Portrait of a pioneer

In the wake of May's violence, which took Lebanon back to the brink of civil war, Hassan Osman, founder of the Arab world's only magazine specialized in documentary photography, decided to devote the June-July issue of Sowar entirely to pictures of the 1975-1990 civil war. An interview.
From the third edition of Sowar magazine. © www.sowarmag.com

BEIRUT, June 3, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanon had a very close brush with a return to civil war last May. Hassan Osman knew it. But as the violence escalated, he decided that it was time to remember the past rather than focus on the immediate present.

Osman is the founder and editorial director of Sowar magazine, the Arab world's only magazine devoted to  documentary photography.

The third edition of Sowar, which means "pictures" in Arabic, has just hit the newsstands in Lebanon and in some of the Gulf Arab states and it is entirely devoted to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"We asked nine distinguished photographers to send in their top photos taken during the war," Osman wrote in the intro to the current edition.

"Our approach to the selection was simple: to choose pictures from a purely historical, journalistic and documentary perspective, as opposed to a politically-based or religiously-based one."

The process resulted in a series of powerful photos, some of them of specific militias and political parties, others mere historical records of a period in Lebanese history which claimed as many as 250,000 lives and left destruction in its wake that has still not fully been repaired.

MENASSAT caught up with Osman just before the May violence to discuss the founding of the magazine and what it was he envisioned when he launched this unique experiment in the Arab world.

Click on the image to go to the sample spread of this month's edition of Sowar Magazine

MENASSAT: As the founder of the only Arab magazine devoted to photojournalism and documentary photography, what do these concepts mean to you?

HASSAN OSMAN: "Generally speaking, photojournalism is nothing more than telling a story through pictures. It covers the areas of photography that depict events, cultures, scenes, and people in a perspective which is more on the informative than the artistic side.

"Under the umbrella theory of pure photography, you would rarely enjoy a bad photo in a magazine, but in photojournalism, a bad photo with some interesting story behind it could be exceptionally intriguing.

"I would define documentary photography – the other area that Sowar Magazine covers – as a subset of photojournalism that addresses a specific theme or topic of interest, commonly presented through what is known as photo essays."

MENASSAT: Are you a photographer yourself? If not, how do you explain your involvement in this project?

H.O.: "I’m neither a photographer nor a photojournalist. In fact, I barely have the skills to use a regular point-and-shoot camera.

"However, I have always been a big fan of photojournalism and documentary photography. I love indulging my eyes in a picture that teaches me something new or stirs my emotions. Driven by that passion, I managed to pull together a stellar team of professionals for the project.

"Even to this day, I still approach the themes we put together in the magazine as a passionate learner and inquisitive reader before tackling them as an editor."

MENASSAT: In a few words, how would explain Sowar and its genesis?

H.O.: "The idea started around 5 years ago after realizing that such a magazine did not exist. In the Middle East. We don't have an equivalent of the kind of high caliber photo essays presented in magazines such as TIME or National Geographic – even though we have the talent.

"I also noticed that we have such a rich culture in the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, which is not as visible through pictures as it should be to the general public. Consequently, I got in touch with several professional photojournalists, editors and designers who were very excited about the idea, and a few years later, we got together and launched Sowar Magazine."

MENASSAT: Was there more to founding the magazine than simply filling a void?

H.O.: "Look. Most people are aware of the 'a picture is worth a thousand words' adage. At Sowar, we believe that a picture with a few words is worth a million. The main objective of the magazine goes hand in hand with this mantra. It's all about presenting great photos along with informative commentary.

"Another objective of Sowar Magazine was to help promote the work of photojournalists and documentary photographers in the region. Through Sowar, photographers benefit from having their work published and viewed by thousands of readers and potential clients."

MENASSAT: What kind of impact did you expect from publishing such a magazine?

H.O.: "When we first started the magazine, we had a strong feeling that people were going to enjoy it. However, we had no way of predicting that we would gain such a huge fan base so quickly.

"It was extremely rewarding to have our email accounts flooded with encouraging comments from readers and photographers.

"Even more surprising were the messages we received internationally. We had individuals from Australia, the U.S., Canada, France and even Brazil getting in touch with us asking us how to subscribe, even though our focus is on distribution within Lebanon.

"As such, we are currently working on expanding our distribution to include the entire Arab region and a number of countries farther afield.

"There are several other projects going on at this time that I cannot comment on, but I can promise that we will surpass the expectations of our readers and fans."

MENASSAT: Is there an 'open-submission' policy - are your editors open to working with any photographer? And how to you work on promoting the concept?

H.O.: "Sowar is open to all photographers, amateurs or professionals. Some experience in the domain of photojournalism is obviously an advantage, but we care about the quality of the photos and the stories behind them, as opposed to the person taking them.

"If you believe you know someone who might be interested, please feel free to encourage them to submit their photos by following the guidelines on our website.

"We also are part of the whole social networking milieu and have set up a Facebook group account that anyone can join to get the latest news and updates about the magazine."

MENASSAT: In an Arab world still struggling to understand the social importance of documentary photos versus other types of photographic disciplines, what do you hope from Sowar?

H.O.: "We hope that Sowar will take the lead in defining and promoting the concepts of both photojournalism and the photo documentary.

"Unfortunately, in the Arab world, there is little appreciation for those fields and their importance is chronically undervalued. I believe the main reason is that there's a general lack of understanding about what they mean, and Sowar Magazine is playing a major role in shedding some light on their functions.

"But the deficiency in understanding these concepts was also manifest in the photo submissions we received. Several professional photographers were struggling with the difference between photography and photojournalism.

"Our observation after three editions is that we have a phenomenal group of talented photographers in the Arab world, but only a handful of excellent photojournalists.

"An interesting fact to note is that around 40 pct. of the photojournalists who have submitted their work to Sowar Magazine were not from the Arab world at all – which could give you an idea about the degree of involvement in the region.

"However, I am confident that we will be seeing an increasing trend of interest in these domains as they become more popular in the Arab world."