It’s a picture so tender, full of love and joyous that for a moment you’re transported to another world. While one half of the diptych is of a mother and child, the other shows rows and rows of food arranged on the floor. Together, the two pictures seamlessly weave a fabulous tapestry of bonding and spirituality.
‘These are the images I’ve seen all over Lebanon every Ramadan, since I was a child – family and friends coming together, ending their fast,’ says Natalie Naccache-Kleif. ‘I see so much beauty, love and happiness during iftar. Whether you are rich or poor, Lebanese or a refugee, everyone, at the iftar call, is eating at the same time all over the country.’
The most striking art – be it paintings, photos, fashion or literature – comes from the soul, a place that’s untouched by external perspectives. It’s what bubbles in our hearts and pours forth into what we create. And photography fits that bill perfectly.
The Lebanese-British photographer’s works capture everyday life. There are several series... of longing, of broken hearts and despair, but also a defiant joie de vivre, all woven together in a montage of contemporary reality with fragments delicately held together by tradition and a perpetual sense of family.
Natalie’s most recent display is the Iftar series under the wider umbrella of Observing the Ritual, a group exhibition by three photographers including Nicoló Degiorgis and Ammar Al Attar, which captures the essence of communal prayers and ending the fast.
The Iftar images, drenched in happy Mediterranean colours and glowing with an almost impressionist quality, explores the concept of ‘ritual as a manifestation of spiritual equality’, as experienced by people of varied socio-economic backgrounds - from the wealthy to Syrian refugees. The exhibition opened last month at Gulf Photo Plus in Alserkal Avenue. ‘Many of the diptychs are close to my heart, especially the ones of my extended family ending their fast in Bekaa [in east Lebanon],’ says Natalie. ‘It brings back childhood memories. When Ramadan arrives, all the aunts and uncles gather at the end of the day at someone’s home and enjoy a meal together, bringing the young and old of the family together.
‘Another that’s close to my heart was taken at a Syrian refugee home in Beirut. The family of five, from Idlib [in north-western Syria], lost a daughter in Syria to a bomb that hit their home – they spent their last Ramadan having iftar to the sound of bombs going off in their neighbourhood. They barely had any income but were offering me their food generously.’
Born in London, Natalie travelled to the Middle Eastern nation every year without exception. How did she straddle both worlds so different from each other? ‘I had a very traditional upbringing, so it was never a problem,’ she says, speaking to Friday over telephone from Beirut. ‘I was always very rooted in my culture, and still am.
‘My interest lies in documenting modern-day society in the Arab world and challenging western stereotypes about it. In the West, all we see about the region is war and destruction, but I try to show a different side. I love to surprise people, and it’s so rewarding when someone says, “I never knew this existed”.’
Natalie is getting ready to wed in a few days and the laughter in her voice, rising above the din of a chaotic city settling into the evening, is palpable.
I chalk it down to the joy of getting married, but later realise this is her approach to the world she’s grown up in. She doesn’t view it through rose-tinted glasses, but it’s not gloom and doom either.
‘Every summer, my family and I would travel to Lebanon for the holidays from London and go up to the mountains and have the best time,’ says the 27-year-old. ‘All the relatives from around the world would fly down, and I’d be reunited with my childhood friends.
‘Very little has changed, but whatever has makes those memories seem even sweeter.’ Those experiences inform much of how Natalie sees Lebanon, her culture and the wider Arab world today too.
With a deep interest in the arts ever since she was a child – she loved drawing, painting and telling stories – Natalie discovered photography towards the end of her arts foundation diploma at the Camberwell College of Arts in London. ‘I learnt that there was a degree and profession where you could tell stories through photography, and I instantly applied to study photojournalism at the London College of Communication,’ she says. ‘I found I could build a bridge between different cultures through photo stories, and I could surprise and educate people so there could be a conversation about the images and stories I was creating.’
It was a competitive world, but Natalie was driven by a fiery passion, and during her time at university interned with top media houses. ‘I wanted to know what editors wanted, what stories they looked for.’
After graduating, she asked for a rather uncommon graduation gift from her parents – to be able to attend the prestigious Visa pour L’Image Festival in Perpignan in the south of France. ‘It was a fantastic experience,’ says Natalie. ‘I went alone and I didn’t know anyone, but once I was there, it was brilliant. I met so many people, including other budding photographers, and forged lasting connections. It was inspiring.’
Represented by Reportage by Getty Images, Natalie’s works have been exhibited and published almost all over the world. Her photo essays – reflections of life in Lebanon and other Arab nations – have made their way into publications such as The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, D - la Repubblica, The Independent, Monocle, among others.
Now, Natalie has moved to Dubai, but until six months ago, she was shuttling between London, Dubai and Beirut, balancing family, love and work. In fact, she lived in Lebanon for six years soon after she graduated in pursuit of images that bring to life the soul of the country. One of the first prominent collections was No, Madam, a collage of the mundane, trapped and painful existence of migrant maids, and a critical reflection of their pivotal role in keeping households and institutions ticking.
‘I have a love-hate relationship with Lebanon,’ she says. ‘On the one hand, it’s so alive, so hospitable, but at the same time, it’s incredibly dysfunctional.’
One of Natalie’s most striking collections is a set of photographs of the debutante ball in Lebanon, where high society celebrates the coming of age of young girls aged between 15 and 21 years. Titled Paris of the Middle East, it’s a throwback to the time when Beirut shone with glitz, glamour, avant-garde culture and a people who loved to live it up, before the civil war – from 1975 to 1990 – tore it to shreds. While the creamy layer still manages to enjoy la dolce vita – weddings tend to have A-listers and Arab stars in attendance – much of the country lives in poor conditions, lighting up during the ball, which is broadcast on national television.
It’s an astonishing peek into a world that has never made a dent on the global radar, and a vivid montage of wealth, social status and grooming, and all that falls within this triangle of affluence.
A world apart from this bubble is Our Limbo, the story of four Syrian women – Diana, Tala, Daniela and Sima – who were forced to leave Syria and start a new life in Lebanon.
The photoessay is a journey through their fears, shattered dreams, ambitions and sense of loss – based on a diary they maintained, video interviews, sketches and other archived material. It also explores their ‘privileged’ refugee identity after they moved to Qatar, Dubai, London and New York.
Supported by New York-based Magnum Foundation, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and the Netherlands’ Prince Claus Fund, it has been exhibited in Saudi Arabia, New York, Amsterdam and Florence.
Natalie spends a considerable amount of time researching her subjects and building trust and rapport with them, but at no point is her work intrusive.
To aspiring photographers, she says, ‘Be hungry, be passionate, and grow a thick skin. ‘Explore what interests you, what you’re in love with. If you don’t throw yourself into a story you’re interested in or love, it will show.’
Apart from delivering a talk at Gulf Photo Plus on Tuesday, June 7, and providing tips on how to photograph families in different situations, Natalie is working on perhaps her most personal and difficult project yet – the murder of her grandmother.
‘She was killed in my mother’s childhood house, and when I decided to broach the subject with my mum, I was very worried. But she was very supportive.’ Natalie is unsure about what turns the story will take yet, but there’s little doubt it will possess as much life as it mourns a loss.
The exhibition Observing the Ritual runs until August 27 at Gulf Photo Plus at Alserkal Avenue. For more info visit gulfphotoplus.com.