Until today, Noel Nasr is not entirely sure that designating himself as a photographer is the correct definition of what he does. "I enjoy looking for places that require a certain kind of critique visually. Photography is simply the medium I am comfortable with," but he mentions that he can easily envision himself shifting to the audiovisual realm and video for instance. "When I was 15 years old, I was more interested in becoming a cinematographer than a photographer, but when I won first prize in an inter-university Kodak competition soon after in 1997, I realized that I can deliver something in this field. Whether it was a wise decision, I don't know."
Noel's photographs develop from historical investigations to more intimate spaces of the body or details that fascinate him such as rust. When asked what usually inspires him or captures his imagination, he told Archileb: "Anything related to death and life and the spaces in which they overlap."
His first project, Intimacy, was of a personal nature. "I began with my life, with my stories. I had to express this before being able to tackle other stories. You cannot talk to people before you start talking to yourself, in a way. Intimacy is the project that made me who I am and fostered this love for photography. I could understand it more, interact with it, and deconstruct myself. The photography becomes public and you cannot do anything about it. It is about your pictures, it is you and then you have no boundaries any longer and cannot do anything about the exposure...Once it is out, the image no longer belongs to you. But if I look at Intimacy now, 10 - 15 years later, and at athe railway series, "Out of Order," which was done more recently in 2009, there is a lot in common with them that I was not aware of such as the one with the parallel shadow to the spine, and the railway, for example. This didn't come to my mind before," Noel tells Archileb, "but now that you ask me to look for such parallels..."
The urban and social setting often features in Noel's work. "Definitely the railway series relates to how the environment infringes on and is infringed by the railway. Urban space is not distant from any project of mine," and yet he maintains an unobtrusive vision when situated in space, or at least, as much as possible. "Much of my work is fashioned by the subject itself; I don't impose myself on space, as much as I like to maneuver. I try not to compromise the subject's existence with my aesthetic needs. It is a form of respecting gravity." And Noel then explained how the visual aspect of an urban setting often reflects this duality between the personal and the universal, the private and the public. "Our of order had a personal interpretation, but at the same time, it was a public space. I chose these sites, because they are forgotten, areas that people pass by every day, and are merged with their surroundings in a space that is normalized...It is akin to the human being trying to take over public space by imposing a certain sense of privacy, but then nature adds a public element again."
Always captivated by trains, Noel thought more about the issue of public transportation when he moved back to Lebanon with his Irish wife. As he toured the country with her, he realized that he has an obsession with mentioning the places the railway crossed over along the coast. "That is how my trail began, and I become more interested precisely because others were not." Being drawn to these neglected, forlorn cartographies of the Lebanese railway, or what remains of it, also let to a certain sense of adventure. Noel Nasr was harrassed by police constantly, who could not understand what it was that he was doing during his post-midnight photo shoots; he also got followed by a car without a license plate and even met a shepherd who had his tent tied to the railway.
Moving from the poetic to the more political, Noel Nasr's current MFA project is yet another kind of journey: a visual examination into the different strings of assassination sites in Lebanon, superimposed with digital shots of archival footage. In fact, Noel Nasr himself describes his work as diverse in scope and constantly changing, rather than focusing on develping a particular style, like in the Western tradition of photography, or branding the image with an identity. However, even in this new work where he delves into techniques he had not employed before, he still abides by his principles of no manipulation or retouching in his layering of the two photographs each time.
Most people find his work very morbid and painful, Noel admits, "but I see it as uplifting. Since we are living in a space that is postwar, or between wars, I have to work in that mind frame," which has affected him in not being able to stick to one visual style or methodology. "This country doesn't allow you to do that; there is always an upheaval. Lebanon, as a place ,constantly stimulates me in this way, as a country that is a boiling ground, a place that follows a corrupt system and embodies an amalgam of things no one can understand." Furthermore, Noel insisted that his interpretation of war is not direct at all, even though this issue underlies all of his projects. "I see war in many of my photos, it became a filter. I don't think I bring the war in, but rather, war drags me into the reading of the war. War infiltrates, but on the other hand, I am not going for blood or atrocities, but rather the simplicity of the aftermath and its truth. My concepts come from the research, which are embedded in the history that is war." Even though he studied in the UK and lived there for three years, experiencing another history, the place didn't call to him in a similar way. "I didn't take a single picture," Noel confesses.
Here, with the subject of his current project, Noel Nasr's earlier influences become more apparent. "I was raised on Magnum photography in relation to photojournalism. Of course I like Man Ray, but I cannot deny the influence of Robert Kappa and Eugene Smith or Sophie Calle. Yet there isn't really one main inspiration since I am always on the lookout for emerging photographers. In the end, it is the concept that counts and how the idea is developed. I was never after a pretty image. I like to communicate with the public. This is a critique of the media and to say that as humans, we cannot handle atrocities in general." Hence Noel's interest in World Press Photo, and he is now chairing the committee for Lebanon. He brought the competition here this year after having been influenced by their show in 2000 and is organizing a series of parallel events such as an exhibition of an-Nahar's best 50 photographs from their archive.
Founder of Archileb, Elie Harfouche mentioned that Noel's work mostly relates to "silent spaces" and that there is something that is "non-active," about them, or not dynamic, but they embody static moments rather and little life in terms of activity. Even when he depicted the bicycle wheel, in Elie's opinion, "there is an insinuation of motion, but it is actually static." Noel agreed although he feels that he often attempts to give voice to movement and look for the non-static aspect of objects. But of course, photography is all about "moments frozen in time, the death that the image creates anyway. As soon as you click on the camer, the moment is dead. But the photograph is also life itself; the image is killing or freezing the moment that is dead, but bringing another dimension of life to it. When the photograph is viewed by people and infiltrates their minds, life is brought back, especially when it flashes back in memories."
Until today, it is Noel's strong sense that many underestimate the image or believe in photography as an art, "which was only decided a century ago. And the public is very small. People do not look at the image or think that it may be saying something, but then again, very few people read today either. As a consumer society, we are not critiquing the images, we merely consume them." And in his opinion, the problem wiht local photography is unintended plagiarism due to lack of sufficient research. "People love coffee-table books." Noel remains a staunch believer in photography, not only as a profession, but als as an academic enterprise: "Teachers still don't believe there should be a major in Photography even though photography is not getting anywhere in the system due to the lack of people with knowledge in it. We are academics, we should say what is needed. The reason for a major is not to learn the technique, everyone can be a photographer, but it is for analysis, thought, and history. Being in an academic system allows you to be part of a system that is moving without you and you learn how to function within it and become part of that system."
As for the ritual Noel undergoes when delving into a photographic project, it is true that images often beckon to him and he carries a sketchbook where he notes things of interest down, "and I might look there one day, just in case I run out of ideas, but I haven't needed to yet. I enjoy the 'depression' phase of creativity when nothing inspires you. This is good to go through; you become a vacuum, like a white page, ready for something to hit you."
Archileb: "If you were to critique your own work, how would you describe your visual language, in spatial terms, for instance?" "Experimental," says Noel.