A 'Beirut Photographer' Credits Philadelphia Roots

By Kathleen Quigley, with assistance from Jacob Colon

When I spoke with photojournalist/documentary filmmaker George Azar for this article, he was in Turkey observing the situation of Syria's refugees to the country. "It is pretty sobering," he said of the scene.
I first met George while living in Amman, Jordan in 2011. A contact in Washington D.C. who worked with George on a few stories for Al Jazeera English connected us. George, who is Lebanese-American, had a home in Salt, Jordan, a town outside the capital.

It turns out we had a different geography in common. Upon our meeting I learned that George had grown up in the neighborhood in Philadelphia to which I was about to move. The Ellsworth-Federal area near South 10th Street is still home to a Lebanese Christian Maronite church and a family-owned market at which I would buy my favorite Middle Eastern staples.
When he lived on South 10th as a child, the neighborhood was "almost entirely an immigrant area," he recalls. It remains one today, significantly populated by Hispanic and Southeast Asian families. Though he moved to California's Bay Area in high school, eventually graduating from Berkeley, the impact of spending a childhood in Philadelphia is written forever into George's journalist DNA.

"Growing up in South Philly was a great experience because the kids I went to school with were from all parts of the world. It shaped my ability to get along with all different kinds of people," he reflects.
A photographer and now primarily a documentary filmmaker, George Azar has been capturing conflict in the Middle East since 1981. After graduating from college, George's first professional gig was to photograph the Lebanese civil war, a job he made for himself after moving to Beirut- a war zone then- with a camera slung under his shoulder. During a dip in the conflict he got his start selling news pictures to the wire services, but soon he became an essential pair of eyes when the war regained momentum following the Israeli invasion.

In his 2012 film "Beirut Photographer" George describes his family's journey from Lebanon to Philadelphia. The story goes that his great-grandparents originally arrived for the 1876 Centennial exhibition, selling goods at the Turkish pavilion (Lebanon, at the time, was part of the Ottoman Empire). His relatives later returned to Philadelphia for permanent settlement. George's grandfather had a candy store on South 10th for many years.
It was in Philadelphia that George first held a camera.
"I learned photography in Philadelphia in school. When I was growing up they were wracked by all kinds of fiscal problems and there were a lot of teacher strikes. The ones who stayed, though, were some of the most passionate teachers I ever had. One teacher I had was teaching English, which was broadened to Communications which was broadened to Photography. There were eight periods and each had 30-40 kids per class. There was one camera for all of those kids."

The resourcefulness learned in an underserved classroom combined with living in a city that he says was "polarized and politicized" acquainted George with an early ability to pay close attention to the world about him.
"Philadelphia was a rough town then. You had to be aware of your surroundings. That all helped me when I got to Beirut. [Beirut] was like a magnified version of Philadelphia, so I felt at home in a way. I was able to get around more than a lot of my friends who came from more privileged, less culturally diverse backgrounds. I always felt that growing up in South Philadelphia was the best preparation I could have had."

"Beirut Photographer" is George's story about going back. With 30 years between him and the highly idealistic young man he was, the film is George turning the lens on himself as he attempts to revisit the places and people he had photographed in Lebanon's capital three decades before.
In 1981 his family in the States was terrified at the idea of his going to Beirut. To initially quell their horror he lied that he was going to Greece. The deception lasted a while until the truth came out; George was a war photographer. He was only in his mid-twenties. "I was so young. The situation was so big and chaotic. I didn’t really know what I was seeing."
In the film he speaks of being held hostage, seeing countless explosions and deaths, and having his own life put in danger again and again. The war sunk in deep, but at the time he didn't really know it. A grave sense of responsibility pushed him forward during this period of being a witness to war. According to George the driving notion for him and his fellow photojournalists was "it's on me."

"We felt like we were the eyes of history. That responsibility gives you a certain level of strength and a great deal of resolve." For 30 years, George says, he dreamed about what he saw in Beirut. When he was on the ground in 1982, "PTSD wasn't yet a known concept."
"Beirut Photographer" premiered on Al Jazeera English in 2012 to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut.

George's work in documentary filmmaking continues. He now views it as his chosen "vehicle to tell the world the human stories at the heart of world events." Another recent film, "Free Running Gaza," about youth in the Palestinian territory who practice an acrobatic discipline called "parkour," received several awards.
This body of work comes from someone who once thought he would be in the foreign service, even earning a highly prestigious internship with the State Department while in college. It produced disillusion for him. But as a novice photographer, George's experience in Beirut enabled him to put his idealism to use and made him unable to turn away from that path.

On filmmaking, it sounds as though idealism has yet to fade when George says "it has a certain spiritual satisfaction."



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