The Artists in Conversation

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Conversation between Matt Schneider, Fadi BouKaram, and Joe Cory. November, 2016

Matt Schneider To start, why don’t you two introduce yourselves? Fadi, would you mind telling us who you are?

Fadi BouKaram I was born and raised in Lebanon. I was originally a computer engineer, and in 2005, I moved to San Francisco to get an MBA. After that I went back home and worked in finance. In 2016, I decided I wanted to take a break and focus on my photography because during the time I was working in finance, I was kind of developing my skills as a photographer.

MS How long have you been taking photos?

FB I bought my first camera in 2002. I was just taking photos of landscapes and similar subjects, but it was just to look at pretty things. I eventually started taking photos of people. I thought people were much more interesting than landscapes. In 2012, I took a workshop in street photography. I was hooked and from that time, I’ve focused on photos of people since they have better stories to tell than landscapes.

MS Can you define street photography?

FB In its simplest form, street photography is taking candid shots of people in public spaces. It’s called “street” because it started in the street, but it developed into photos of people in any public space. So when I take photos in church, it’s considered street photography because they are candid, observational photos with me trying to be invisible and not interfering in the scene itself.

MS What is it about people for you?

FB It’s a personal thing. Lebanon is a country that had a civil war until 1990. When I was a kid growing up, I had a lot of questions about people and their motivations, what pushes them to hurt others. I had a problem with how I identified with other people. Taking photos of them is therapeutic for me because it makes my relationship with them less problematic. I try to identify with them, to understand them, to be empathetic—to hate them less, basically.

MS Joe, would you introduce yourself?

Joe Cory I grew up in the Midwest, in Iowa. I made my way to Chicago to finish school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and eventually I earned my MFA at the University of Chicago. My background is in painting, and now I’m an art professor at Samford University in Birmingham. My work began more figurative and landscape-based, but over time it has become more abstract. I’m most interested in the formal elements of composition and color, and manipulating those things to create an image that makes sense visually. I’m not as interested in recreating things I can see with my eyes. I’m much more interested in creating things we can’t see.

MS Tell us about your current project in this exhibition.

JC In 2013 I spent time in South Africa studying the influence art had on the post-apartheid reconciliation process. I was looking at how opposed people groups were able to use art as a vehicle to give them a voice, humanize their struggle, and help them heal. When I came back to the States, the idea of art in the context of social justice lingered in my mind. Recently, I became more interested in and aware of the migrant crisis currently happening in the Middle East and Europe. What has resonated most for me is the notion of people trying to escape conflict and encountering the response of many Europeans and Americans. This made me think about the role my culture plays in the conflict. As a Christian, I also see things through a Biblical lens, so the migrant crisis brings up notions of hospitality and how we are instructed to treat aliens and strangers. I think of the Exodus and the parallels of one people group leaving a place that is familiar, but under conflict, for a new place.

I also think a lot about how my understanding of the conflict is shaped and informed. My experience is not firsthand. Instead, it has been influenced through the media, by seeing snippets in the news or images of drowned children on my Facebook feed. I recognize that my experience is very much filtered and directed by our media, which adds a whole other layer of separation—the notion of wanting to help, but feeling helpless because I’m so separated in both geography and context. So I see the crisis from a more abstract point of view instead of a first person encounter.

MS Fadi, you have direct experience being in the Middle East with the migrant crisis. Can you explain how the conflict comes to play in your photography?

FB The migrant problem shaped my photography not because I was taking photos of them, but because I was trying to avoid taking photos of them. When the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon began in 2013, I was only shooting photography on the streets of Beirut. But when the refugees came, I noticed that the instant I lifted my camera to take photos of them, I could see fear in their eyes. This wasn’t isolated. It was most of them. It became obvious to me, knowing their history, that they used to live in a police state, and photography was used against them. For me it wasn’t worth it to take photos of subjects in fear. So I turned my attention away from the streets, and I started going to places like churches where I’d be able to take photos with more comfort. At the same time, because of the refugees and my problems with my own people, I started taking a lot of faceless photographs partly because it was my initial way of trying to resolve the problem of me not liking my people. I would take their photos, but they didn’t get to have faces.

MS You’ve mentioned a couple of times your dislike of people from Lebanon and wanting to hate them less. Would you talk through that?

