“People have told me it’s an inspiring slice of humanity at a time when bigotry seems to be winning” said the California based Photographer Brandon Tauszik on the reaction to his most recent photographic project. It’s called Syria Street after the main street in Tripoli, Lebanon. A street which has too often morphed into a violent frontline between the rivalling Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods.
Guided by the International Community of the Red Cross (ICRC), Tauszik spent a week getting to know and photograph residents from both sides. On the surface the result is beautifully raw cinemagraphs or GIF’s, buzzing street sounds and a patchwork of residents’ narratives that come together in what Tauszik calls a, “collective voice”. Beyond this, with a backdrop of regional discord, is a deeper attempt at discussing the root causes of yet another too easily labelled sectarian conflict.
Spanning over 80 years, from the Lebanese Civil War through to 2014, the clashes between Tripoli’s Alawite and Sunni neighbourhood have long been acknowledged as a microcosm of regional unrest. Although the Lebanese army’s crackdown in 2015 has maintained a makeshift calm in Tripoli, Tauszik describe what he saw as a, “suffocating presence in both neighbourhoods with tanks and checkpoints on most residential blocks.” He continued, “The conflict is still just below the surface of everyday life; people’s homes are destroyed, the local economy is in shambles, and unemployed fighters with caches of weapons are lying in wait.”
With such a tightly knit and diverse community it’s easy to blame sectarianism. However, the lack of economic security widely expressed in Syria Street seems to be the major cause of persistent instability. Tauszik says, “I learned that some things can appear to be sectarian, but are actually politically motivated. The poverty in this area of Lebanon makes the people vulnerable, and for that reason easier to manipulate.” A former fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh named Rami affirms, “When boys grow up seeing their fathers running after what little income they can find, they too will end up on a bad track. If someone has seven or eight children, he’ll do anything to get $100.”
Tauszik’s camera offers an insight into lives lived in urban violence and simultaneously an escape from the mundane. He explains, “They were eager to sit down and tell their own stories for the first time and to be photographed. Despite the adversity they face, most are very proud of where they live.” One subject is Alaa, now twenty, who recalls being 12-years-old, gripping her sister’s hand and running along the street just to get to her class as fast as possible. She and her sister later had to drop out of school when it became almost impossible to cross Syria Street without getting shot or killed.
Tauszik told of how humbled he was by the strength and resilience he witnessed. He said, “One of the women I featured in the project was Hana from the Bab al-Tabbaneh district, a mother of three and the sole breadwinner for her family. Hana’s husband used to own a successful car dealership in town but it went out of business after many outsiders began avoiding the area. He then worked as a taxi driver but lost his hearing after a mortar round exploded near him.” Tauszik discovered how directly the war in Syria exacerbated the deep rooted sectarian tensions in Tripoli. He said, “When I visited Hana’s home there was a family of Syrian refugees living in the back room. She had invited them to stay as they couldn’t find work and were homeless.”
Although the city has been in a phase of recovery since 2015, the uncertainty that young generations from both sides feel is palpable. Bullet hole ridden walls serve as a reminder of how violence erupts suddenly and without warning. Little media time is given to places between or post conflicts, yet Syria Street inhabits that ambitious space, the period of non-violence but not peace.
On using art as a means to build bridges Tauszik says, “Finding things to relate to is important in divided culture. It takes trust to build something together, and there is a universality in appreciating art.” It remains to be said with regard to the street itself, that which has been made a tool to divide can also be one to unite. Despite all her troubles Alaa says, “When I go outside I am optimistic. I feel that Syria Street is getting better, slowly coming back to life.”
Syria Street was launched this month in English, French, and Arabic. The ICRC has been working in Tripoli since November 2014. They have launched several projects to help both communities recover from the long-standing cycles of poverty and violence.