|Immortalizing South Lebanon's anguish (Daily Star)
|Josee Lambert's 'They Called Them Terrorists' captures region's suffering from the 1920's throughout the 22-year Israeli occupation
"I think I am a better photographer when I am close to people, when I relate to my subject," says Josee Lambert, a Montreal-based human rights activist who has been taking pictures for 20 years now, using such cultural practices as portraiture, poetry and performance to expose a wide and often-unsuspecting audience to politically motivated instances of violence and injustice.
"The real objectivity of photojournalism has to be transparent," adds Lambert. "I mean by this, exposing my point of view. Objectivity and advocacy can be one. For example, as a human being, I am proud to say that I am against torture."
Over the years, Lambert has attempted to shed light on the dire conditions in Iraq (living with sanctions, at war and under occupation). In the late 1990's, she protested against international intervention by way of NATO bombings in the former Yugoslavia. And she continues to create artworks that respond to the ongoing political crisis yet urge for a lasting peace in Palestine. But the cause that truly and fully consumes her is South Lebanon.
Lambert first came to Lebanon in 1991 as a young photographer and reporter eager to understand the Middle East through its realities on the ground. She came back to the region in 1993, and stopped off in Lebanon on her way back from Iraq. Then in 1995, she decided to commit more of her time here in order to try and untangle the messy situation in the South and to attempt to sort out the reasons behind Israel's vexing and long-standing occupation.
Lambert returned to Lebanon seven times. She became closely acquainted with the families of detainees in such notorious prisons as Khiam. In 1997, she came with an Amnesty International fact-finding mission charged with documenting instances of prisoner torture at the hands of the South Lebanese Army (the SLA, Israel's proxy militia in the area). Of particular concern for Lambert and the Amnesty team were reports of rape.
"Not one woman in Khiam escaped torture by electrocution and very rare were those who were not raped," said Serge Thibodeau, Amnesty's Canadian branch coordinator at the time. Israel refused to give Thibodeau and Lambert a permit to access Khiam prison during that trip.
On her visits to Lebanon, Lambert did the things that activists do: She asked questions, she listened, she organized sit-ins and she started letter-writing campaigns. But she also took pictures and collected stories and wrote down a wealth of material. The testimonies she heard were both damning and bleak. But Lambert's latest trip to the region - she was in Beirut this past October - was far less sobering. She came to celebrate the release of her new book, a trilingual (Arabic, French and English) soft-cover edition beautifully printed by Semaphore entitled "They Called Them Terrorists: During the South Lebanon Occupation."
The title refers to the people in the South who "were detained, humiliated, and displaced by the authorities," Lambert writes in her introduction. "They called them terrorists."
Her book captures acts of resistance not in terms of armed struggle - there is no lionizing of militiamen, no hero worship, no chest-puffing rhetoric. Rather, Lambert frames a quieter fight to maintain some semblance of human dignity. Her book is about people, everyday ordinary people whose lives were caught up in events bigger and more complicated than themselves.
"They Called Them Terrorists" is a mix of many things. It opens with a surprisingly clear-sighted and even-handed account of South Lebanon's history from 1920 through the 22-year-occupation and Israel's withdrawal in May 2000. Then there is a 46-page portfolio of black-and-white photographs. Lambert juxtaposes portraits of the families of detainees, waiting for the release of their brothers, sons, sisters and wives with pictures taken later of those families reunited.
Early on, there is an image of Najat Bechara, the mother of Souha Bechara, the now iconic young woman who was held in Khiam for 10 years (six of which were spent in solitary confinement) for attempting to assassinate SLA leader Antoine Lahd. The portrait of Najat, taken in 1997, rests next to a picture of her daughter, taken after her release in 1998.
Not all the stories embedded in the book have straightforward happy endings, however. Lambert conveys a great deal of information through her compact captions, but she uses the space to weave narratives as well.
For instance, beneath two pictures of an elderly woman husking corn and a middle-aged man sitting on a stoop, she unravels the story of Soleiman Ramadan. Detained in Khiam since 1985, Ramadan was shot in the leg during his capture and, as a result of poor medical care, had his limb amputated twice. In 1998, his father went on a hunger strike in an attempt to free his son and died a month later. Ramadan was one of the last prisoners to be released from Khiam in 2000. In a rather bittersweet twist, Lambert adds that he fell in love and married later that year.
Toward the end of her portfolio are the stories of families that have not been reunited, whose sons, for example, are still detained in Israeli jails.
Inspired by such photographers as Robert Frank, Raymond Depardon, Diane Arbus, and "the great photo portraitists from Egypt in the beginning of the last century," Lambert shoots in a humanist vein. Her images are technically crisp, well-composed without being stiff and intimate without being sentimental.
Unlike the work of Sebastiao Salgado - the famous Brazilian economist-turned-photographer who is considered the foremost practitioner of the genre known as "concerned photography," on a one-man mission to capture the world's dispossessed (refugees, migrant workers, sick, suffering, impoverished, forgotten) in exceedingly beautiful photographs - Lambert's work seems to carry a jolt of necessary coldness. Even when her subjects are warm, they are perceptibly defiant. The debate on whether or not Salgado's style makes victimhood a pretty thing to look at, and whether or not that actually detracts from the causes he is trying to promote by packaging them too neatly, is still ongoing.
However, after the portfolio, Lambert's work diverges from the Magnum-like structure, and "They Called Them Terrorists" ventures into more experimental material.
"The book is a collage of different parts," she explains. "The way I chose to put [everything] together I think shows the reader the human reality of systematic human rights violations."
There are poems, landscape shots and grim portraits of the facilities at Khiam. There is a photo-essay called "Once Upon a Time in Aitaroun," about a man named Toufic Mansouri who returns to his village in South Lebanon and cracks open his history there.
And finally, there is the transcript of a three-act play Lambert wrote called "Diane and Jean."
Using still documentary images projected onto a tarpaulin and an almost Brechtian-style narration, "Diane and Jean" unpacks the story of a woman prisoner (Diane) who was sodomized on a nearly daily basis for five months during her capture in Khiam (by a prison commander named Jean). The piece ends not with Diane's release but with Jean's emigration to Canada.
And therein lays the activist current that courses through Lambert's book. It is well known that after Israel's withdrawal from the South, a number of SLA officials fled to Israel and then to Canada, wrenching open a tricky debate about whether or not they should be granted refugee status or denied (as members of a group accused of committing crimes against humanity) and deported back to Lebanon. Furthermore, there is the issue of whether or not SLA veterans can be brought up on charges of war crimes, where and by whom.
"'Diane and Jean,' in its form as a play," says Lambert, "was the way I found to talk about the delicate question of impunity and the fact that some high ranking militiamen from the SLA [have been granted] refugee status in my country. I'm strongly against impunity. I don't know if [an international court] is the best solution in terms of conflict resolution. As far as I know, it is not perfect, but it is a way to build links between people, a way to build peace. About Lebanon I cannot answer for the Lebanese, or for the survivors of this occupation. Only they can be able to forgive or choose not to. Yesterday Pinochet was judged to be able to respond to the accusation of crimes against humanity. We have to hope."
"As a Canadian," she adds, "this book is mon devoir de memoire, my duty of memory. It is my duty to respond to the people who try to overshadow the past about the human rights violations [that were] systematic during the 22 years of occupation."
Josee Lambert's "They Called Them Terrorists" is available now from Les Editions Semaphore
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star