At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much that ties Roger Moukarzel’s work together. Other than Roger himself, anyway. In the course of the last couple of decades, the Beirut-based photographer has built up a portfolio that ticks just about every box.
A trawl through his company website – the cleverly-named Minime, which is French for ‘minimal/minimum’ or a contraction of the Austin Powers character, you choose - reveals a wealth of images; everything from gritty reportage and social commentary, to fashion shoots, advertising, jewellery, portraits, landscapes, architecture, even hairstyles.
Perusing them all, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Moukarzel is some camera-toting Jack-of-all-trades, as much at home on the streets and in the studio as he is shooting evening wear or wearing shooting wear.
These days, people take the moniker to be flattering, implying, as it does, an enviable versatility and wealth of skills. I am not amongst them. Jack-of-all-trades is only half of that particular figure of speech. Completed, it is followed by ‘master of none’.
And that, clearly, is not Moukarzel’s case. His skilful manipulation of light, space and emotion is nothing if not masterful. As, for that matter, is his ability to capture spontaneous events in a way that makes them look meticulously arranged as well as introduce spontaneity to the most meticulously arranged shoots.
“I’m known for that,” the shaven-headed, handle-bar moustachioed photographer drawls, as we take coffee (murra, if you please) in his airy office in the former factory-warehouse on the edge of Beirut’s dilapidated Qarantina district that is also home to a contemporary art space, a fashion designer, an architect and a printing press, “I try to keep spontaneity and movement in my pictures, so you can see what lies behind them.”
I like this idea. Too much photography these days, especially for the glossier magazines, is either staid or so self-consciously provocative and staged, that they induce ennui. But it’s what Moukarzel says next that really twists my antennae.
“I’m a straight-forward person in life and I think this made me love photography, because photography cannot lie.”
Come again? However you look at it, from its very inception, photography has been one of the most manipulated arts in the world. It’s one of the most dishonest, easily faked mediums that exists. Of course, I can’t let this one go.
“Wait, let me finish. Photography cannot lie unless you want it to lie. If you are a photographer, you have a still image. Either you during its making or you tell truth to people and no one can change it, unless someone writes a different caption for it,” he continues. “That’s why I went into fashion and advertising, where it’s all about manipulation anyway.”
I’d already read somewhere that like many Lebanese photographers of his generation, Moukarzel got his start during the long years of war but I was interested to know if there had been one event, in particular, that had spurred him to pick up a camera. Telling me that it was more a combination of circumstances. His parents managed the family magazine, the satirical political weekly, Al Dabbour, and so he grew up in journalistic surroundings, surrounded by imagery and the desire to speak the truth even (precisely) when it meant jail.
Truth is a theme to which we return repeatedly in the course of our meandering hour-long chat, which is punctuated by good-humoured argument and plenty of spirited digression. Intense in a meditative way, Moukarzel drifts from chair to desk to door to sofa and at one point, gets up to rummage through his bookshelves, in search of some of his previous projects.
I notice Wadi Qadisha, his book about Lebanon’s holy valley, Trait/Portrait, a snapshot of Mount Lebanon life aimed at dissolving the differences between the Maronite and Druze inhabitants of the Shouf region, Green Gold, a meditation on olive oil and Creative Lives, a collection of Lebanon’s movers and shakers. Like his online portfolio, they’re a miscellany of subject matters.
“Yes,” he sighs, “I have a bit of everything. Maybe it's a good thing and maybe it's a bad thing. But I don't do just anything. I don't do a job because it's important or because it pays well, I do a job because it interests me, because I can learn from it. It’s a question of communication.”
Which leads us neatly to Veil, a 2009 exhibition featuring six women from different religions, all wearing the different head-coverings their faith requires of them, at least when worshipping. Alarmed by the rising sense of division that he felt had resulted from September 2001 and America’s subsequent regional wars, Veil was Moukarzel’s way of highlighting the one of commonalities that bind the world’s main faiths, rather than separate them.
“I do my own projects and I do them empty of politics,” he continues, before backtracking a bit. “Well, not empty [of politics], my work’s full of it but it's empty of party politics. I'm a fighter, but in a good way. I fight for a better life, if you like.”
We pause, as his senior producer, Rana, pokes her head around the door. As they chat, I take the time to survey the room. In addition to the wall of books, the office is chock full of vintage radios, microphones and cameras, the most magnificent of which, a large format S&K Shiro Photo accordion camera, is standing in front of the massive safe in one corner. For a photographer, there are surprisingly few pictures. A couple of family snaps, two captivating David La Chapelle prints (including ‘Amanda Lupone: Addicted to Diamonds’) and a large damaged nude, which I later learn is there because it’s too big to be placed anywhere else and would otherwise have ended up in the bin. Curiously, apart from the nude, Moukarzel doesn't have a single example of his work in his office.
“I have higher expectations,” he tells me, when I ask why. “I'm not so proud of myself that I’d put one up as if to say to myself 'wow, Mr. Moukarzel, how talented you are!’ I'm not that good. I'm trying to be better. That's the whole point.”
I’d noticed a couple of old movie cameras amongst the other vintage pieces, so I ask Roger if he shoots films, as well.
“I do some but I prefer photography. It's much more challenging to shoot an image that can tell a story, than to make a film that can tell a story.”
By way of illustration, he shows me a series of photos he shot, deep in the icy forests of northern Sweden. Called ‘The Butterfly Effect’, it is a rumination on the idea that our every action, from peeing in the toilet, to burning coal, affects the environment somewhere in the world. Working with the Sami, the indigenous, largely nomadic tribes-people of Arctic Europe, Moukarzel shot his subjects standing in deep snow, in front of supersized photos of industrial plants, power stations and other contributors to global warming. The entire project was captured by CNN and shown as part of their Fusion Journeys series.
Dressed to the nines in wildly colourful outfits, the contrast between the Sami, their snowy surroundings and the incongruous and brutally industrial photographic backdrops is simultaneously humorous, beautiful and deeply moving. Immediately, his point is made.
“If you are a good photographer and you have a passion for what you do, how can you be not broken by such things? How can you not fight for beauty, for the future?” he says, explaining what drives him most. “It is part of our duty, as artists, to say these things, to tell people what we see.”
As we set off on another tangent – Beirut’s rapidly disappearing architectural heritage - I find that our discussion has, somehow, answered my initial question. As miscellaneous, multiple and myriad as the eloquently loquacious and delightfully opinionated Roger Moukarzel’s work may be, the strands that unite it all are simply these; expression, the capturing of an idea, conversation, dialogue.
Originally published in Bespoke
Photo © Roger Moukarzel