Lebanon’s photography industry has always been dominated by men, whose work has been championed over the years. Nonetheless, living and working in a patriarchal society, where women are expected to conform to conventional roles and expectations, notoriously limits the potential of women.
But more recently, women have been able to carve out their own place in photography and social media, frequently going beyond what society deems “appropriate.” These women have questioned gender norms, looked into identity difficulties, and brought attention to societal injustices via their work.
They have celebrated each other’s victories together and helped one another get through challenges. And as they come head to head with Lebanese society every day, something becomes more and more apparent: the societal norms will never be combated if there aren’t enough people willing to combat.
Social media in Lebanon has become a powerful weapon for young changemakers and challengers to stand in the face of societal norms and combat the rooted conservatism. Beirut Today sat down with a few women to ask them questions on their career journey so far: what challenges have they faced as a result of their sex? And how has social media helped propel their work forward?
Lebanon and nude photography
Amongst the countless taboos in Lebanese society, nude photography and nude images are deemed as a disgrace and as something that should be kept private to uphold the dignity of Lebanese individuals. In Lebanon, women are often subject to shame surrounding their bodies and sexualities.
Women who choose to post nude photography on their social media accounts are subject to harassment through the comments, with many calling the work “shameful” and “inappropriate”, among other things.
Despite the challenges, the name calling, and the harassment, some women still choose to push forward. One of these women is photographer Rowane Bou Habib, a young emerging photographer whose work often looks at the intimacy of the human body. Bou Habib took artistic nude photographs of both females and males, gaining popularity and recognition, before she decided to stop filming.
“A lot of people supported my work and saw that I was breaking taboos in Lebanon but when my account started growing, a lot of people took the opportunity to say that I was giving in to male desires and they thought that my work was sexual,” says Bou Habib.
Photographers in Lebanon, like Bou Habib, face a lot of challenges due to the patriarchal and taboo-based society that they live in.
“When it comes to nude photography in Lebanon, female photographers face more challenges than male photographers because of the social and cultural taboos around women displaying their bodies,” Bou Habib adds.
Bou Habib explained to Beirut Today how she has struggled with nude photography in Lebanon, with many women fearful or ashamed of expressing themselves in this way in front of the lens. Several women voice the fear of being discovered and becoming the subject of discrimination and judgment out of the desire to display her body.
“After my account was reported, it was shut down… I took it as a sign to stop since I had some people who were against my work and were always going to try to shut it down. Now, I still post sensual content, but not nudity. Since I [now] live in the United States, it’s easier for me to get back to it,” explains Bou Habib.
Similarly, photographer and videographer Jana Khoury told Beirut Today that the Lebanese society has not made it easy for her to challenge the narrative.
“I’ve posted a lot of self-portraits in which I’m visibly nude. I’ve also done these kinds of shoots with men, but I have a lot more trouble when it comes to sharing those because I fear judgment,” says Khoury.
Lebanon and street photography
Lebanon’s streets have never truly been a safe haven for women, but in recent years, the security situation has deteriorated beyond control. It has become very threatening for women to walk alone in the streets of Lebanon due to fear of sexual harassment, catcalling, theft, and in the more severe cases, rape.
The situation becomes worse when it comes to female street photographers walking around Lebanon’s streets sporting a camera.
Historically, it was often men who took to the streets with their cameras, which has nowadays led to the popularization of the view that photography is only a serious endeavour if pursued by men.
“I’ve actually once had an encounter where a man was screaming outside of a shop where I was filming. I went out to ask him to lower his voice. He walked [back] to me, staring at me dead in the eyes and said: “I’m not a very stable man. If you weren’t a girl, this wouldn’t have ended well,”” reported Khoury.
“When I go out to film during protests, I see around me quite a bit of young female photographers but a lot of old men photojournalists,” says Tamara Saade, a journalist and photographer living in Beirut. She is best known for her street photography, and some of her most popular photographs include those where she has turned the lens back towards men, conveying the intimacy of their bodies on the Corniche of Beirut.
“It’s about going beyond the status quo and challenging it to be able to think beyond who are the legacy people we have always been used to when we think of photojournalists, because there are so many photojournalists out there, but we do not see their work because society tends to prioritize men,” says Saade.
Women photographers taking towards the streets has become a regular occurrence in Lebanon, but many still express surprise and shock when they see them do so.
“When people see a female photographer, they tend to be more docile than with males and they feel a bit less threatened. But because of this less threatening aspect, they do not take a woman with a camera as seriously and do not feel intimidated by her or her camera,” adds Saade.
Saade even reported being subject to sexual harassment while attempting to take photos in parties or concerts where one guy tried to grab her from behind as she was mistaken for a hobbyist, rather than a photographer on the job.
“I always subconsciously feel like I’m being watched when I’m walking on the street. I try my best to avoid eye contact with men. I would feel that having a camera on me would only reinforce that feeling, and that has actually stopped me from practicing street photography on a more regular basis,” adds Khoury.
Joint triumphs and downfalls
Despite the gender norms and roles that the Lebanese society’s patriarchal society imposes on young female photographers, they seem to share joint triumphs and downfalls.
Khoury reports that her constant struggle as a female photographer and videographer is related mainly to being a woman in an Arab society where she feels like she is being watched. She explains how she sometimes feels that people tend to be nicer to her and take her job lightly because she is a woman.
Another struggle, and occasional downfall, that both Bou Habib and Saade reported was that their photography was often misunderstood and given another interpretation. Saade explains that she sometimes includes the explanations for the images in the captions, but many still choose to interpret them differently.
Bou Habib reports the same struggle – her viewers often thought that her work was for sexual purposes and was accused of producing content to arouse sexual interests. Many of her followers are men.
On another note, both Bou Habib and Saade mention their need to document and take photographs to encourage people to combat the stereotypes and taboos through their photographs.
Like many other photographers, Saade and Bou Habib mention that one of their triumphs is the ability to insinuate change through their craft and break the taboos that the Lebanese society has become accustomed to.
“I have received a lot of messages in the past from women who have told me that my photography has helped them feel more comfortable in their own bodies and has inspired them to be more confident and daring in their own pictures or art,” says Bou Habib.