The "Western media gaze" on foreign cultures often lends itself to a harsh fetishization of the culture at hand, typically pushing a black and white narrative in line with a pre-established understanding that a typical viewer might already have. Photographer Gogy Esparza and creative Jey Perie have opted to actively combat this phenomenon in their project Beirut Youth, recently on view at the Adidas Originals Store in New York.
As the name suggests, Beirut Youth is a hyper-focalized photographic exploration of the multiplicity of young identities in the Lebanese capital, one that doesn't seek to promote the typical narrative of desolate conditions or harmful indoctrination that typically accompany Western explorations of the Middle East. The body of work features raw Beiruti youth in all shapes and forms, from the day-to-day strugglesof the less fortunate to the rambunctious activities of the more affluent.
"We wanted to go beyond the stigmas of danger, pierce straight through them," Esparza explains to Creators. "We wanted souls, faces, emotion."
The duo first travelled to Beirut in August 2016 and instantly became enamored with the city: "Beirut is beautiful in one of the most unapologetic ways we've ever seen. War-torn and divided for most of its history, Lebanese pride and tradition are worn proudly," tells Esparza. But more than the city's beauty, they sought to capture its essence: "We felt like our generation needed insight into the hearts and energy of its youth; to disarm those who might have their guard up and to invite those both curious and familiar.
Were it not for the immediate traces of cultural differences (children smoking Hookah, Arabic writings, and so on), many of Esparza's images could easily be depicting Western youth, as this time in any person's life ultimately revolves around a varying mixture of self-learning, pleasure-seeking, and an adequate dose of mischievousness, no matter where you are. Societal contexts and cultural specificity changes, but the youthful soul does not.
But despite the surface-level similarities, the duo left the capital feeling deeply transformed: "This trip changed the shit out of me, and I'm sure I can speak for Jey and say the same," reveals Esparza. "We just wanted true stories; eyes and gazes, just to make sure to hold you in front of our frames. But certain things are just facts. The conditions we saw in the refugee camps are horrible and have been since they were set up for Palestinians in the 1940s."
The impact on Esparza was so notable that the photographer returned for a second trip in March 2017: "I captured more of these stories because I related to them more," he adds. "They felt my energy and trusted me to tell it. They need our help."
Although the exhibition at the Adidas Original store just concluded its short run, Esparza and Perie have created a photobook of the work, which can be found along with more information on the project, on the Beirut Youth website. More of Gogy Esparza's work can be foundhere.