Last Updated on 10/01/2020 by Chris Gampat
What do you get when you combine a Lebanese photographer and a thirst to explore? A project that sets out to visit every Lebanon in the US.
That opening may sound like a set up for a joke without a proper punchline, but in actual fact, it’s the truth. Born in Beruit, Fadi BouKaram is no stranger to Lebanon. He grew up in the war-torn nation, where the only remains of many people are the photographs that survived them. Growing up, Fadi developed a deep-rooted passion for photography born in the most difficult of circumstances.
Meanwhile, across the North Atlantic is America; the self-proclaimed land of the free. But unbeknown to some, there is also a Lebanon in the world’s most powerful nation. In fact, there are 43 of them.
Intrigued by the history and relationship with America and Lebanon, BouKaram decided to pay a visit…to each and every one of them. With his itinerary set out and his camera in hand, the project came to life. We’re going to catch up with him to see how he has been getting on.
Phoblographer: Can you take us back to the night when your brain said, “I’m going to visit every Lebanon in the US and do a photography project”?
FB: I wish I could I remember the exact day or night when I decided to do this project. I know that the idea started in 2005 when I was in grad school in San Francisco and I had found out that there are many Lebanons in the US. But at the time I thought that the idea of visiting these towns would be a retirement project. Because as I was pursuing a Master’s in Business, I was focused on going to work and make money as soon as possible.
It took me ten years to realize that I just wasn’t very happy with how I was living my life. If I hadn’t been doing Street Photography on the side, I think I’d have gone crazy long before that. But still, that wasn’t enough. Sometime in January 2016, I decided to go on a series of clichés (realistically speaking). I quit my day job, gave away most of what I own, and then booked a ticket to San Francisco. In September of that year, I flew there, rented a motorhome, and started driving.
Phoblographer: From a photographic standpoint, what kind of planning did you need to do prior to starting the project?
FB: There were two types of planning I had to do: logistics and the mental preparation; the former was much easier. I had to pinpoint the GPS location of each town, draw a rough route, and figure out where I’d be spending my nights. While I was researching, I found out that Walmart (a large supermarket chain in the US) allowed motorhomes and vans to stay the night in their parking lots, so that main problem was solved.
The other kind of planning, the mental one, wasn’t easy. During my years of shooting Street, I enjoyed not talking to people while I photographed. Because I’m an introvert and not very social. But I couldn’t behave as such on my trips because most of the US Lebanons are tiny towns. Standing at an intersection in any of them in hopes of taking photos was not realistic. First, because there were rarely any pedestrians, and second, because I stood out like a sore thumb in these places, being Lebanese. So I had to ‘practice’ talking to strangers and to ask to photograph them.
A few years ago I was at a talk by Anders Petersen and he was explaining his process. He’d walk to a bar, put his camera on the table to signal his intent, and then with some of the folks who’d make eye contact with him, he’d walk up to them and ask: “Can I photograph you naked?”
I thought that was a good approach, minus the naked part, because I didn’t want to get beat to death and because that’s not my thing. In any case, I started practicing here in Lebanon, and it went alright. Still, it’s not something that comes naturally to me (unless I have a few drinks in me first), but it had to be done.
Phoblographer: I’ve known you from your work in street photography. Have you been able to transfer any of the qualities needed to make a good street photograph into this project?
FB: In my approach to Street Photography, I enjoy focusing on the aesthetics as much as the content of the image; the composition, the color balance, these matter a lot to me, as I’m sure it’s the case for many other photographers. I tried to keep these aspects in the back of my mind while I was on my trips, and when shooting ‘peopleless’ photos, they were there. But when taking photos of people where I’ve asked permission to shoot, the focus became different.
I never caption my Street photos, other than mentioning the location and the date, because I find captions pointless. But when I was taking photos of people on the road, there was always a story that the person was telling me, so I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible taking photos (like in Street), and I was also listening to the story because it was an intricate part of the photo to me. I wasn’t just taking a photo of a random person, I was trying to relay a personal part of someone’s life. So unlike my approach to Street, the text became as important as, if not more than, the photo itself.
Phoblographer: New photographers tend to be caught up in the idea of being a glamorous travelling photographer. Can you give us an insight into your set up and what life on the road is actually like?
FB: I did two US road trips for this project: the first one in a motorhome between Oct 2016 and March 2017, and the second one in a van between July and November 2018. I can confidently say that there is absolutely no glamour whatsoever to leading such a life. It’s a great feeling being on the road, and the experience is unmatched by anything I’ve done before, so I’m not complaining; I’m just saying the idea is a bit over-romanticized.
When I was in Nashville, Tennessee in January 2017, I’d wake up in the middle of the night freezing from temperature drops, with the water bottle I keep next to me literally having turned into a block of ice. And then when I was going through Nevada this past July, I was driving shirtless and barefoot, in my underwear, because of how hot it was (I didn’t have a working air conditioning). The motorhome I was driving on my first trip did have a shower and running water, but I couldn’t use them anymore when the temperatures dropped below freezing point. So there were dry baths involved.
