Maya Gebeily

Whose excellencies?

Lamia Abillama's stunningly unconventional take on political portraiture

Your Excellencies
Member of Parliament Wiam Wahhab reclines in a track jacket
Visitors at Galerie Tanit in Mar Mikhael, Beirut
Your Excellencies
Your Excellencies
Your Excellencies
Your Excellencies
Your Excellencies

Wedged between two thick red bands, former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud grasps his belly and laughs. Head of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea stares back at you from his perch on the edge of his bed, as MP Wiam Wahhab smugly reclines in his track jacket.


48 of these portraits, part of photographer Lamia Abillama’s “Your Excellencies” exhibit, line every wall of the concrete room at Galerie Tanit. Some eerie, some comical, they are all striking. The unconventional photographs break down the sterility of press conferences and formal portraits – which, according  to Abillama, is exactly what she wanted.


“For the last 30 or 50 years in Lebanon, the situation [has been] dramatic,” Abillama told NOW by phone. “When you see things falling apart, there’s always a responsibility. Who are the responsible ones? The people who are ruling us.” In an effort to understand the political class ruling her country of origin, Abillama sought to photograph prominent figures in a place that would show their real faces – their homes.


The result is an array of photographs in living rooms, hallways, personal offices, and even bedrooms.  In her effort to capture the characters and personalities of each figure, Abillama was very intentional about the settings. She took a five minute tour of each man’s home, with his bodyguards in tow. After choosing three or four locations, she speedily set up her lamps and her equipment, and the entire shoot would be done in an hour.


“Every picture is staged to find exactly what I want,” she told NOW. And it shows: the images are up-front, clear, and in your face. A casual observer might miss the details, but it would be a mistake to do so; Abillama’s careful construction of the shots, down to the last minutiae, carries a message. “Amin Gemayel is in the corner, because for me the Gemayel people suffered tragedy. Amin is almost an actor on TV – tall, and so on. By putting him in the corner, you break the façade. He becomes defenseless, he becomes the real man.”


For men who are accustomed to – and even raised on – the elements of power, dignity, strength, and public image, it’s remarkable to see them willingly photographed in almost vulnerable positions. So, how did Abillama do it? “I’m very aggressive, I don’t give them a chance to think,” she said. “I tell him to sit here, he says, ‘yes, yes,’ and before he realizes what’s going on, I’m done.” Her shoot with Gemayel took less than three minutes. Geagea’s, apparently, took a little bullying.


“He took me into the office, and said this is where you must take my picture,” Abillama recalled. “I said I’m not here to shoot your office – he said, how? How dare I tell him no?” During a reluctant tour of his home, Geagea showed Abillama his bedroom, and she immediately picked it as the perfect setting. “I saw the bedroom, I said this is my picture.”


Other stand-out shots include former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is blatantly overshadowed in his own portrait by images of his father on all sides. Patriarch Beshara al-Rai’s mirror image, too, was very intentional: “I wanted to put him facing himself,” said Abillama. “When you look at yourself, what do you have? The truth. I want to bring him to his responsibilities.”


A look at Abillama’s previous work reveals that environmental photography is her strength – but her other projects were mostly women. NOW asked the photographer whether capturing the almost exclusively-male political class in Lebanon was an artistic challenge. “I felt like it was the exact same thing, except I had to be more aggressive with men,” she said. “Quick, demanding, ordering. They did not have time or patience.”


Though the settings vary, there is a unifying factor in the photographs: general malaise. “There is a very, very strange look in their eyes. A discomfort,” she said. “The political class is not happy, is not at ease.” The only smiling subject out of the four dozen photographs is Emile Lahoud, and even that, according to Abillama, “is a parody.”


Beyond the actual portraits, the display itself is an imposing one. Broad red lines flank the photographs from the top and bottom, mirroring the design of the Lebanese flag. The positioning gives the portraits’ subjects the appearance of being stuck, constrained, squeezed in by the bands and whatever obscure national responsibilities are meant to come with them. Simultaneously, though, each portrait takes the place of the cedar tree in the Lebanese flag, with every subject becoming a centerpiece, a self-proclaimed national symbol, perhaps unaware that every other portrait in the room is identically positioned.


“Everybody is by himself, like in feudal times,” Abillama said. “In other countries, you have one tree. Here, you have hundreds of trees.”


“There is no national cedar. They are each a cedar.”


“Your Excellencies” is on display at Galerie Tanit, in Mar Mikhael, until January 27. Gallery hours are Mondays to Fridays, 11 AM to 7 PM, and Saturdays, 11 AM to 5 PM. Abillama’s other work is available on her website: www.lamiaabillama.com.

The thick red bands that flank the row of photographs add to the striking design.

“I’m very aggressive, I don’t give them a chance to think. I tell him to sit here, he says, ‘yes, yes,’ and before he realizes what’s going on, I’m done.”