Capturing the Essence (profile of Syrian photographer Nassouh Zaghlouleh)

Photos: Hala Muhanna

As a child, Nassouh Zaghlouleh loved peeking through keyholes. “That was my first camera” he smiles. Since then, he has explored Paris and Damascus and sought to portray the essence of each city in his own style.

When Zaghlouleh started studying at the Higher National School of Decorative Arts in Paris in the early 1980s, he sought to break through the stereotype of Parisian life, capturing beggars, addicts and dropouts on film. Every day for three years, he went to the same café and sat in the same corner taking pictures of the clientele. He saw the café as a stage that introduces foreign viewers like himself to the new culture they have adopted.

“There was a man who came to the café every day to drink a beer,” Zaghlouleh said, pointing at the photo of a tall man with heavy features. “He sat on his own all evening talking to himself and gesturing into space.” Another photo showed a young girl passed out on the floor of the café. Next to the photo, Zaghlouleh wrote in French: “When alcohol isn’t a means of communication or amusement, it becomes a means of suicide.”

During his time in Paris, Zaghlouleh photographed all the demonstrations in the French capital. He approached the manifestations head on and blended into the crowds, taking spontaneous portraits of the protestors. “I never ask permission to take photos or ask anyone to pose,” he said. It kills the spontaneity. So if I see a good photo I take it immediately even if I have to run afterwards.”

Holding an album full of contact sheets, Zaghlouleh leafed through all the portraits he took over the years. “I take photos till I capture what’s inside,” he explained. “A portrait doesn’t have to be beautiful. What matters, is that it is genuine.” Like a diary, the album contains the black-and-white records of every day Zaghlouleh spent in Paris.

In 2003, Zaghlouleh started teaching black-and-white analogue photography at the International Institute for Image and Sound in Paris. He says every photographer should work with analogue for a period. In his view, digital photography makes a photographer careless because he can take as many photos as he wants and is bound to get one good one out of hundreds of images. With analogue film on the other hand, you have only a very limited number of photos and you can’t see the result immediately. This forces the photographer to think about the image before pressing the button.

Though Zaghlouleh’s photos were always a celebration of life, the summer of 2006 marked an important shift in his artistic career to still lifes and abstract photos. Worn out by the war in Lebanon and the heat of the Syrian summer, he started using his mobile phone as a camera. While walking to a friend’s house in the Old City, he took some 500 photos in just 20 minutes, breaking the folkloric stereotype of Old City photos and focusing instead on the sharp contrast between shade and light and the abstract shapes this creates.

“When I was five years old, I used to go to Souq al-Hamidiyyeh with my aunts. I was fascinated by the patches of light filtering through the souq’s roof and the pattern it made on the pavement,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I turned 50 that I had the courage to photograph them.”

Although Zaghlouleh dedicated his life to photography, he for a long time refused to exhibit his work, believing that the right moment hadn’t come yet. Finally, in 2007, he organised his first exhibition From Paris to Damascus, in which he showcased 30 photos of the two cities that have shaped his life. “It took me 25 years to collect the right photos of Paris. In Damascus it took just 20 minutes to find what I was looking for.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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