The photojournalist who has spent many years understanding Lebanese culture and people, now calls it home
“The social landscape in Lebanon has changed radically in the last two years,” says British photographer Jacob Russell, who lived in the country while working as a photojournalist. Previously, he says, it was a dysfunctional but vibrant place with a totally unique atmosphere. “People struggled but lived loudly. Then the political class and their clans stole everything they could and gutted the country. Now, since the financial collapse that they precipitated, life has become desperate for the great majority of Lebanese. There is no electricity, no fuel, no medicine, no work. The banks are empty and the traffic lights don’t work. Society is crumbling rapidly. For me, the camera is an excuse to put myself in situations that I really have no business to be in.”
Russell is explaining the circumstances that led him to shoot the work in his forthcoming photobook, All is Sacred, Nothing is Safe. Released this month in September withEdizioni DARST, the title draws together an evocative and affecting constellation of black and white images that illuminate the suffering of this land and its people. Fires rage in these pictures, protests march on, and people search through the rubble of what’s left each morning. Faces float in and out of the frames, their expressions tense, contemplative, worried.
The title of the project comes from Russell’s impression of the relationship between vulnerability and meaning in Lebanon – because of the current dysfunction there, he says, nothing is guaranteed, hence the idea that nothing is safe. “Education, work, health, safety; a Lebanese citizen couldn’t bank on any of that. It made the future very unsure and there was a sense that the present day was very important. Sacred somehow. That was before the real crisis of the last year and a half. Now daily life is consumed by just getting by.”
Russell grew up in the UK and studied Philosophy in Manchester. Later, he moved into photojournalism, honing in specifically on the Middle East. He had already lived in the region for several years when he began to feel displaced. “I missed Europe and got tired of being a foreigner, but at the same time recognised that Lebanon had become home,” he says. “It was around the same time that things started to really fall apart there, so I wanted to look at what was happening to this place.” Unlike his work as a photojournalist – which is necessarily detached in emotion – this book reveals a far more personal endeavour.
All is Sacred, Nothing is Safe is Russell’s attempt to answer the question he has long asked himself – which is ‘why am I here?’ Or, in other words, why Lebanon? What kept pulling him back? In the end, making this project about the country showed him how deeply he feels tied to it now. “Home is a place where you have people you love and the smells are so familiar you don’t notice them any more. You don’t necessarily always like it, or even choose it, but it’s still your home,” he muses. “Lebanon is that for me. And there is always a sense of relief when I return there.”
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London