

The images show mothers in their homes holding pictures of their missing loved ones. All possess an evidential, documentary style. When we see moving images of the women, they still seem still. It’s quite powerful to see them breathing or a tear gently roll down a cheek. One woman has kept all her sons day-to-day objects: toiletries, shoes, shirts, things which are not in anyway special in everyday life. However, given the situation, these regular items have been elevated to something precious, a relic to the loved one and a silent witness to the event. The still lives are lovely and reveal something more heart-wrenching, a mother refusing to let go, determined to collect all the remaining memories that her son did exist.

Khamissy now wants to focus on the youth of Lebanon to help further the narrative of the war. The civil war is not taught in schools. When the story is told it varies, dependent on the religion of those telling it. As a result, exists different and many versions of the event. Everyone becomes the bad guy and so each individual depending on who told them the story think that they are the good ones. It’s the youths of Lebanon who take to the streets with guns and so it’s of utmost importance to create a new narrative of the war with them. It’s difficult as the civil war is not yet written, established or completed.

Khamissy’s advice to other photographers:

  1. Photographers should consider that they are telling the story that belongs to someone else. It’s something, which is collaborative. Photographers must feel privileged that they are given permission to share their story.
  2. Photographers should be respectful to their subjects and always ask their permission. Life is more important then documentation.
  3. Tell the story as it is.

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