FB When you grow up as a kid during a war, you start developing a fear and hatred of adults, who in your mind are all responsible for what happened at the time. When I grew up I started noticing this problem. It didn’t become clear to me until a bit later when I was taking their photos. I would feel an actual physical repulsion when I was tying to take a photo of someone from Lebanon. I wanted to be empathetic, but I just couldn’t because all these flashbacks would race through my mind. Now I’m tying to have a more positive stance toward my identity as Lebanese without having the baggage. Joe mentioned being Christian. There is an element of Christianity for me to my identity too. In Matthew 5, Jesus talks about loving your enemies. What good are you if you only love those who love you?

JC I think similarly in the sense that I’m trying to recognize that Middle Easterners are not our enemies. As Americans, especially since 9/11, it’s been so drilled into our minds that we should fear people from the Middle East. I’m trying to say, that’s not true. Fadi mentioned Matthew. I often think about Luke 11, the parable of the man who comes and knocks on a neighbor’s door at midnight and asks for bread for a friend who’s been traveling. The neighbor responds that it’s too late, and he’s not going to open the door out of friendship, but out of the neighbor’s audacity to even ask for help. What I want to say is, we have friends who are knocking on our doors and asking for help. Why aren’t we answering?

My wife and I are going through the Bible with our kids and we recently read Exodus 4 where God tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak. Then Moses pulls his hand out, and it has leprosy, and it’s all white from the disease. God then tells Moses to put his hand back inside his cloak. Moses pulls it out, and it’s brown again because God heals it. When reading that passage my kids were surprised Moses was brown. Of course he’s brown. Jesus was brown. These were Middle Easterners. What did we expect? But the illustration that accompanies the story illustrates Moses as white even though it says brown. It’s ingrained in our culture that the Biblical characters look like us, but in reality they look like the migrants on the boats. Yet we’re unwilling to open our doors in their hour of need and give them bread. That’s a big contradiction I am trying to point out: these people aren’t our enemies and we have an obligation, because of our faith, to open our doors to them.

MS For both of you there is the presence of the migrants, especially from Syria, in your art, but they’re not actually in the work. With Joe, it’s abstract. With Fadi, they’re left outside of the frame intentionally. But that means they are part of the art.

JC Even though my images aren’t directly related to Syria, they subtly point in that direction. They’re abstract—fragmented and broken apart. They’re based on images of ocean charts and navigational symbols, so there are references to the sea, which has played a large role in this crisis.

FB For me, there is something I still have a lot of guilty feelings about. I remember in first grade I was in a catechism class, and the teacher asked us to write a one-sentence prayer. It said, dear God, please kill all the Syrians, Israelis, and Palestinians. That was my first prayer. I was six-years-old.

MS Wow. Why did you pray that?

FB Back then all three were bombing us. It was part of the civil war. Each Lebanese faction sided with one of the foreign groups. I remember the teacher coming to me, and saying, you can’t pray for this. If you pray for someone else to be killed, God is going to be upset with you. Even though it’s been more than 30 years, I still feel guilty that as a kid I had such hateful feelings. I feel a need to do something to overcome it either by not putting the blame on all of these folks or by putting the blame on myself—examining my people and myself.

MS What are your feelings toward the people from Lebanon now that you’ve gone through several years of photography while wanting to hate them less?

FB I can say I understand them more, but it’s kind of difficult. Joe mentioned the reconciliation process in South Africa. In Lebanon, we still haven’t done this even though the civil war is over. Now we act as if it never happened. There’s still a lot of resentment from one party to the next, but they’re each at fault. The really toxic problem is that even though the war ended in 1990, we have these kids who were born after this siding with political factions that ceased to exist before they were born. We have a whole generation attached to a bloody history that they weren’t a part of because there hasn’t been reconciliation, adhering to their parents’ beliefs without questioning any of it.

JC That’s really interesting. Now that I live in the South, I’ve observed a similar pattern with the Civil Rights Movement. Many people avoid the topic so reconciliation can’t take place. I think that’s where a lot of our political unrest over the last few years comes from—a lot of those remaining scars have been ignored.

MS Why do we pretend like these conflicts never happened?

JC I think some of it here is the shame that comes with acknowledging the mistakes of our collective past. By acknowledging past mistakes, you have to deal with the guilt that comes with it. It’s much easier to ignore mistakes than to deal with them.

