Slice of Life

Lebanese photographer raises the voice of men in the Middle East

Courtesy of George Awde

George Awde's “Scale Without Measure” is made up of 10 years’ worth of photographs, all centered around boys and men living in the Middle East.

Light Work gallery is hosting a reception for “Scale Without Measure,” on April 14, a solo exhibition by photographer George Awde. But he isn’t coming.

It’s not because of the commute, although Syracuse is a bit of a trek from Doha, Qatar. Awde isn’t showing up for moral reasons.

“Scale Without Measure” is composed of 10 years’ worth of photographs, all centered around boys and men living in the Middle East. The bulk of the exhibition concerns Syrian men living in Lebanon. Awde felt it would be unfair to attend the reception following President Donald Trump’s immigration bans.

“I was confronted with this idea very close to the initial ban on Syrian refugees, people from Iraq and Sudan and Yemen, where I used to live. I was faced with the privilege I have, through my citizenship, to have access to mobility,” Awde said.

“Staying away from something that I really wanted to go to makes the point of how damaging these bans are. More than just showing up and talking about my objection.”

Set against pale blue skies, concrete, sand and skin, “Scale Without Measure” presents us with a look at the fluid nature of national identity and manhood in the Middle East.

Awde grew up in Boston with his Lebanese parents. He studied painting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and he spent a year away from the U.S. to live in Yemen in 2003. While he was there, he started taking photographs as “sketches” for his paintings. Once he got a camera in his hands, he couldn’t put it down.

Awde laid the groundwork for “Scale Without Measure” three years later. The Syrian immigrant community in Lebanon piqued his curiosity about citizenship as an idea — “who belongs and who doesn’t” — and wanted to reinforce this idea in an abstract way.

“I’m really interested in not just people who are in the margins, [but] landscapes that are in the margins,” Awde said. “Abandoned lots, overgrown fields, the undersides of bridges. The landscapes in my work are ‘non-spaces.’”

Walking through the Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery, the gallery captures both the isolation and yearning to belong. There’s a boy in swim attire, hip jutted, hair damp, standing defiant as he’s bathed in the setting sun. There’s a gang of kids, shirts off, as they hang out against the wall. They carry that look of pensive, up-to-no-good that most 12-year-old boys have when left unsupervised.

Shane Lavalette, Light Work’s director and the curator of the show, described how the line between individual and citizen blurs as viewers go through the exhibition.

“There’s this sense of masculinity, this sense of them trying to figure out their identity. Them trying to figure out their sexuality. Their friendships. Their relationships,” Lavalette said. “There’s this element of personal identity that parallels a sense of national identity: The struggle to figure out how to identify yourself, especially when you’re an immigrant.”

Mary Lee Hodgens, Light Work’s associate director, also noted the relationship between national and personal identity. Growing up with five brothers in what she called a “patriarchal kind of family,” Hodgens is constantly dissecting representations of men in art.

Viewing “Scale Without Measure” through this lens, Hodgens said, “What interests me is any kind of tenderness between men and them being supportive of each other. And then, I also like the way he combines it with this landscape that is so foreign to me, these images of the Middle East.”

These themes are what caught Lavalette’s attention back when Awde was selected to be Light Work’s July 2015 Artist-in-Residence.

“As a photographer, he’s obviously working in a documentary vein, because he’s telling real stories, he’s photographing real people,” Lavalette said. “But photographically, he has moments where he transcends into spaces that are almost painterly or really emotive.”

 

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Courtesy of George Awde

This transformation of the humble photograph from visual record to art rides on the intimacy of the project. Working with someone for 10 years will build that.

“Forming bonds or relationships with the people I photograph was intuitive, for me, I guess,” Awde said.

Intimacy also developed as a result of Awde’s literal photographic process. Awde used a 4-by-5 camera for “Scale Without Measure.” The way he describes it, the camera rests on a tripod and you have to look at the image upside down through a ground glass. Awde said it changed his engagement with his subjects, whether they were landscapes or people. With a 4-by-5 camera, you have to look at whatever you’re photographing without a machine in between you.

Come Friday, Awde’s mother, partner, sister and her children will attend Light Work’s reception for “Scale Without Measure.” Around 2 a.m. his time on Saturday, Awde will Skype in to speak at the reception. Close relationships drove Awde to take up photography and these bonds keep him away from his work now, standing in solidarity with his subjects.

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