This interview originally appeared in issue #4 of Quint Magazine (January 2011).
Of the sudden rise of artistic photographers, few are as consistently recognisable as Tanya Traboulsi. The local standard for music photography, there are few Lebanese musicians who have not had her lens stare through them and her vision describe their work. We caught up with Tanya to discuss her passion for music, her artistic endeavours, and other such intriguing adventures.
Most photographers I’ve met have an intimate relationship with the things they photograph. You say you lived between Austria and Beirut, and yet (and I might be wrong) I’ve never seen you take much interest in Austria in your photos. How come?
When I left Lebanon at the age of 7 it was a big rupture for me. I didn’t want to leave, but circumstances back then in Lebanon were not easy, so we were forced to leave. I wasn’t happy at all during the first years in Austria, and I think this period of time affected me a lot. I kept on seeing images of Beirut in my mind and decided to go back as soon as possible. My childhood in Lebanon, despite the war, was a very happy one.
How much of what you do is your thing, and how much of it is commissioned? Do you find commissioned work interesting enough?
I would say it’s fifty-fifty, although I try to work more on my personal work than on commissioned jobs. Gladly, I have many interesting commissioned jobs but I must admit that I am being quite selective and sometimes it happens that I reject a job if it is completely against my style or way of working.
You mostly do music photography, alongside your documentary Beirut style. How did you get into that? And why music?
Music has always played an important role in my life. As a child, I used to browse through my dad’s vinyl collection and got introduced to all kinds of music at quite an early age. I don’t think there have been many days in my life without music, if any at all.
I started photographing musicians a few years back, while actually hanging out with some of the hip hop artists here in Beirut. They are friends of mine and I had just bought a camera and tried it out. A few weeks later I had the idea of documenting the alternative underground music scene of Beirut and slowly got more and more photos and bands in my archive.
What I love about music photography is that it’s very versatile, depending on the genre of music. When I take photos in a concert I’m, most of the time, diving into the music while photographing. Later on, while editing and treating the photos, I try to adjust the mood of colours and texture to the genre of music.
I noticed a lot of your work is somewhat set up, or of the artists playing music (often in a setup of some sort). How do you manage to create the right environments? Do you have a studio or do you use their studios?
I basically don’t set up the environments. When I shoot in concerts, at rehearsals, or during studio recording sessions, I cannot change the way things are set up. But sometimes when I take group shots during breaks, for example, or when bands or artists contact me for press photos, of course we try to set up something that suits their style. I have been told that my photos look quite set up, but mainly there is no big setup. I just like to work with what I have on spot, not only regarding environment or props, but also lighting.
Where would you like your work to move towards? You’ve got the music photography down right now in Lebanon (you’re almost the only name I always hear when I ask for music photographers in Lebanon) and (maybe?) the region. Do you feel there’s more in that for you, or do you want to venture into new things?
I definitely want to explore music photography more, not only in Lebanon but perhaps also in other countries, not necessarily only in the Middle East. I am open for anything interesting coming my way, and very flexible. I think life passes too fast to allow oneself to get stuck in routine and boredom.
Your more ‘documentary’ work, the Beirut Chronicles (Collection 1983, Beirut and I, I Love You Too, etc), has a very unique character. How do you get into that, how do you pick your subjects?
These series have a very emotional background and concept to them. Mostly, it’s about past, childhood, love, loss, separation, etc. I must feel the subject/theme and relate to it in order to be able to shoot something that the viewer will be able to feel as well. For me, there is no point in creating a series of photographs without a, often subtle, story to them. I love subtlety, minimalism, and the biggest compliment someone can give me is that they spend more than just a few seconds looking at my photos, because there is more behind the actual image that you might discover when you look at it longer.
Why don’t you do more of that sort of work?
I do, but I work a lot on the music series, which doesn’t leave much time for other things. Also, series like “I love you too” or “Collection 1983” come to my mind often by “coincidence”. I shot “Collection 1983” when I went to see an exhibition at that same place, instead of watching the exhibition I took photos of the walls of the place, which I found much more interesting. Interesting ideas often appear out of nowhere and evolve into something bigger.
Writers find a lot of times their work (especially the less direct stuff) is open to interpretation in a surprising way. People explain their writings in a way that is sometimes unusual but interesting. I’m sure you must have had that happen with your work… How is that for a photographer? Do you intentionally create work that sparks debate?
No, I don’t do that (intentionally). I don’t see myself as a photojournalist or photographer of social matters, at least not in a direct way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers, or established ones that are still struggling to freelance? Anything – from technique to networking.
Networking is very important, of course. Technique is important. Equipment might be important too. But the most important thing is to find out what you want from life, what you want to do in life, and to love what you do. And actually do what you love. Because, what’s the point of living something that doesn’t fulfil you?