by NATHANIEL NELSON
A curious Google search was all it took to send photographer Fadi BouKaram on a cross-country journey through rural America, examining both his own identity and the small-town experience. Next month, BouKaram will bring his exhibition “Lebanon, USA” to Outpost Winona and Saint Mary's University as part of "The Cedar Tree Project," a presentation of the Page Series curated by Winona artist Sharon Mansur.
BouKaram, an electrical engineer, originally moved from Lebanon to San Francisco to pursue an MBA in finance and worked there as as a tax consultant for over a decade. Photography, which he started doing in 2002, was mostly a hobby before he found it taking up all his free time by 2012. He hadn’t done any major projects, focusing on street photography, but an idea popped in his mind while he was searching for his home country on Google.
“I was doing a search for Lebanon on Google Maps and it pointed me to Lebanon, Ore. And then I found 40 more,” BouKaram explained.
BouKaram said that his background in engineering fueled his curiosity. He found one town, and then he found out about a second. “So I decided to make a list,” he explained.
He found it interesting that there were so many towns named after Lebanon, and he planned out a big trip to go to each town and take photos.
“I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve taken a few short road trips while in California. This would be the ultimate road trip across all of the United States,” BouKaram explained.
He had planned to do it awhile down the road, but in 2016, he was spurred to quit his job and focus on photography full-time by setting out to visit Lebanon — all 40 of them. Most of the towns are in rural locations, and despite the names, are mostly average small towns.
“Aside from the name coincidence, they have nothing to do with Lebanon itself,” BouKaram explained. “Lebanon is a Bible reference, referencing the old country. It’s used more than 70 times in the Old Testament. When people came to the U.S. to colonize, they named things after their old country, like locations in the United Kingdom, but others were based on Biblical references.”
At the beginning of the trip, he saw the name as quirky — a weird allusion to the Middle East in a place that couldn’t look more different. His photography started out examining the names, but after a while, the focus changed.
“The first two or three Lebanons I saw were kind of like a novelty. That novelty eventually wears out, and the word itself stops becoming relative and the focus turns to the towns themselves,” BouKaram explained.
Eventually, the series began to document rural America and small-town life, and the name “Lebanon” slowly faded from view. BouKaram explained that he had spent most of his time in larger cities, so transitioning to small towns was a surprise in more ways than one, changing both his photography and himself.
BouKaram is predominantly a street photographer, shooting candid photos in populated areas where he has no direction with the subject. He explained that he’s not an extroverted person, so being able to hide behind the lens suited him well.
In populated areas, like New York, San Francisco and Beirut, that process works just fine. But in towns of less than 100 people? Not so much.
“It would look really weird walking on the street and taking photos of people, but those people didn’t exist anyways. I had to be more interactive with subjects and talk to them, asking to photograph them while they are talking,” BouKaram explained. “It forced me to get out of my bubble and talk to people, and personally, I loved that experience.”
Eventually, BouKaram’s work caught the eye of Sharon Mansur, who at the time was working on her solo project “Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree,” which focused on her Lebanese heritage. She explained that she had stumbled upon BouKaram’s work online while searching for Lebanon, and wanted to incorporate it into her show.
“I started to read his blog, and I was captivated by his style and his writing. I contacted him about putting a piece together and incorporating his photos. I used three photos, which all had cedar trees in the photo. That was, at the time, most relevant to my project,” Mansur explained.
Mansur’s project is based around analyzing her Arab-American heritage and identity following the 2016 presidential election, she explained, when tensions became high following presidential comments about Muslim Americans and the looming travel ban. She had previously worked on a piece titled “Off-White” after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks which analyzed identity in the same way.
“A couple people who knew I made ‘Off-White’ asked me if I would bring it back. I thought maybe it was time to make another piece,” she said.
Saint Mary's University's Performance Center Managing Director Theresa Remick approached Mansur about expanding "Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree" for performance at the Page Theatre, and from those discussions evolved the idea for "The Cedar Tree Project," a series of events featuring artists of Arab and Arab American heritage. The Performance Center sought and was awarded funding by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council to make the project a reality.
From there, Mansur said, she began to contact other Arab-American artists to participate, including BouKaram.
The cedar tree is an important aspect of BouKaram’s work as well, for several reasons. First, the cedar tree is a crucial piece of Lebanese iconography, even making its way onto the country’s flag. But on a stranger note, while researching the towns, he found that the president of Lebanon invited several mayors of U.S. Lebanons to visit the capital of Beirut. There, he explained, they spent two weeks before being gifted cedar trees to plant in their hometowns.
“Unfortunately, I found some of them didn’t survive. Because they didn’t survive, I wanted to resurrect that idea,” BouKaram stated.
Earlier this year, BouKaram set out on a second trip across the country to revisit the towns. But this time, he’ll be planting cedar trees in each one.
Mansur explained that each of the projects will study identity in one way or another. Several dance performances are planned for early 2019 with BouKaram’s “Lebanon, USA” as the big kickoff event.
“The community has been really supportive of the project, which provides nuanced conversation about Arab Americans,” Mansur explained, adding that her specific view might not be the same for all. “Lebanon is my direct connection. My specific connection, and my family. That’s accessible to people. But I’m excited to bring in other conversations and experiences.”
BouKaram will be stopping in Winona on September 23 for a two-week residence at in Winona, with talks and workshops coming up at Outpost Winona, St. Mary's University, the Winona History Center and City Hall. After, he will continue on his road trip to finish his second round of visits to U.S. Lebanons.
Once the trip is done, the last part will be releasing a few books, he explained. The obvious release is a photo book, but BouKaram said he has another one in the works.
“What I didn’t expect was that it was an adventure kind of thing, being an outsider in the rural U.S. I have a lot of interesting stories that could warrant an actual written book, like a travel kind of book,” BouKaram said. “I think that will be how the project will develop.”
"Lebanon, USA" is presented by the Page Series in partnership with Outpost Winona. The project will be exhibited at Outpost Winona from September 6 to 23 and Saint Mary's University from September 26 to October 26 as part of "The Cedar Tree Project.” For more information on“The Cedar Tree Project” and “Lebanon, USA,” visit the SMU Page Theatre website at pagetheatre.org or contact the box office phone at 507-457-1715 from 12 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. “Lebanon, USA” will be on exhibit starting on September 5 at Outpost Winona, 119 East Third Street in Winona.