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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 13:23 GMT
Lebanon war image causes controversy
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Thousands of pictures were taken in Lebanon during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, but it was a surprising picture by Spencer Platt, an American photo journalist for Getty Images, that was chosen as best news picture of the year.

Winner of the World Press Photo. By Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

It was awarded the first prize in the prestigious World Press Photo awards.

The award sparked a debate in Lebanon. The picture appears to neatly summarise Lebanon's contradictions - glamour amidst the destruction, seemingly careless rich kids on a voyeuristic trip.

But there is much more to the picture than these cliches.

THE WINNING PICTURE

Spencer Platt took his picture on 15 August, a day after the ceasefire, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, as thousands of people flocked back to homes they had fled during the Israeli shelling.

The original caption accompanying the picture read: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon."

World Press Photo jury chairwoman Michele McNally said: "[It's a] picture you can keep looking at. It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious."

The picture was picked up by magazines and newspapers around the world and passed around by e-mail in Lebanon.

The picture challenges our notion of what a victim is meant to look like. These people are not victims, they look strong, they're full of youth
Spencer Platt

One Dutch newspaper published it under the heading: "The Cool People VS Hezbollah."

In Beirut, some people laughed or shrugged their shoulders at the picture - it seemed so Lebanese. Others were horrified it won such a prestigious prize because of what it said about their country.

Some photographers criticised it, describing it as just a snapshot, without much depth or great composition.

Talking to the BBC over the phone from New York, Spencer Platt said his picture was not meant to show any Lebanese in a bad light.

The person who was helping me with my work while in Lebanon, Wafa, looked like she could have stepped out of that car. But she was certainly not rich and her life had been turned upside down by the war.

The picture challenges our notion of what a victim is meant to look like. These people are not victims, they look strong, they're full of youth.

Only in Lebanon can you find a Mini Cooper against a backdrop of bombed out buildings. Lebanese people are very hard to classify. There were many other pictures of the war, but this one started a conversation.

COOL PEOPLE/REAL PEOPLE

Four of the young people in the group are actually residents of the area and had to flee during the shelling.

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

Picture by Kim Ghattas
The friends in the car got to know each during the summer's conflict
She isn't in this group picture. She couldn't make it to the interview because she was getting ready for her engagement party.

Bissan, Jad's other sister, pictured here second from the right, was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi, on the left, is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been to the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group, is wearing a pistachio green top here but was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

All the people in the picture, except Lana Khalil (second from left), were displaced by the war and were put up by their employers in the same hotel in the centre of Beirut, where they became friends.

THE CAR AND ITS OWNER

The convertible orange Mini in the picture belongs to Lana Khalil. She lent the car to her boyfriend, Jad, so he could take his sisters and Nour to the suburbs and find their house.

On the dashboard, there's a sticker for Samidoun, a grassroots relief organisation to which Lana belongs.

This car has a story. This isn't just a bourgeois, trendy, tourist car, this car played a big role in the war.

It was used throughout the war to help deliver medication to refugees who had taken shelter in schools in central Beirut.

We also took medication to people in the southern suburbs who refused to leave their homes or simply couldn't, people needed hard medication, like for diabetes.

Lana Khalil, owner of the famous Mini (Photo: Jeroen Kramer)

The relatives of a friend of mine were stuck in the suburbs, two or three days into the war, I went with him at night to pick them up, under the bombs.

It was very scary, that trip from central Beirut, usually takes about 15 minutes, it took 7 minutes that night.

The picture that won the award is very digestible as a war photo, it's something the people in the West can relate to.

It's an interesting picture, but there were so many more that reflected what really happened here.

The war was not fun, it was full of blood and gore and this picture trivialises what happened here. It makes you wonder how truthful a picture can be.

But it's true that there were people who did come to the area just to have a look at the destruction. It's also true that some people didn't really live through the war.

I took one day off during the whole war, and went up to the mountains for a break. I was surprised to see people partying up there, as though nothing was the matter.

It's the caption that went with the picture that made it famous and that's what's upsetting, the caption reinforces the cliche. We're frustrated by the generalisations that people make about Lebanon and Lebanese society.

PHONE PHOTOGRAPHER

A 29-year-old bank clerk and former model, Bissan Maroun says she had no idea that the award winning picture was being taken and that she was too focused on the destruction around them.

Driving into our neighbourhood was shocking. We had seen it on television but it wasn't the same as in real life.

The smell was terrible, for weeks, there was no rain, the fumes just hovered over the area. I don't understand why Israel had to destroy so much for the sake of two soldiers.

Bissan
You have to remember that in Lebanon, everyone tries to look glamorous, the poor and the rich
Bissan Maroun
Our building escaped destruction but everything around it was flattened.

After the war, we considered leaving the area because we weren't sure how quickly we would be able to live a normal life again amidst all the destruction but things improved very quickly, so we're staying.

My parents live in our hometown in the north, because my father has to be near the hospital for medical treatment.

During the war, we gave shelter to nine families, around 40 people, in our home. We are not rich kids, we are really middle class, so the impression the picture gives is wrong.

You have to remember that in Lebanon, everyone tries to look glamorous, the poor and the rich. Appearances are very important.

THE DRIVER

Jad Maroun, is a 22-year-old, studying management.

When we were in the area, driving around in the open car, I thought it maybe wasn't very appropriate.

But we didn't have much of a choice. There were too many of us in the car, so we needed to roll the top back to make more space. Also there are no windows in the back, so Bissan, Liliane and Nour couldn't see anything.

Jad
My problem with the winning picture is that emphasises some of the misconceptions people have
Jad Maroun
It was very hot and they were suffocating from the fumes.

In some way I think I like the fact this picture won, it says a lot about Lebanon.

My problem with the winning picture is that emphasises some of the misconceptions people have - that it would be unusual for people who look like us to be in the area, they expect the area to be full of veiled women, to be dirty and impoverished.

But we live there and everybody makes us feel welcome even though we're Christian.

IN THE BACK SEAT

In the winning picture, Nour Nasser, a 21-year-old journalism student, is sitting in the back seat and is hidden.

We didn't tell our parents we were going to the suburbs that day. They wouldn't have let us go. There were still fears that the Israelis might strike again, or that there would be unexploded bombs everywhere.

Nour
I'm not a Hezbollah supporter. I'm a liberal but I'm not bothered by them
Nour Nasser
But we wanted to go see our houses, get hold of some of our stuff.

Seeing the streets that we walked on every day, seeing it all destroyed like that, was very tough. I've lived in the area for eight years, on the outskirts of the southern suburbs, closer to central Beirut.

I'm not a Hezbollah supporter. I'm a liberal but I'm not bothered by them.

I don't like my neighbourhood though. I don't' have any friends there, people look at you, they gossip.

I understand why the picture won. It's about the contrast between destruction and glamour. But it's the wrong image of the war and it sanitises it.

Also, it reflects only part of Lebanon. We are part of the working middle class and we can afford some things, like nice clothes or sunglasses but not everybody here can.




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