On a rainy Friday afternoon, as I look out of the window of our car on the highway that connects Beirut to the north of Lebanon, I can see the spectacle of destruction that all of us living here have become accustomed to: the wide expanse of mangled warehouses and cranes that is now the port.
On Aug. 4, 2020, a massive explosion caused by the ignition of more than 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate tore through the port of Beirut and destroyed swaths of the city. In the blast, more than 200 people were killed and 6,500 were injured.
Eight months later, I am on my way to meet Elie Saib. His picture, which I took in the aftermath of the explosion while on assignment for The Washington Post, was selected last month as one of six finalists for the World Press Photo of the Year.
Hundreds of thousands of people had seen his photo in The Post, and now millions more saw it, and Elie unwittingly became an icon of the Beirut disaster.
Elie reached out to me last week. And it is because of that serendipitous call that I will get to hear this photo talking back to me. As I travel, I wonder: “What does he think of my image? Does he hate me for taking it?”
Outside Beirut, the breathtaking mountains of Lebanon open up as the rain becomes snow and the road narrows to a winding path. My wife — she is Lebanese and was also injured in the blast — and I eventually reach the village of Ehden and are given a warm welcome. We sit in a simple but cozy living room, the only heated room in the house. In the midst of the noisy hospitality, Elie comes across as quiet and battered, a heavily built man with an absent gaze.
A 36-year-old staff sergeant of state security, Elie was in charge of safety at the port’s Pier 9, less than 100 yards away from Pier 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored. A massive grain silo between his office and the site of the blast blunted the force of the explosion and saved his life and that of a colleague.
It was right after 6 p.m. on Aug. 4 and Elie had just taken a shower after exercising. A moment later, the world, as Elie knew it, ceased to exist: All he remembers is flying 30 yards, being buried neck-deep in debris, struggling to breathe as the warehouses around him burned.
Co-workers found him in the rubble. His ears and nose were bleeding; his body was cut and burned with melted plastic and metal shrapnel. “I was crawling on my knees because I was dizzy and kept falling,” he recalls. He thought about another colleague, Charbel, who had also been caught in the blast. He tried to get civil defense workers to help find him, but the calls on their radio kept coming and they rushed to collect more bodies.
In the confusion of the moment, he was left to fend for himself. Barefoot, he tried to walk to reach the ambulances 300 yards away. This is when I saw him: on the side of the road, still, just staring, in shock. Nearby, firefighters worked hastily to remove debris and get their truck closer to the blazing warehouses while rescuers carried away a body on a makeshift stretcher made of a mangled metal fence.
I approached him and made only two frames. I felt like an intruder preying on his agony. I didn’t want to add any more to his pain, so I tried to be as mindful as possible. Then someone came, took him to an ambulance and Elie disappeared in the chaos.
Elie tells me he has had nightmares for months, reliving the explosion almost every night. His damaged eardrum needs surgery, which he can’t afford. He feels abandoned by his own country. He is now back to his old job at the port, without Charbel, who, he learned a few days after the Aug. 4 blast, died in the explosion. “I am always tired, always angry and emotionally exhausted,” he told me. “The place where I work is filled with bad memories; I am very unhappy and I just want to leave.”
I ask him about the picture. “The first time I saw it, I felt a lump in my throat,” he said. A friend showed him the photo on his phone: “Look, Elie, you are famous, you are in The Washington Post!” It took Elie two weeks to gather the courage to look at the image again. He feared that the image would be used by the government to pocket foreign aid, while people like him would receive little help.
Elie doesn’t abhor me, nor does he have strong feelings toward the photo. What he really wants to know is what an image with such media resonance can do for him. Will it help him? Or will he have to stay in this country that he so desperately wants to leave — spending half of his salary to pay off the loan of his destroyed car and spending most nights in the very place that took the lives of his friends?
I am not surprised by his reaction, but this episode makes me realize how little I often know about the people I photograph. A single image taken in isolation can only say so much about the life of its subject.
I, like many of my colleagues, may feel the pressure to produce a strong photograph, but if we give in to this pressure, we risk focusing most of our attention on the photo itself rather than on the people in it. Elie has a life and a story; he’s not a nameless victim. A meeting like this one reminds me of my responsibility as a photographer to understand and define the tone and the narrative of the representation.
Our lunch over, it’s time to go back to Beirut. We take pictures together; there is an uneasiness about what the photo or our meeting could help him achieve. As we drive away, what resonates in my ears is Elie’s words to his sister: “Do you think this photo will change my life?”
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