Thursday, October 25, 2012
Michel, Metalsmith, Family, Bekaa Valley, Zahle, Lebanon
He has since passed on, but this portrait is etched into my mind. In the early years of my work, my Mother's hometown was the starting point. Visiting the family seemed like a good excuse to take along a camera and head into the streets while they were either working or sleeping.
Language was never a barrier, and people knew my family well. Safety was nothing to be concerned with, and walking in the streets was as natural as I had remembered from childhood. Everywhere I turned someone greeted me with a smile, acknowledged our common thread as Lebanese. Most were curious and conversations would begin very easily.
In this instance this man was working in his shop as a metalsmith. I asked him for his portrait and he offered his time happily. We talked for a few minutes then set up the camera to make the image above. In the middle of setting up he asked about my connection to Zahle. I responded with my Mother's maiden name and, as it turned out, he happened to be related to my Mother as a close cousin. He asked about my family, and then asked if perhaps he should change to more proper clothing for his portrait. I assured him that my Mother would love him as he was, and respect him even more so for allowing her son to make his portrait without doing so.
We worked for a little bit, talked more so and promised to see each other the following year. I returned home to tell my family that I had photographed Michel, and noted the smiles on their faces. They were used to me photographing migrant workers, unknown faces, and were in disbelief that my work now included our family. My Mother however knew my work and was sincerely pleased that I had finally included my own family alongside the endless stream of strangers.
I visited Michel every time we returned to Lebanon over the years, sometimes just passing by his shop and seeing him hard at work. Then one year I heard the news of his passing, that a car had struck him while walking down the narrow street of his shop. I was upset because I have seen firsthand how careless drivers can be on these streets, and knew that he had so much more to give. I admired then and admire even more so now his work ethic, how he cared about his job whether he was working for a prominent farmer or a migrant worker, taking care of their respective tools.
One year I returned with his framed portrait to give to his wife. My Mother gave me directions to his home and I decided to go alone. I knocked on the door and a young African answered the door. After exchanging greetings I asked for Michel's wife. She returned a minute or so later and looked at me in a curious manner. I took the framed photograph and placed it in her hands, the entire time looking at both of their faces. This was the first time that they had seen the image and were so surprised that Michel had been photographed.
The look on their faces was sufficient in itself, and we separated without saying much more. This experience showed me that people do cherish the visual record, and even more so the fact that one took the time to return their loved ones to them. This I do with honor, and pleasure.