In the coastal town of Amchit, photographer Bassam Lahoud’s Lebanese House of Photography documents the country’s intimate narratives by photograph, in a house that reveals the ages of history
When Bassam Lahoud’s uncle Nazih handed him his Leica III 1939 camera, complete with an undeveloped Kodachrome film, Lahoud’s first question was, “why did you never bother to develop the photos?” Aged 95, his uncle’s answer was charmingly simple. They were, he explained, of his girlfriend and as “she was in front of me, why did I need the picture?” Lahoud, a photographer, LAU lecturer and one-man-show behind the ongoing project that is the Lebanese House of Photography, laughs as he recounts the tale. It’s the little details, the stories behind the cameras and the photos that bring them meaning, he says.
Lahoud’s photography museum in Amchit has been a massive personal undertaking. The idea began in 1998, sparked by a conversation between Lahoud and Henri Chapier, the then president of the European House of Photography. “The first thing I thought of is the protection of photographic heritage,” he says. “For people a photo is nothing, but for me photography is history.” He wanted to create a foundation that would encourage both Lebanese photographers and Lebanese photography. Flash-forward and his archives contain over 150,000 negatives and slides with a digital archive, he says, numbering in the millions.
The Lahoud residence, where the photography museum resides, has at times played host to exhibitions and concerts, and houses his collection of equipment, cameras and photographs currently stored for safety as he navigates a humidity problem. The Ministry of Culture classified the building in the early ‘90s and walking through the caves you are greeted by stages of history. The entranceway, he says, dates back to the 3rd Century. “[There is] a bolt hole inside the rock, where the first Christians used to hide [from the Romans],” he explains. “The church [across the street] was built on the ruins of the Roman temple.” Turn the corner and you have the remaining structure of a synagogue, where the rabbis of a Jewish settlement, that came in 760 and lived in Amchit for 200 years, were buried. Through the hall into the main chamber is the stable area of the Hamadiyeh Shiite family, built in the 15th Century.
His own family’s roots trace back to 970, when the church was first built, and following a war between the Hamadiyehs and Prince Yusef Chebab in 1730-1760, the Lahouds gained possession of the residence and the surrounding 2,000m2. “This is why it is one of the most interesting houses in Lebanon … [it] has different civilizations, different periods of construction.”
The museum is also intrinsically linked to its surroundings. While he works on digitizing his archive to make it available to the public, Lahoud has put together a book from his own photos and those collected from his neighbors. Under the working title “100 years of Amchit: 1860 – 1960” he hopes the book will be released later this year.
“Of the father and the son,” was the title of one of the museum’s previous exhibitions featuring photos taken by Lahoud’s father in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and then by himself in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the same camera. “People like to see the past. ‘This is me’ – [said one 85-year-old Amchit resident who came to the exhibition] – ‘this was me when I was 12,’ ‘oh I know, this was my grandfather’ … it’s part of showing people their history,” says Lahoud.
Looking to the future, Lahoud hopes to continue hosting exhibitions and concerts while he works on setting up the permanent space. The museum has become multifaceted; first to display the photographic equipment he has, second to display the photos related to the house, and, finally, as an architectural space, to visit in its own right.
To visit the Lebanese House of Photography, outside of organized events and exhibitions, call and arrange an appointment a week in advance on 03 788889
Where to eat
“Food wise you have the specialties of Amchit, for example the ras abyad (egg pizza). It’s inexpensive and traditional,” says Lahoud. Stop by Furn el Sabaya (09 624466), a macrobiotic but traditional bakery for breakfast and Samket Amchit (09 622767) for lunch, known for its fish sandwiches.
Where to sleep
The main attraction in Amchit is the camping, Camping Amchit (09 622401) – the only place where you can camp all year round.
What to see
A nice place to visit is the garden of lawyer Abdallah Zakhia, on the port of Amchit. It features all kinds of plants, from tropical to Nordic. He really is a defender of the environment.