Doris Bittar is a Southern California-based Arab-American artist whose main medium has been painting. Bittar was born in Beirut and raised in Lebanon and the U.S., and her work draws its narrative force from the visual themes and interactions between the Middle East and the West. A recent six-month residency spent partly in Beirut and partly in Syria provided Bittar with an opportunity to experiment with a new medium, photography. She turned her digital lens on the people and places she met, including her own family, and developed her most recent show, “Kul Shay/All Things.” A slim, intense woman with a shock of curly black hair, Bittar and I spoke at her home and through e-mail about her show, her work and the direction she is now taking.
Why did you choose to photograph your trip rather than paint it?
I’ve always liked photography. I wanted to do something portable, and I thought it would be fun.
Do you “see” Lebanon differently now that you have photographed it?
I lived there for six months and so it was a long enough time for Lebanon to get under my skin in a way that it had not before. My heart, literally, aches for it, for all of its problems and all of its sublime gentility. I do see the politics (of Lebanon) differently. I think that the friends we made helped us to have a deeper understanding of the various points of view, to see them in a more human light as psychic anxieties as well as (positions) based on historical legacies.
Your pictures avoid the merely ethnographic position. Did you consciously try to avoid that and how?
I do not know if it is conscious but I cannot photograph someone if I do not know them a bit. The funny thing about most of the people that I photographed is that they choreographed me. They directed me and told me what to do. They had pretty good ideas and these ideas came with stories that I later wrote down. I took some of my own photos, too, but only after I had heard the stories and had allowed them to direct me. These encounters were sometimes painful because the stories can be very sad, but, more often than not, the stories are just rich.
In some ways, I am too close to the situation to be ethnographic about this. I feel like I could have been a refugee in the camp, or like my cousins in the mountains. There was something familiar about it all.
I am not a refugee but I have been in situations in my life that were full of struggle and some poverty. As immigrants (from Beirut), our first few years in the United States were difficult for my parents and for me to some extent, because I was the oldest child and have a real memory of those early days of utter struggle in the new urban America. With my own family, I kept a distance. The familial is sometimes more difficult for me because I always felt like both an outsider and an insider of my own culture, whether it was the nuclear family, my cultural origins or the larger American family.
In my early 20s, I was a labor organizer in Connecticut, working mostly with working class people. I was completely comfortable with the Polish and Italian communities, as comfortable as I was when negotiating with the employer’s lawyers. I can move between classes because my life experiences have run the gamut from poverty to high society. Perhaps that is why I can navigate these spaces fairly easily. I think if we had not been in Lebanon, however, it may have been difficult in ways that I cannot anticipate because the culture may have been too unfamiliar.
Some of your pictures carry strong emotions deep within the surface (the morning of the assassination of Hariri, for instance.) Do you still feel these things, or did creating the pictures function as a sort of catharsis?
I feel these things and they are expressed in my writing. In the act of making and looking and playing with multiple images, certain images come together by accident sometimes and they create an epiphany within me. I am surprised by these accidents, perhaps because they coincide with familiar feelings already. I am especially heartened when they resonate with my audience as a surprise and an epiphany, too.
Is this a permanent switch, or a detour that will be incorporated into your body of work? How do you feel about it?
Now that I have embarked on this project and invested so much time in it, I cannot imagine going back solely to painting and drawing. I am very interested in seeing if I can combine both, although I am wary of doing that, mainly because I have not seen very many other artists do this effectively. At this point, I am doing both (photography, painting) back-to-back. I am continuing my “Stripes and Stars” paintings and making more photo constructions and essays. These two components of my art-making satisfy different concerns and interests: one is more formal and the other wants to tell stories. Of course, the concerns of “how” and “what” are important motivations to me as I work with both endeavors.
Can you explain the shadow box concept and how you came up with it?
I came to it by accident in my studio. I planned to take a break from painting and wanted to experiment by working with collage and montage. I laid out all of my materials: pieces of wood, photos on transparencies, childhood dresses, candy wrappers from the Middle East, stencils, et cetera, the detritus of my life, some of it from childhood. By accident, one of the photo transparencies lay on top of a vintage family photo. Between them were a couple of blocks of small wood, all askew, but I saw it and knew immediately that that was it. I put away all my stuff and began to work with layering photographs.
What influence do you think the photography will have on your painting?
It remains to be seen but I think that it will enhance my appreciation for how painting is different, in that it has texture and a chemistry of depth built right into its layers. I can appreciate painting’s limits, too, in terms of the illusion of the gravity of reality or verity that photography boldly declares. We all know that photography is malleable and capable of tremendous deception but we humans tend to “naturally” believe it as truth. The expectations from my audience are different and I have to be aware of this. I have also had the experience of people thinking that I manipulated a photo when I did not, so it is always an issue. In painting, it is always a made-up world unless I am doing photo-realist painting. The shadow boxes or photo constructions are a playful space where the suspension of reality is established and I can play. No one is going to question the works’ verity because none of them are real; they are photo realms from my playful musings and imagination.
You have over 4,000 photographs. Any plans for the rest?
There are themes that I did not even approach or begin to work with. They will keep me busy for years to come. At this point, I am expanding on themes that have already been developed and shown. For example, I am working with characters in the show (Kul Shay) like Khaldiyeh, the woman in the Borj Al Barajni refugee camp. I could write a photo-essay book on her alone. My uncle Hanna and the town that my ancestors are from, Kfarhoune, is another theme that I could expand on, or other themes on the environment of Beirut and the presence of fear hanging in the air. I have 40 pages of journal entries to cull from and about 25 to 30 pages of them are pretty interesting.
What techniques are you working with now, and what future projects are coming up?
I am doing wall pieces that are more like relief installations. I am rethinking the wall as a flat surface. I am thinking of the white large wall as being more expressive and not acting as a mere backdrop for the art. I want images to emerge and to recede from the flat plane. That is all I can say about it at this point. It is still in the experimental stage.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, nos. 53 (Fall 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid