At first glance, the photograph of the quiet city hidden behind the bare concrete building dominates the scene of what is seemingly a mundane night in one of Beirut’s many construction sites. It does not take long for one to notice the subtle yet unsettling lifeless body of a woman found near the red blood like scaffold wrap.
A chilling yet eerily familiar scene we may have witnessed in movies or crime TV shows, the photograph is from visual artist and clinical pathologist Lara Tabet’s most recent series. Inspired by Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, Underbelly is a body of work that explores the fictively alleged homicides that take place in marginal spaces of Beirut’s suburbs. Photographed with a large format camera, and paired with the careful construction of microscopic image making, Tabet’s images are similar to the forensic evidence collected from the crime scenes.
Tabet’s experience in pathology identifies an underlying relationship between her core practice and the grim and dark aesthetics she creates. Dictated by trauma that affects both the bodies of individuals’ as well as the traumas that deal with her city, Lara consciously sequences the vulnerable and private images into themes related to memory, gender, sexuality, and transgression. Directing the viewer to reflect on general narratives of the collective experience she blurs the lines between reality and fiction.
Photography is an essential practice for Tabet who started using the medium cathartically. Her interest was realized when she snatched a camera and ventured off on to a trip to Ethiopia. Shortly after her visit, she was contacted by photographers Rima Maroun and Elsie Haddad to work on a collective project about urban changes in Beirut. Few months after they started meeting, both Maroun and Haddad were stunned to find out that she is a doctor who had just started using the medium.
In 2012, after finishing her residency in Clinical Pathology, Tabet traveled to New York to complete a one-year full-time program at the International Center of Photography and was the recipient of the Lisette Model Scholarship. She has received grants from AFAC (Arab Fund for Art and Culture) and Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi; she was also the recipient of the Daylight Photo Award Juror’s Pick for her project The Reeds, and she was awarded the Arte east fellowship for the Art Omi residency.
Entitled The Hole Truth, the first series Tabet worked on is a collection of blurry black-and-white images of various construction sites in Beirut. Photographed with a crafted pinhole camera, the images of this work portrays a fast developing dynamic of a city that has become less accessible over the years.
Tabet’s openness in talking about her intimate life is her initial motivation to take photographs. To deal with the trauma she faced when she lost a loved one, Lara worked on Réconciliation, a body of work that juxtaposes the dualities of life and death, as well as the body and the city. Penelopes is another project that deals with grief and loss. It examines the lives of women living around Mar Mikhael, a neighborhood in Beirut which has fallen victim at the hands of real estate companies that were performing historical home demolitions in order to build new and glamorous structures.
Tabet focused on photographing women who have not only refused to give up their homes but also lost the men in their lives. Using a combination of arranged self-portraiture, and archival images gathered from within the houses themselves, and pictures of their homes’ interiors; Tabet questions the temporary space between the private and the public concerning grief, memory, and home.
Applying imagery of surveillance connected to a consensual space is another body of work by Tabet. Named Beirut Home Surveillance, the intrusive snapshots bring together a series of staged images shot through the Skype webcam and reveal the personal affairs of an ex-lover occupying Tabet’s apartment when she was away. A collaborative project, the photographs investigate the blurred boundaries between the private and the public, a recurring theme in Tabet’s work.
Nudity and illicit sexual behavior are also very present in most of Lara’s work. She considers the camera to be a powerful tool of both violence and seduction. Using these characteristics, she convinces friends, family, and sometimes strangers to pose for her.
The Reeds, a collaborative work with Michelle Daher was born out of the frustration over the shortage of public spaces in Beirut. Mixing both Documentation and self-representation, she cross-examines the reality of the landscape with the non-privately owned spaces.
Lara’s work is visceral and is based on experience. It uses many approaches and techniques that allow her to be as vulnerable as the people she photographs. Whether intuitive or carefully constructed, she injects herself in most of her images and can form genuine connections with the people she is photographing while shedding light on topics that touch her emotionally. Her work has been featured throughout the Arab world, the USA and Europe, and it has been subject to censorship, due to the explicit content it presents.
At a time where photography is changing from its core, Tabet believes it is an essential tool that has a fleeting characteristic which is very intoned with Beirut and its political background. Lara is fascinated and continuously reflects on the future of an ever-changing medium that is used by many as a vehicle for storytelling.