A journey through Lebanon, Syria and Iraq between the ruins of the past and the rubble of the present | babelia

At the beginning of the 21st century, the French photographer Mathieu Pernot (Fréjus, France, 1970) received as a gift from his father an old album which brought together the photos taken by his grandfather in the Middle East in 1926. Based in Beirut, and like a good amateur In photography, the ruins aroused great fascination in René Pernot, magnified by the attraction exercised at the time by the exoticism of oriental culture. He visited part of Lebanon and neighboring Syria. I would travel to Tripoli (Libya). Also in Homs and Latakia, and would visit the ruins of Kalaat-el-Hosn, Baalbek and Palmyra. When the Syrian war broke out in 2011, this album began to acquire new meaning for his grandson, who began to consider the possibility of starting the same journey and reaching Aleppo and Mosul, two important enclaves devastated by the wars in Syria and Iraq. , respectively. He embarked on a journey among the various ruins of history. To these millennial vestiges photographed by the grandfather, a reflection of the splendor of ancient cultures, new ones have been added, synonymous with the failure of our civilization.

From there were born a book (edited by Atelier EXB) and an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris, entitled The ruin of his home (The ruin of his home). Both take on a new face after the tragic events of recent days. “When you see the photos of Ukraine and know that Syria was Putin’s school, you can’t help but think that the Syria of today could be the Ukraine of tomorrow” , lamented the photographer during a telephone conversation. Ukraine is already the third country with the most people who have been forced to take refuge, behind Venezuela and Syria, according to the UNHCR.

After receiving the 2019 HCB Prize for the best project close to documentary photography convened by the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, the photographer embarked on a journey. The capital of Lebanon was his first stop. He was lucky, the house his grandfather lived in with his children for 18 years, between 1940 and 1958, was available for rent through Airbnb. Almost a miracle, considering the devastation historic Beirut has suffered from war and real estate speculation. In these half-bare rooms, the echo of the protagonists of his family album still seemed to resound. After this moving experience, the author continues on his way and will not return to the city until a year later. The terrible explosion of an ammonium nitrate deposit in the port had flattened much of the city center a few days before. “The railings of the balcony of the family apartment were now in the street,” recalls the photographer. “They were used to prevent entry into the building.” So the rubble was piled on top of the rubble. After a long civil war of 15 years, the scars of which were palpable in the population and in the architecture, the charred ships and the towers of demolished cars stood like improvised sculptures by chance. “I have always felt more interested in the tragic history of the region than in the family history”, says the author. “I started to see how this old photo album has become universal, in a way, in the fragile history of Lebanon.”

Mosul, Iraq, 2019.Mathieu Pernot

Between these two trips to Beirut, the photographer takes us to a landscape of desolation, very different from the candid journey undertaken by his grandfather nearly a century in advance. A visit among the ruins that cover a period of more than 3,000 years of history. The author will travel to Tripoli, where the dilapidated facades of the buildings recall the harsh clashes that took place between 2011 and 2014, between Sunnis and Alawites. “In principle, I had decided to eliminate the human figure in my photographs”, explains Pernot. “But the sight of a man sleeping under the stars, with pigeons pecking at his side, his head leaning just below a wall where you could see the hole pierced by a shell, made me understand the importance of including the inhabitants of these spaces in the story.

The Greco-Roman ruins of Baalbek retain their majesty in eastern Lebanon, where the Temple of Bacchus remains one of the best preserved in the world, having escaped the scourge of barbarism. That’s not the case with Palmyra, Syria, a World Heritage site dynamited by jihadists in 2015. But it’s the scale of the new ruins that really impresses in this story. More than half of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been destroyed by bombing by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian ally. “In my photography, I don’t look for the aesthetic gesture,” emphasizes Pernot, “I consider myself a documentary photographer. The reality is so strong in these places that I always try to keep a certain distance from the subject. I avoid artifice to simply show what we see. It can become very spectacular, even sometimes one could say that it is beautiful, but he always sought a balance, reproducing reality as it is presented”.

Houses, Syria.  2020.
Houses, Syria. 2020.Mathieu Pernot

“It would not be possible to show the dimension of so many tragedies”, emphasizes Pernot. Thus, the author sometimes endeavors to photograph fragments of a scene that he sometimes opposes to others from the same place or from a different place to compose a sort of collage, like an archaeologist recomposing a room. “I am very interested in the reconstruction of spaces and the possibilities that photography offers for this”, says the author. The image of the Syrian dictator becomes almost ubiquitous amid the destruction. “It’s crazy. Each image is different, and the most paradoxical thing is that he is responsible for this landscape of devastation. It is curious to oppose the iconoclasm of Daesh to this disproportionate representation of the face of El Assad”.

In the old part of Mosul, in the north of Iraq, overlooking the Tigris, on the banks of which is the cradle of our civilization, two men discuss under a blue sky. Next to it and lining the road is a pile of rubble and rubble already almost reduced to dust. One of the men tells the photographer his house was right there. Among the ruins still lies the broken body of his wife. “When someone tells you that. You realize the extent of their suffering and the horror,” exclaims the author. “That’s why I wanted to include the series of portraits through which ends the book. Never forget that people lived in these buildings, some died, others had to flee. A photograph will never be able to account for the dimension of barbarism”.

The ruin of his home‘. Mathieu Pernot. Cartier Bresson Foundation. Paris. Until June 19.

The ruin of his home. Mathieu Pernot. EXB workshop. 120 pages. 45 euros.

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