On October 25th, Lebanese photographer Mohamad Abdouni launched his solo exhibition, “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” at the Mina Image Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
The exhibition builds on his personal and extensive body of work regarding the Lebanese queer community, directly spotlighting 10 transgender women living in Beirut.
Amdouni shot his photographs against a backdrop reminiscent of Lebanese photo studios, where absurd props, costumes, and eccentric poses dominated. The final exhibited photos depict a dreamy hue, with the spotlight transcending the subjects to a celestial plane above the background. In simpler terms, the featured women looked angelic.
The exhibition also closely entwined the photographs with personal accounts of navigating Beirut in the ‘80s and ‘90s as transpersons.
Abdouni is a Lebanese photographer whose body of work most clearly defines itself through its images of Queer bodies. During his showcase at the Mina Image Center, he sat down with Beirut Today to discuss his work, the exhibition, and how he brought this body of work to light.
Q: Can you give me the elevator pitch of Cold Cuts magazine?
A: Cold Cuts Magazine is a platform that can exist in different formats, and acts as an umbrella to the work I do, currently exploring queer cultures in the SWANA region. It makes my published work easier to find and tames my disorder well-framed and defined.
Q: You were once dubbed “the man documenting Lebanon’s queer community to combat his fear of forgetting.” Are queer narratives forgotten or intentionally erased?
A: It’s very apparent that queer history has been erased for specific political reasons, but some stories have also been forgotten. When it comes to erasure, we have political actors to blame, but when it comes to our rich history being forgotten, we only have ourselves to blame.
An example that directly jumps to mind is how in the early 2000s gay clubs and bars in the country started banning Trans women. That rejection fuels the forgetting of queer history by ostracizing part of the community.
Q: Does your work focus on the “erasure” or the “forgetting” of queer narratives?
A: I wouldn’t claim it focuses on one over the other because my work isn’t necessarily always pre-meditated.
Q: In a previous interview, you described your work as a ‘very beautiful coincidence’, have you always had this inherent interest in covering queer stories?
A: My interest stems from a build-up of frustration and curiosity to know more about the history of my community and the people I identify with. Earlier in my career, that frustration seeped in little by little.
Once I fulfill my thirst for that knowledge I realize that others must share the same curiosities and frustrations about where they come from. That’s where I start thinking about packaging the work and the research in a way that can be accessible to whoever might want to delve into it with me.
Q: What role did the queer and drag scenes play in inspiring your work?
A: I’m lucky in that my best friend in the whole world is Anya Kneez* had been doing drag in Brooklyn growing up then moved here about 15 years ago. We met, she became my everything, we spent every waking hour together and I got to experience her frustration regarding being able only to have a show once a year when in Brooklyn. She battled on and created a space for herself, her frustration, and her flourishing. I’m lucky to have gotten to experience that from the inside.
Q: Speaking of your newest exhibition “Treat Me Like Your Mother”, I read that a phone call from Anya regarding a particular Trans woman’s story sparked the whole project. How did that go about?
A: Anya called me at 3 AM crying, frustrated about a harrowing story that she had heard at an open mic that even she, as an active member of the community, wasn’t aware of. As we lose these stories, we also lose the people behind them. So that’s what ignited the Treat Me Like Your Mother project.
Q: The goal behind your project is to steer away from the over-exploited Trans trauma by exploring Trans joy and dreams, what prompted that?
A: My team and I wanted to decenter ourselves and become facilitators and tools for these transgender women to tell their stories as they wish. For example, Katya and Kimo’s stories were based on love and relationships, those are the pillars of their lives. Whereas Antonella’s story revolved around the [sex-affirming] surgery.
Unlike the media treatment, they’re used to, we wanted to put them in control as much as possible. And that translated to every detail, including the photo shoot – the point of which was to offer these 10 women a pampering with professional hair, makeup, and wardrobe people.
Q: How hard was it to gain these women’s trust? Can you pinpoint a moment when the trust between you and them was established?
A: I had felt the desire and need to prove myself more, the amount of love and respect I had towards these women I had never met was surreal. I remember particularly Em Abed, who kept her walls up around us the longest but then showed up unannounced the next morning with a collection of 400 archival images to share with us. These photos are now available at the Arab image foundation for anyone to discover and build on.
Q: Do you think “Treat Me Like Your Mother” has fulfilled its intended goal or do you foresee yourself expanding this project?
A: I’m not entirely sure. The exhibition is now coming to an end but we’re also working on a movie set to premiere next year – it’s about 80 percent done.
Abdouni’s book, Treat Me Like Your Mother, containing the stories and photos of the ten transgender women he documented, can be accessed for free through the following link.