The photography of Lebanese artist Camille Zakharia

Part of Camille’s ‘Coastal Promenade’ project. Photo by Kirt Gersen.

Just over a year ago I was invited to Camille Zakharia’s Bahrain-based studio. This particular place is quaint and his studio is cosy although rather bare furniture-wise. He told me he would much rather buy an artwork or book than a piece of furniture.

Large and small paintings and photographs, mainly ones that have been traded with other artists, and a few of Camille’s un-seen paintings, adorn the white-washed walls. He showed me around, explaining where each one came from and the artist behind them. It was immediately obvious that he has enormous respect for art and its creators.

After the grand tour we sat down and got to chatting about his passion for photography. “I wanted to free moments. Sometimes there are a few moments in your life that have an impact on you, your upbringing, on your entire being. It was the curiosity I had to freeze these moments that led me into this field. This was an excellent way for me to adapt to the world around me,” he said.

Camille told me how, initially, he never intended to show his photographs publicly. “It was a personal experience; to document my life – what I saw, experienced.” He began his quest at 17, in his hometown of Tripoli in Lebanon. In the early 80’s the civil war ravaged; “There was a lot of restrictions in terms of what we could do. Nevertheless I enjoyed these few moments with friends having lunch here, dinner there, going to a friend’s house. It’s very intimate and you.”

In 1985 however, Camille left Lebanon and went to the US where he did his Masters, and then he moved to Greece, Turkey, and came to Bahrain in the early 90’s. “I was a bachelor then; I had a beautiful penthouse in Um Al Hassam and I converted the kitchen into a dark room. This is when I took photography to another level; I started experimenting.” Camille got a more professional camera, although he admits that he still loves the spontaneity that the 35mm allows, but the medium-format camera, which he still uses, gives more weight to his images, he said. He taught himself how to print and remastered the printing technique in black and white. “My fridge was just full of chemicals and photography papers.”

Camille is known for his quirky collages. It was in his laboratorial kitchen, in 1992, where he completed his first collage. “I realised I could use my images in conjunction with another image. I thought, ‘What if I combine this photography with another? Although I do still love straight photography, I really enjoy the physical element of making a collage; creating an entirely different picture to the one you first had.”

When Camille came to Bahrain it had been the first time in six years, since he had left Lebanon, he was in a country which shared his mother tongue – Arabic. He described this as a kind of relief, allowing him to interact with the country on many levels. “Plus I was fascinated with the traditional architecture of Muharraq. I started photographing different facets of Muharraq; the alleyways, the floor, the detail of the architecture, different buildings. I gathered them in a documentary style and printed them. Many of the houses I’ve pictured have gone now, but I have captured them forever.”

In 1995 Camille moved to Canada, a country in which he felt instantly welcomed and at home. He admitted that he hopes to move back to Canada one day. “Out of the all the countries I’ve lived in, I’ve felt most at home in Canada and Bahrain. When the plane lands, I feel I am home.” Here, he continued his practice of documenting life, and he learned more about himself and his style.

Although photography is a big part of his life, by trade Camille is an engineer, specialising in infrastructure. He believes this has a significant impact upon his photography style. “I’m a very structured person; my works have a grid element to them and I am fascinated by geometry. I believe that geometry is an important pattern in your life. Even when something seems fragmented to you, later on this slides into a form that you understand. What I’m trying to say is that I believe in shapes, even if the lines aren’t straight and they are swirly, they are happening for a reason.” Camille said many things like this during our chat which demonstrates that his belief in photography borders on borders on the spiritual; something which I find highly inspiring. It was evident that he understands life on an extremely deep level, truly experiencing every moment through his practice.

At the end of 1999, Camille returned to Bahrain, where he has stayed ever since and witnessed the dramatic changes on the Gulf’s urban landscape. He has documented these changes in many of the GCC countries, most particularly in Bahrain. A pioneering project which Camille undertook was named ‘The Coastal Promenade’ and it contributed to a joint project with other artists called ‘Reclaim’, which investigated the decline of sea culture in Bahrain. This came as part of the kingdom’s first national participation at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Bahrain ended up coming first place, winning the most prestigious art prize in the world – the Golden Lion.

Camille said that the urban landscape of any place is one of his main inspirations. “This is a mirror of the people living there; I can document society and how we all evolve.” He also loves photographing people and his main objective when doing so would be to reflect on the soul of a person. “I like to find the true colour within, through the eyes. I don’t rush when taking a portrait. Oftentimes I put the camera aside and have a long chat, just as you and I are doing right now…

“I love to photograph creative people, with no restrictions. I love difference and people who are very liberated, and you find this within artists.” The reason why Camille captures Arab artists the most is because he encounters them the most, but in general whenever he meets anyone with strong character he invites them to have a portrait taken. “People are very receptive to my invitation and I have accumulated an immense collection which has become extremely rich.”

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