FB In a way people have been trying to erase a lot of the bloody parts of history. After the civil war in Lebanon ended and a history book was written, it kind of expunged all the bad parts and made the war sound quite distant. It didn’t include any information about the real causes or what people did. It’s as if it were some impersonal account of something bad that happened to us—that we weren’t responsible but the victims. If you ask most Lebanese people about the war, they would describe it as a battle between other people on our land, which is only partly true. But we were responsible. We participated. We killed the same way they killed. This is not just a Lebanese thing. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but the way it goes in Arab history is we never acknowledge our mistakes. It’s always someone else’s fault. Again, it’s not good to stereotype on an individual level, but at national levels, that’s how it is.

When I was covering the garbage crisis last year, the demonstrations were just extinguished because a lot of the media about it was saying the demonstrators were not Lebanese people but people being paid by a foreign country—that our own people would never do this. We’re repeating what we did 40 years ago, pretending we did nothing wrong. There was a little bit of change with people questioning the news stories, but it’s going to take a long time to turn around.

MS Are you hoping your photography will push back against this phenomenon?

FB With my photography I want to focus on those bad elements, and say, we did this. We can’t keep saying these bad things have nothing to do with our culture. They have a lot to do with Middle Eastern culture, which is bloody whether we like it or not. It might be difficult for someone outside the Arab world to say this without being accused of stereotyping. But for me, it’s not stereotyping. I have lived in the region all my life. I know how violent we are. So we can’t say it’s not us. We’re not a peaceful culture, whether we like it or not.

MS Is there anything hopeful about Middle Eastern culture—Muslim, Christian, or otherwise—that we might not know about?

FB The only hope for the Middle East is to become a secular society. Secular does not mean irreligious. It just means all laws have to be separated from religion. There needs to be a reinterpretation of how religion works in a civilized society. Otherwise, people’s rights will not be guaranteed. For example, in Lebanon, Christians can’t go to city hall to have a civil marriage. We have to get married in the church whether we want to or not. It’s the same for the Muslims. Unfortunately, you have these countries that were once secular in a Muslim-majority society, and they were developing really well, but now through efforts of extremism, they have regressed to a state that is pretty much medieval. If there’s a conclusion we can take from these countries, it’s that you have to have separation of religion and state. We cannot go back to a society governed by religious laws. Leave religion to the spiritual sectors.

MS Joe, what are some hopes with your art? Why do you create what you do?

JC Middle Eastern history and the current migrant crisis are really complex issues, and I hope my work can be an entry point to start thinking about these topics. As Americans, we too often get caught up in materialistic and relatively trivial matters. But these topics we’re discussing are really important because there are lives at stake. I think we see this issue as not having anything to do with us because it’s about other people on the other side of the world. I wonder how our response would change if instead we saw these people as our brothers and sisters. Maybe we’d have more urgency to help those who are stuck in the middle.

MS What’s the difference between art that gets people to think and propaganda? How is what you’re doing not propaganda?

JC I don’t have an agenda other than I’m trying to bring light to a situation and maybe spread a little compassion. I feel like propaganda often has an underlying agenda in some way that’s perhaps menacing. You have to trust that the artist is being genuine and honest in their thinking and in their work— the reason they’re doing their work leads back to more authentic questions and answers. Hopefully it isn’t necessarily a hidden agenda that’s trying to steer people to think a certain way that’s going to benefit the artist. That’s not always clear, depending on who is looking at the art and their understanding of the world.  

FB Propaganda always brings to mind an element of power from someone trying to spread a message by force. At an individual level, a lot of art is not about other people. It’s a study of one’s own self. If you’re really genuine, you can’t lie about that. You’re just studying yourself and putting it out there, so there is vulnerability in it. I don’t know if propaganda could ever be vulnerable.

JC That’s right, propaganda comes from a place of power, whereas my work is my own process of trying to figure out the world. I have no power other than the ability to create objects that are vehicles to help me think about these issues in more complex ways and reflect my experiences in the world.

MS You could almost say your canvas is a mirror. Or, Fadi, when you’re taking a photograph of a person, to a certain extent it’s almost holding up a mirror to yourself.

JC Yes, absolutely.