All images by Zayn Abunnasr. Used with permission.
On August 4th, 2020, the city of Beirut was struck with disaster. Lebanon’s capital was left in ruins after a large explosion in the city’s port area. Reports suggest around 180 people died in the explosion, with 6,000 people left injured. The people of the city, now in disarray, took to the streets to display their anger at a government they feel is largely to blame for what happened. On the ground, amongst the key-workers and general public, was photographer Zayn Abunnasr. Although primarily there to help clean up and support his city, he also wanted to ensure he was able to document. We spoke to Abunnasr to learn more about the mood on the ground in a city handling yet another crisis.
“I feel some pride because I do think that these pictures document a part of my country’s history…”— Zayn Abunnasr
Phoblographer: We imagine everyone is struggling, but please give us some detailed insight into what the mood is like on the ground right now?
Zayn Abunnasr: I feel like I can’t comment on how the mood is right now as I have mostly been staying home this past week due to the large rise in corona cases. But when I was down helping on the days after the blast, people were very kind to each other with Lebanese coming from all over the country to help. However, that kindness was masking a lot of anger and resentment that people felt towards the government and the ruling class who are to blame for this catastrophe. There is also a very large change in the attitude from the October 17th protests to the protests after the blast. During the October 17th protests in 2019, it felt like people were going down to have fun and protest, but during the recent protests, the mood was one of rage and desperation.
Phoblographer: Have you created photographs in a similar environment? How were you able to keep focused on documenting while also trying to absorb everything around you?
Zayn Abunnasr: I took pictures when I went down during the protests last year, so I kind of had a feel for trying to get the shot I wanted quickly. But it’s just become “normal” for the country to always be confusing and chaotic, so you kind of just learn to focus.
Phoblographer: Did you have any idea what you wanted to document before arriving at the scene, or was it a case of going with the flow and capturing what caught your eye?
Zayn Abunnasr: In the pictures of the blast, I was heading down to help clean with a couple of my friends and just thought I might as well take my camera. I was mostly going with the flow helping clean when I needed to and taking pictures when we walked from one place to another. Although I think it’s hard, especially given the circumstances, to know what I wanted to shoot beforehand. Save for taking a couple of pictures of the silo and the port itself.
Phoblographer: It’s a sensitive topic; you, of course, want to do it with dignity. Because you shoot film, did you feel added pressure to get the shots right? How did you manage that?
Zayn Abunnasr: Yeah, I definitely felt some pressure, especially once I realized that I used the wrong ISO film but, in the end, I think I got the shots I wanted.
“I mostly felt a mix of sadness and anger. Sadness that the home I love so much has been destroyed and anger at the government for destroying the city for us.”— Zayn Abunnasr
Phoblographer: Do you only shoot film, or was it a conscious decision to shoot analog over digital?
Zayn Abunnasr: Well, I used to use my father’s digital camera, but it stopped working recently and due to the high cost of anything imported these days we haven’t been able to fix it. I’ve been using a film camera that I had from a course at my university. However, I have grown to really like the process of shooting film as well the excitement/anxiousness I feel when getting it developed. I also feel as if the pictures I take with my film camera feel more tangible and more meaningful to me.
Phoblographer: What emotions were you feeling while documenting Beirut?
Zayn Abunnasr: I mostly felt a mix of sadness and anger. Sadness that the home I love so much has been destroyed and anger at the government for destroying the city for us.
Phoblographer: In your words, how do you feel about the photographs you created?
Zayn Abunnasr: I feel some pride because I do think that these pictures document a part of my country’s history, but what I mostly feel when looking at my pictures is, again, a mix of sadness and anger, which is a feeling that many Lebanese are feeling today.