Sowar: Picturing stories

Sowar magazine (the phonetic pronunciation of the word "pictures" in Arabic) is a bi-monthly photojournalism and documentary photography magazine that focuses on Lebanon, the Middle East and the Gulf.  The magazine presents photographs by pjotjournalists and photographers from around the world. The photos – which document things like poverty, graffiti, argileh culture and weddings – are usually accompanied by small bits of informative commentary.

Hassan Osman, the founder of Sowar and its editorial director, recently sat down with NOW Lebanon to talk about the idea behind the magazine and the value of photojournalism and documentary photography today.

NOW Lebanon: How did Sowar originate?

Hassan Osman: I’ve always been a fan of photojournalism and documentary photography. Around five years ago I thought about this project. I really wanted to do it, but at that time, I was in undergrad at the American University of Beirut, studying civil engineering. I was in a completely different field and had no money, in a way, to start something like this and frankly no time at all to do it, not to mention the experience. And so it was just an idea in the back of my mind, but I always thought about it… So I graduated and went to the states to do my masters… and while working, I was able to start this project on the side. I put together a team of expert photojournalists in the states who understand the domain very, very well. I talked to them, and I talked to designers, and they loved the idea. So we came together, and we launched, I think, in July of 2007, around a year ago.

The idea originally, well, we loved it. But we had no idea how to market it. We thought it was a fantastic idea, but then again, maybe only ten other people would also think that. So our first two issues were free of charge; we gave them free to university students in Lebanon, and that was sort of our word of mouth marketing strategy. We spent nothing on advertising or marketing our product. We just sent it out, and the feedback was beyond expectation.

OK, I thought people were going to like it, but I didn’t know the feedback was going to be beyond phenomenal, I mean, people wanted the issues; they were asking how to collect them, and they were calling it the National Geographic of the Middle East… which is great, and in fact, it is right next to National Geographic in newsstands in Lebanon, which, you know, gave me a great sense of gratification… So this is how, from a business side at least, it all started.

In terms of the concept, with photojournalism, it’s about giving picture intensive photos with minimal commentary… People have very little time to read today, and they want to flip through a magazine that is unique. And so this was one of the ideas: to give people as much photos as they want – and people can never have enough of those – with interesting stories behind them. So, we sort of flipped the model; magazines usually have a lot of text with very little photos. We have the exact opposite. It’s picture heavy with very little text along with it, and the model works. People like it.

NOW: Would you expand on the idea of the difference between photography and photojournalism? What makes a photograph photojournalism?

Hassan Osman: In essence, photojournalism is nothing but telling a story with photography. You can have photojournalism without having a caption, but usually that’s not the case. Usually you have a bit of text that comes with it. In true photography, you can have anything ranging from… pure abstraction, for example, to landscape photography… but with photojournalism, it’s telling the story with pictures… To me, at least at Sowar magazine, what we publish is not necessarily a photo that is very powerful. That is not what we care about in particular; we care about a good photo with a good story behind it.

NOW: Right now, news organizations are starting to focus much more on the internet and people are going to the web more and more for their news. What affect will that have on photojournalism?

Hassan Osman: I’d like to answer that in two parts: the first being the effect of this on Sowar magazine and the second being the effect on photojournalism in general.

In terms of the effect on Sowar magazine, I think we have an edge by publishing photos in print. This is for several reasons: First, you go through a cycle of filtering out photos, which are great, and that have stories versus photos that have weak content. So the first edge we have is that we do act as a filter from the hundred and fifty maybe billion photos that are on the web.

[On the web] It’s just so ubiquitous that it becomes, I don’t want to say monotonous, but it becomes, sort of a commodity. It’s just there… So we do all of the filtering; we look for and present the stories behind them, and we publish them.

The second thing, and I really believe this, is that a picture deserves to be printed, especially a good picture. There is something about having the palpable feel of a picture in your hand, being able to look at it from different angles, rather than on a screen…

In the meetings I’ve had with photographers here, what I hear from them is that… in the Arab world…there is a lack of people who understand the value of photojournalism… There are a lot of excellent photographers, but only a handful of excellent photojournalists… So is there room to improve, yes, and we believe that we are taking the lead in at least defining this landscape.

NOW: What sort of tradition of photojournalism exists in the region?

Hassan Osman: It is lacking. Even if you talk to the major newspaper editors, you rarely find someone who is responsible for choosing the photos that go along with a story. A lot of the time it’s the person who is writing the story, or the graphic designer... but there rarely are people who are dedicated to just that.  If you look at the big news agencies… there are people who do this, they have job titles called “photoeditors.”

NOW: Broadly speaking, what is it about photography makes it valuable for journalism? What can it offer that text cannot offer? Or is there anything?

Hassan Osman: I think that’s highly dependent on the type of story. If you’re conducting an interview about a product that was just launched… I think photography has very little impact in this case… However, if you’re talking about, like today, the [Hezbollah-Israel prisoner exchange], if you just write about something like that, I think it has a lot less of an effect than it would if you included a photo along with it. So I think it depends. But it definably has a very powerful effect; it can move you at least ten times more than only the text alone could.

NOW: Can you talk a bit about the civil war issue?

During the May violence, the Sowar team decided that we wanted to do something about this. We were like, as a magazine that focuses on photography and on photojournalism what can we do so that what happened does not get repeated. I mean, we were in the brink of civil war and we wanted to sort of remind people of the horrors of civil war and we launched this Let Us Not Forget campaign… So we got in touch with nine photographers; many of them very famous during the civil war or the Lebanese civil war actually launched them into fame… one of them is the Pulitzer prize winner Bill Foley who on actually won the Pulitzer prize for the Sabra and Shatila images and one of them is actually published in Sowar…

NOW: Do you think that something like this issue of Sowar, photojournalism of this kind, can have a real impact? Do you think it has the potential to actually make people reflect and say to themselves, “Let’s not do this again”?

Hassan Osman: Without a doubt – without a doubt.

Sowar is now available in all major Lebanese bookstores including Virgin Megastores, Malik's, Antoine and Halim. You can also find it in large supermarket chains such as Spinney's, ABC and Geant.

  • Claudia G

    As much as a picture is worth 1000 words, and pictures taken during the civil war would be well over the 1000 word parameters, I am doubtful that the photos would have enough impact to stop another war from happening. Multiple generations of Lebanese have been, and still are, affected by the Civil War, and yet a large number of them do not seem to have absorbed its impact - the recent May violence only goes to show that those who are intent on using violence as a tool, as a means to gain what they want, politically and socially, will do so at whatever cost. Unfortunately, the cost is too high - Lebanon cannot afford to lose another generation of its people to war and violence, and should not accept them as long-term solutions to any conflict that may arise among its extremely diverse population.

    July 23, 2008