Equipped with his Leica cameras, the young, French photographer, Rafael Yaghobzadeh, is always at the heart of the action. He has been taking pictures in Lebanon – exploring the Zeitgeist in the country, in society and in the cities. His work is made up of documentary, journalistic and often very personal images. Together they represent a visual testimonial that speaks of a country in crisis.
What comes to mind first when you think of Lebanon?
When I think about Lebanon – I see the sea, the mountains and the sun. I could think the same thing about Marseille, Napoli or other Mediterranean cites, but in the case of Lebanon it will be more about colours – the blue, the green and the yellow.
How do you perceive the crisis in the country in recent years?
I perceive the crisis in a very emotional and personal way. My maternal grandmother – Colette – was Lebanese and my mother – Nadine – was born in Alexandria, but lived as a youth in Beirut, even during the civil war. My father met her there at the time, and they settled together in Paris. When I and my family went for my mother’s birthday in October 2019, it was the first time I spent any amount of time in Lebanon. Literally everything I had seen that year, was destroyed in less than 60 seconds, the following year. On assignment a few days after the port explosion in August 2020, I visited the cemetery where my grandmother is buried and found that her head stone had been destroyed by the blast. In a way, I can feel at home there, but in another way working there affects me.
Your images are part of a long time project. Could you elaborate on this?
The images are part of a long-term project I started in 2019, and which I continue to work on. Before beginning it, I had worked continuously in Ukraine for five years. I wanted to have a break and I ended up in Lebanon. On the whole, when I start a project, I like it to be long-term. Time gives it power: the purpose is to follow subjects while going in all directions; perhaps you follow different points of view, as you improve your knowledge about history, places, and the flow.
What was your photographic approach when you started this project?
When I started this project, my photographic approach was initially a « news » one, because in October 2019, the country was facing a historic uprising – the thawra protests. My pictures were published in Le Monde, Internazionale and others magazines. The next year, I arrived three days after the port explosions and worked for Liberation, the Globe and Mail, and Paris Match. Since then, I’ve always been working on assignment. I also started to work on personal projects with different formats – 120mm, instant camera, telephone camera. It is a way to step back and freely compose an essay – like an investigation into your roots, about a part of your identity. I’m planning to go back at the end of 2022, to continue my personal projects.
Tahani – the wife of Naji Fliti – a 40-year-old stonecutter and father of two children, who had been found hanged near his home, on 01 December 2019 in Ersal, on the border with Syria, Lebanon. In 2019, as a result of the economic crisis the suicide rate was 171, a phenomenon that increased in 2020.
Who are the people you portray and how did you choose your subjects?
The people portrayed are from different social classes and religions; people who faced the crisis in a very critical and painful way. Like Raida who lost his father-in-law due to the shortage of medicine, or Tahani whose husband hung himself as he couldn’t feed his daughter. I wanted to highlight the people who lost everything with those who were already in a precarious and vulnerable situation before the crisis. The purpose is to show how a country can collapse and take its population with it. I choose my subjects for a journalistic or a personal approach. First of all, I read a lot about the subject, do a lot of research, talk about it with people who are part of it or out of it, like editors, colleagues, and friends; then I estimate its feasibility and choose an appropriate moment to work on it.
What were the biggest challenges from a photographic point of view?
The biggest challenge was to be astute enough to produce different images of a country that has faced a post-conflict crisis since the nineties, and has been photographed for decades. Objectively speaking, however, to photograph chaos and misfortune is always very challenging – the challenge being to keep the right distance.
Lebanese celebrate the feast of the Assumption in the area affected by the double explosions in the port – in Beirut, Lebanon, August 15, 2020.
How did the Leica system help you accomplish your goals?
I’ve been using Leica systems for more than ten years. Today I mostly use the Leica Q and the M240. I feel satisfied with the Leica systems, even when I work with just one camera and one lens, while on a month of assignments in Lebanon.
Born in Paris in 1991, Rafael Yaghobzadeh studied History at the Sorbonne. In 2011 he was on location during the Arab uprisings, and then went on to report on other uprisings and conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. Three years later he began to deal with the refugee situation in Calais, Paris and on the Balkan route. Since 2014, he has been documenting the situation in Ukraine, and the many facets of society there – from the revolution in Kiev, to the referendum in Crimea and the war in Donbass. Yaghobzadeh increasingly combines writing and documentary film projects with photography. Based in Paris, he works regularly for media outlets such as Le Monde and the Associated Press. His work has been published in the likes of Libération, Stern, Der Spiegel, Le Temps, Le Figaro, Fisheye and Polka Magazine. in February 2022, he documented the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and spent four months there, working for Liberation and Le Monde. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.