There were the funnier moments, though. One day, as I was driving from West Virginia to North Carolina, I caught a cold, so I checked into a motel that is mostly frequented by drug users and sex workers and their johns. I favored these places because they were interesting and, more important, cheap. In any case, it was Martin Luther King day and there was a man and a woman in the room adjacent to mine having loud sex. I was trying to get some sleep, but they had the “I have a dream” speech playing loud on a radio or something, enough for me to hear through the paper-thin walls, and the man was repeating parts of the speech with MLK while having sex, with the woman punctuating the speech with loud moans and shrieks. It was like some blasphemous surreal comedy scene. I don’t think I’ve encountered anything this weird before or since.
Phoblographer: When travelling such a large scale of land, what are you looking out for in terms of making good photographs?
FB: It might be too ambitious a purpose, but a sense of time and a sense of place were the main photographic drives on the trips. It wasn’t by accident that I traveled through the US both during the presidential election of 2016 and the midterm elections of 2018. I’m hoping that the photos I’ve taken might represent, as a whole, a glimpse into what America was during this period.
And I don’t mean the America being presently described through hysterical headlines in the papers or on TV; I mean the human, nuanced, aspect of the country. As I said though, this was a tough goal, and I don’t know yet if I have or will achieve it, but a man can dream.
Phoblographer: Because of the amount of travel and the length of the project, you’re going to need a workhorse of a camera. What’s your setup?
FB: I shot mainly with two cameras: A Canon 5D and a Fuji X100T. Though I shot a couple dozen rolls of Medium Format film on a Mamiya too on the second trip. I used the Canon when I was outdoors, and the Fuji mostly for indoors. Because it’s small and it’s not intimidating. I needed that to have people at ease while photographing them.
Phoblographer: What has been your biggest photographic challenge throughout the project?
FB: The biggest challenge was to go out and shoot. It might seem simple, maybe, but it wasn’t easy for me to maintain the energy or the will to shoot every day for months on end. Here I have to mention that, sometimes, I’d go for days on end without talking to anybody aside from the cashiers at the gas stations or the supermarkets where I’d stop. And this takes a toll on you where, if you don’t fight it, you turn into a hermit of some sort. Thankfully I had the chance to spend time with friends along the way, so this broke the pattern and gave me a reboot each time.
Phoblographer: This project has run for two years. Is there an end in sight?
FB: After the second trip, I ran into the harsh reality that I ran out of money and I’m up to my ears in debt. So there’s not a third trip anytime soon. I’m moving to Ireland in a few months for a full-time job. Hopefully, that’ll give me the opportunity to get back on my feet again. It would also allow me to do a mini-trip to Lebanon, Maine next September with my friend David Horton as we always go to that town together.
This aside, now it’s time for me to work on editing and sequencing the photos. I want to do two books; a photo book, and a travel narrative book. Of course, this is easier said than done, but that’s my goal now. I don’t know how long it’ll take me, especially for the second one, but I’m working on it.
Phoblographer: Having gone to so many different towns, what have you learned about the relationship between the US and the name/history of Lebanon?
FB: Most of the American Lebanons had their name chosen as a biblical reference. As the early settlers were moving about the country, they often saw trees which they mistook for cedars. They were reminded of a psalm verse that says, “The righteous shall grow like a palm tree; they will multiply like the cedar of lebanon,” and that’s how the town was named. It’s almost the same story for many of them, which was also why they’d have the cedar tree as their emblem. Other than that, the towns didn’t really have any connection with my Lebanon.
However, in 1955, seven mayors from US Lebanons came to visit Beirut, and they were each given a Cedar of Lebanon sapling (which isn’t native to the US), and they planted it in their towns. I tried finding these trees on the first trip, and when I didn’t find many, I came back on the second trip and planted a dozen of our trees (which is our national emblem on the flag) in these Lebanons.
Phoblographer: For anyone looking to do a long-term photography project, what advice would you give them?
FB: It’s easy to lose motivation or to experience highs and lows while on a long-term project. So in that sense, it’s really important to have a support system. I initially didn’t and I learned the hard way.
Phoblographer: Out of all the Lebanon’s you have visited, which has been your favorite one to photograph and why?
FB: Lebanon Junction, Kentucky was definitely my favorite to photograph. The town visually feels like it’s stuck in some past era. And the people there are eccentric as hell. The one bar there is owned and operated by a woman who had her pet pig ‘porkchops’ with her while serving drinks. A patron insisted I was a federal agent and he asked that I smoke a joint with him and his mother as a way to prove I wasn’t. I had the best time there.
To keep up to date with Fadi and his travels, be sure to visit his website and Instagram.