May 5, 2011

Camille Zakharia: Preserving Vanishing Cities within Cities

I have always nurtured a keen interest in architecture of the past; what essentially intrigues me is the fact that their inhabitants have long come and gone and yet, the buildings still continue to exist, a visual testament to the aesthetic trends and beliefs of the time and containing myriad unheard narratives within them. Even then, it is not as much as the painstakingly restored heritage buildings that catch my attention as ones in a state of ruin, their decaying appearance further contributing towards the drama of age and history that envelops them.

Given my abiding love for the old, my inclination towards urban architecture and photography may be surprising given that urban spaces are synonymous with modernity. Yet, even there, I gravitate towards older, static areas still existing within the dynamic city: apartment blocks in decline, anachronistic corner shops in times of glossy malls, and walls which have seen many a poster, graffiti scribble, and paint dribble upon their surface in their time. There is a particular atmosphere to such areas that individuates them from the rest in the city: the many cities within a city.

A year ago, when covering the exhibition, Kan Ya Ma Kan (Once Upon a Time) for Gulf News, I was able to meet the acclaimed Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer, Camille Zakharia, who has exhibited at Victoria and Albert Museum, London and participated in the Venice Biennial,to cite a few of his accomplishments. His website will reveal his impressive body of work and his multiple areas of interest; however, in context to Kan Ya Ma Kan and his urban photography displayed there, what interested me was the way he perceived and navigated the urban landscapes surrounding him (I must say here that I was fortunate enough to hear him share the back-stories behind the photographs). A city is undoubtedly an evolving being and he exactingly pinpoints the intersection of the old and new through searing images such as the one of newly razed buildings: the rooms were nonetheless still present with intact jarringly pastel-hued walls. The ceilings were long gone though, the sky having become their substitute instead.

I also admired the meticulous detail with which he photographed the interiors of this particular landscape, almost akin to the diligence that of an anthropologist documenting a culture that is in danger of extinction along with its habitat; like poetry seeks to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and illumine its many facets, I believe that Mr. Zakharia does just the same with his photography narratives of Gulf urbanscapes.

Take this image, Interior of Shop - Qatar, above, which is verily a portrait of the shop inhabitant's head-space: the black and white portrait (the added interest of the photographer photographing a photograph),the presence of calendars, and objects of religious significance. The cracks in the wall, the wires, and the pipes further contribute towards us imagining as to what the entire shop looks like. In this day of plastic-perfect,assembly-line and therefore, anonymous mall shops, shops such as these are as much retail as personal spaces, thus becoming valuable repositories of personal stories. What will happen to those stories if the shops disappear?

Mr Zakharia's photography of Gulf urbanscapes thus functions as a means to preserve these personal spaces and stories in a time when those landscapes rapidly changing. The sights surrounding us that we take for granted are in danger of disappearance; there is no permanent reality anymore, it seems, everything existing in a state of improvisation. In fact, our own memories are nebulous, quickly accepting the new status quo: it's up to technology such as photography to prove even our own memories correct.

Image provided with the kind permission of Mr Camille Zakharia

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