When photographer Arthur Sasse snapped physicist Albert Einsten’s portrait on his 72nd birthday, he earned world recognition for capturing the genius, tongue sticking outside his cheek, in a moment of pure silliness. Here was an iconic figure of the 20th Century, acting - well - human.

While it was pure luck that Sasse captured Einstein in this genuine moment, Lebanese-Brazilian photographer Lamia Abillama was intentionally looking to de-iconicize Lebanese politicians in her new photographic series titled, “Your Excellencies.” From President Michel Sleiman to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, from Free Patriotic leader Michel Aoun to Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab, from Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea to Speaker Nabih Berri and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, the exhibition is an effort to show a more intimate side of some of the country's most recognizable figures.



Abillama says that after seeing the same photos of political leaders over the past 40 years, she wanted to reveal another side to these figures we don't usually get to see from behind closed doors. “The country’s situation, financially, politically, civilly and on so many other levels was disappointing. I felt that we needed to see who these people really are and what they would look like if they took their media masks off," the artist tells Beirut.com of her work, which began in 2007.

So how does a photographer go about getting this kind of access to some of Lebanon's most famous individuals? As the daughter of the former director of General Security, Farouq Abillama, Lamia had already established some contacts with a few of them, but most of it, she says, was due to her aggressive pursuit of those figures through media representatives. "No was certainly not an option," the artist insists of her effort.

Taking photographs of Lebanese religious and political figures came with certain assumptions and expectations for the photographer. But to see that they were, in her words, "all generous and charming, and just as welcoming as any ordinary Lebanese citizen," came as a shock to Abillama. "It felt like the Lord living in his own fortress," she says of meeting the figures from her series.

The only so-far unconquerable fortress for Abillama: capturing a portrait of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. The photographer says she was determined to get him on board and was offered many promises to meet with him which never materialized. But the photographer says she won't stop trying until she publishes her work into a book, which she is in the process of putting together.



Among the many portraits in Abillama's series, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s appears to be the most intimate and revealing. The picture shows Geagea sitting in a jogging suit on the side of his bed. The scene is in many ways fitting for a man who spent more than 11 years in prison. The room is very simple, bleak even. Next to him on the bed sits a small blue teddy bear.

But for most of the remaining photographs in the exhibition, the photographer falls short of grasping a softer, more realistic side of these figures. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman sits in his presidential chair with the Lebanese flag in the background. He looks straight at the camera with a casual smile. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt sits in one of his weekly gatherings talking while waving his hands to the crowds. Another photograph shows Patriarch Aoude wearing his formal religious garment, standing tall and looking into the camera with a smile.

No matter how determined she was to capture a more human side of her subjects, perhaps Abillama never stood a chance. Perhaps the masked version of Lebanese leaders has simply become a part of who they really are.

“I captured the reality of what I saw," says Abillama, adding, "if the wife was very present in the leader’s life, she made her way into the picture. Even when it meant seeing the hands of a bodyguard dominating a political leader’s portrait. I went into their homes and portrayed what was inevitable."

"Your Excellencies" is on exhibit at Tanit Gallery until January 27. For more information, click here.

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