“No, you can’t use that one,” says Myriam Boulos with a smile. “It’s a picture I took in the toilets at university when I was 19.”
The photograph shows a young woman, her eyes seductively darkened, framed by a flurry of hands. Her own fingers are raised gently to her cheeks, while others brush her shoulders or caress her hair. It is a beautiful image, made all the more striking by Boulos’ use of contrasted black and white.
“I present my photos in black and white because it’s an aesthetic that suits me, like my writing,” she says, speaking and writing predominantly in French. “For me, this aesthetic is like a fingerprint. It marks my presence and leaves a trace.”
The 23-year-old photographer – a graduate of the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts – is at Ras Masqa Artists in Residence when we catch up and, although she barely has a moment to herself, every now and then she manages to break free.
When she does we talk about Beirut’s nightlife.
“At night a social map emerges in Beirut,” she says. “Like a chemical ingredient that helps all cells to appear. It fascinates me. Night is the theatre of Beirut. Everyone removes their masks and is themselves in a way that interests me.”
Out of this interest have emerged two projects. One, Vertiges du matin (Morning Vertigo), the other Nightshift – a collection of photographs detailing Beirut’s underground nightlife. It is a world that Boulos admits to being seduced by, with factories, trains stations and warehouses the settings for parties where ‘individual façades’ have been created to generate feelings of belonging.
“Vertiges du matin and Nightshift are about the social type I belong to somehow but don’t identify who I am. These are people who crave parties. It’s like they live only to see others. The same people go back to the same places every weekend, but their satisfaction doesn’t last and they are chronically unsatisfied.
“I’m always wondering, where does this compulsive need to go out, to dance, to show off come from? What is the relationship between the need to party and the instability and insecurity in Lebanon? Why is there a need to be part of a particular social group? And how do I belong to this place and how am I different?
“In Nightshift, I approach a different group of people who are trying to go against those Lebanese parties where money comes first (Who has the biggest car? Who has the biggest jewellery? Who has the highest heels? Who has the biggest muscles?). These are the evenings that take place in industrial environments. But again, we find the same concept of existence through the eyes of others and the need to blend into certain social criteria. The factory concept in itself produces identical products in bulk. A bit like those people who go out every weekend to these places.”
For Boulos, who will be exhibiting her work alongside other photographers at the Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut in July and August, photography gives her the opportunity to enter this nocturnal world – to “bear witness to the existence of these ‘tribes’ who will by tomorrow be replaced by others”.
I bombard her with questions. Are your subjects posed? Do you seek authenticity? How much do you alter your images? How raw are they? For Vertiges du matin, you worked from 3am to 7am but kept a professional distance from your subjects. Why? Are you always only an observer?
“I am not only observing, but when I am working on these projects my goal is not to party with them,” she replies. “If I did, this project would not exist… I am inspired by many people but they don’t make me take their photos. It’s a desire and a need inside me that is satisfied by connecting with the reality outside of me.”
“My pictures are a mixture of instinct and reflection,” she adds. “With my camera I try to understand society and find my place in it.”
Two years ago she won the Byblos Bank Award for Photography thanks to her ‘originality of framing, lighting and aesthetics and artistic value’. Her work from Ras Masqa Artists in Residence will be different in terms of subject matter, but her commitment to aesthetics remains in place.
I ask more questions. If she observes others for art, where does she go to escape? What does she do to unwind, to relax, to party? What does Beirut offer her?
“There are times where I can stay at home for months working or watching movies, listening to music, spending time with my family,” she replies. “And there are times where I want and need to go out every night, see people, although I do not know them, chat and drink a little. When we start we cannot stop. Beirut is a city that we eat. And then suddenly you realise that it has eaten us and that it is out of stock. Then you switch to another mood: house, movies, music, family, repeat.”
* Published in Emirates Man, May 2016