Lebanese photographer Cyrille Karam on stealing portraits, the early days of the internet and people who dress up their dogs
AK: Tell us a little about yourself to start things off. A/S/L?
26 / Woman with a male name / Beirut.
AK: What side of the bed do you sleep on? What are your feelings about people who dress up their dogs? All that good stuff…
I have a single bed. My feelings about people that dress up their dogs? Confusing … It’s a one way thing; the master who thinks his dog is his own kid. We should consider animals for what they are. That’s it.
AK: How did you originally get into photography?
I lived in Saudi Arabia for 15 years, a country where representing the body or taking a photo in public spaces is forbidden. The relationship with the body and all its complexities that I experienced there as a child, as a young girl, has definitely played a role in my understanding of ‘the image’ and its power.
My “nomadic” childhood between France, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, during which I experienced three very different cultures, gave me first a desire and then a need to express myself through photography.
When I arrived to France, I was 15 years old. From Riyadh, I landed in a small village in Auvergne surrounded by nature and fields and I began attending a private catholic school where I can say with certainty that I was the only “exotic stranger”. I needed a way to tame the environment I was made to deal with.
I started with a bad quality compact camera until a friend gave me her analog Minolta. Before getting married, her dream was to become an artist but she eventually dedicated her life to the fields – her husband was a farmer. It was a way to push me to do what she could no longer do herself.
It was a heavy camera. I felt responsible and serious holding such an apparatus. I started to shoot everything I could – the work in the fields, their family, their dog, and my first portraits were taken at agricultural fairs.
AK: You recently moved back to Beirut after an extended stint in Lyon (FR). Tell us a bit about that decision.
Actually I’m not technically “coming back” because I’ve never lived in Lebanon for long periods of time. I was born In Zahle – and right after that my family moved to Saudi Arabia. I then spent almost 10 years in France.
Before moving to Beirut, I moved around France for two years after graduating in 2013 from the National School of Photography in Arles. I felt a bit lost after that, I couldn’t tell what I wanted to do and how. I worked on different kinds of projects – personal ones and other odd jobs – but nothing that made me particularly want to stay. Meanwhile, Lebanon was always somewhere in my thoughts, as if something was missing, and I felt I had to repair a “rendezvous manqué” with Beirut. So I packed my stuff and decided to settle down here.
AK: Do you have any one image you’ve shot that stands out amongst the rest? If so why?
I experiment a lot with my images. I couldn’t talk about one specific and isolated picture. It’s more about the experience than the image itself. My first stolen portrait was one I took of my grandmother. She is blind, and I didn’t tell her I was still in her room, observing her. I felt guilty about stealing her image, but today, I still think it’s one of my favorite portraits.
AK: What kind of impact do you want your work to have? Do you have a certain end goal?
AK: What kind of music are you into at the moment? Do you find musical inspiration for your work?
I love music but I have really bad auditory memory. I enjoy the existing sound, but I won’t provoke it. Most of the time, I discover sounds by chance. I listen to one french radio [FIP], which proposes a very eclectic selection from all around the world, rare tracks from unknown or forgotten artists, a lots of jazz, independent musicians etc.
My latest crushes have been the works of Christine and the Queens, a French artist I find fascinating while she performs. She develops a feminine and masculine character, a strong and intelligent visual identity. Also, the film director Xavier Dolan, who has this amazing capacity to set beautiful tensions between his characters by using popular tracks. The time stops, and the music starts. Heartbeats/Lawrence Anyway/Mommy.
AK: You can never use a camera again. What do you do instead?
If I can no longer photograph, I write.
AK: Feelings on internet dating? Tinder? Stories please.
It reminds me of the beginning of the Internet’s first platforms for online meetings. Long columns of chats with 20 participants writing at the same time. A mix of sex, seduction, insults, hope and despair. It was absurd. A real hunt between the lines. No stories. Self censor.
AK: Tell us about the last dream you had that you remember.
The presence of an animal. It’s almost systematic. In the last dream I remember, I was taking a bath with a tiny octopus, it was swimming all around me. I couldn’t move. Soft and frightening.