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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
remember this post? 2006 World Press Photo Contest Winner
here’s the Story of the people in the Mini Cooper
CATERING TO A LEBANESE CLICHÉ
World Press Photo Mix-Up
www.Spiegel.deBy Ulrike Putz in Beirut
The World Press Photo of the Year 2006 shows upscale young Lebanese men and women visiting a bombed-out Beirut neighborhood like disaster tourists — or at least that’s what everyone thought.
Bissan Maroun, one of those featured in the photograph, told SPIEGEL ONLINE the true story.
This photo won the World Press Photo Award for 2006.
The story behind the photo is more complex than appearances suggest.
Bissan Maroun got a first impression of what international publicity means when she walked home from a cinema in her hometown of Beirut two weeks ago. Her mobile phone told her she had missed a huge number of calls. Then it rang again. This time it was her mother, who sounded hysterical: “Your picture is on all the TV channels,” she screamed. “My children are famous.” — Source: Spiegel.de
It took a while before Bissan realized what had happened: A snapshot showing the 29-year-old driving through a suburb in southern Beirut in a convertible with her brother, her sister and two female friends had been selected as World Press Photo of the Year 2006.
“I want them to invite me to Amsterdam, to the award ceremony,” was Bissan’s first reaction. Her dream could actually come true — the World Press Organization is currently deciding whether to invite the five young people to the ceremony in the Netherlands. It would be a first — and it might have something to do with a guilty conscience about how the people were portrayed. Seldom has a war picture led to such vilification. “At first everyone said: That must be those rich, chic Lebanese visiting the poor neighborhood like a tourist attraction,” Bissan says. “But that’s completely untrue.”
In fact the captions accompanying the photo in the world’s press — even before it was elected photo of the year — were rarely sympathetic. Foreign commentators were incensed by the skimpy T-shirts worn by the girls, arguing such apparel was out of place in the conservative neighborhood. They commented on the disgusted expressions on the faces of those in the car, saying those expressions only showed the rich have no sympathy for ordinary people. And what about that car — wasn’t it the most blatant provocation towards the neighborhood’s low-income residents? Bissam’s acquaintances also began to whisper among themselves — so much so, that she called in sick at the bank where she works. When her picture was awarded the World Press Photo Award, her boss advised her to make the true story public.
“We’re from Dahiye, from the suburb, ourselves,” Bissan explains on a hot February afternoon in Beirut. She, her 22-year-old brother Jad and her 26-year-old sister Tamara fled the neighborhood during the Israeli bombings. They stayed in a hotel in the safer district of Hamra and did what most Lebanese did at the time. They waited. The siblings met the other two women in the hotel, Noor Nasser and Lillane Nacouzi, at the hotel. Both are employees of the Plaza Hotel and were allowed to stay in vacant rooms during the war.
“It was so hot, and there were five of us in the small car”
On Aug. 15, the day of the ceasefire, Jad borrowed a friend’s orange Mini Cooper. For weeks the siblings had heard nothing about whether or not their apartment block was still standing — now that the fighting was over, they wanted to go and see for themselves. Jad drove and Tamara rode shotgun, while Bissan squeezed in between the two friends on the backseat, holding her camera phone ready. “We spoke briefly about whether we should really open the roof,” she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But it was so hot, and there were five of us in the small car, so we folded it back.”
Bissan admits that, at first glance, her excursion must look like a prime example of disaster tourism. “But look at our faces. They clearly show how horrified we were, how shocked,” she says. “We were not cheerful.” Today she can only laugh at the accusation that she and the other young women are dressed too salaciously. “This is Lebanon. We always dress this way,” she says, adding that her clothes have never caused her any trouble with conservative neighbors.
It was about 1:00 p.m. and the young people were just on their way to their apartment when the photographer Spencer Platt spotted the orange convertible from the corner of his eye. He told CNN that he spontaneously raised his camera and pressed the shutter four or five times. Most of the pictures didn’t turn out, he said, because some one walked into them. He admitted that the award-winning picture was the only one he could use. He never spoke to the five young people. Now he’s sorry his photo has caused them so much trouble, saying he never meant to use it to make a political statement.
Catering to a Lebanese cliché
When it was first published, the photo caused a stir among war photographers. Many thought the picture was just too good to be true. There were rumors that the picture had been staged. The controversy continued when the photo received the World Press Photo Award and appeared in the papers once again. Lebanese photographer and jury member Samer Mohad vehemently opposed giving the award to Platt and spoke of an “insult” to all press photographers who had “risked their lives” reporting on the war in Lebanon.
The strong reactions prove that Platt has struck a nerve. He caters perfectly to a cliché about Lebanon that is not entirely unjustified. In fact Lebanon does see immensely wealthy people and extremely poor inhabitants sharing not just the same country, but also the small area of a few square kilometers that is Beirut. There really were rich people wearing expensive sunglasses — mostly Christian or Sunni — who sat, hookah in hand, in popular bars above the city watching the unloved Shiite neighborhoods go up in smoke.
The trouble is that Bissan and her companions don’t belong to that group.
Bissan has only been able to enjoy the photo’s success since her story has appeared in a few Lebanese newspapers. She has told journalists that her apartment was badly damaged, with all the windows broken and the furniture crushed by shock waves from the bombs.
Now she no longer gets reproachful looks from customers at the bank where she works. They bring in newspaper clippings with her picture instead. “My whole desk is full of them,” she says. Journalist friends have warned her that he coming weeks will see her getting even more media attention. “But that will hopefully be over by the summer,” Bissan says. That’s when she is planning to get married — quietly, and without too much publicity.