Myriam Boulos’ portraits explore the sexual fantasies of Lebanese women

The Lebanese photographer’s images are in sharp contrast to the portrayal of Arab bodies in mainstream news reports: weeping, distressed, mutilated by war. Boulos instead shows them in states of pleasure and passion.

In the midst of crisis, where does the erotic go? Photographer Myriam Boulos’ unblushing, stark portraits explore the sexual fantasies of Lebanese women against the backdrop of a society in breakdown. She reveals concealed inner worlds that hold wells of invaluable power.

In one, a woman wears a strap-on and delicate white corset. Gazing unapologetically down the lens of Boulos’ camera, her fantasy is to handcuff her partner and pleasure them in public, to make them powerless. Boulos contemplates the role of fantasies in times of unrest. “In an insecure environment, you need to create a world that you can control. Fantasies are in our heads. No one can touch them.”

Boulos explores ways to harness this untouchable world as a tool for resistance. Her images are in sharp contrast to the portrayal of Arab bodies in mainstream news reports: weeping, distressed, mutilated by war. The photographer instead shows them in states of pleasure and passion. She shows us relatable people whose lives have been interrupted but, in true human fashion, continue to desire.

Boulos’ best known series is What’s Ours?, a document of the 17 October Revolution, the 2019 Lebanese protest movement against a corrupt, sectarian ruling class. The images are dizzying and erotic. They feature minorities and subcultures, revealing sides of the revolution neglected by an incurious media. Alongside plumes of tear gas and smashed property, she depicts, snogging, nudity, and subversive expressions of passion that offer the hope of a different system.

Lebanon has since fallen further into crisis: Covid, hyperinflation, and the trauma of the 2020 Beirut port explosion that left hundreds of thousands homeless. Boulos’ work is ever more vital. As the dust settles over an economically and socially battered Lebanon, she explains how repression can happen in such a climate. “Sometimes, small acts become political acts. If I go out in Lebanon without a bra, it takes a lot of effort. You can be reduced to a statement. I find it tiring to constantly transform my body into a political act.” Photography has become the perfect mode of resistance for her, “Photography for me has been a way of taking up space and being present in an indirect way. I am present for a short intense moment and then take all the time in the world to process it at home.”

For “Sexual Fantasies”, Myriam’s collaborators come to her via an ongoing open call on social media. She collects women’s testimonies and then shoots. The photos aren’t always portraits. One image shows the word كس, vagina in Arabic, scrawled on the grimy window of a beat up car. It was a coincidence that Myriam found this car parked outside this woman’s apartment. The discovery came after she had told Myriam about being molested as a teenager on the streets of Beirut, fainting in biology class at the sound of the word, and her journey rediscovering her كس as an adult. These images and their accompanying testimonies will appear in Photo Week, Berlin, this September.

Myriam Boulos’ reflections on a region in dissent reveal a little-seen side of Lebanese life. Her images describe an Arab identity connected to sexuality and eroticism. They challenge a chauvinistic victimology that denies women’s agency. “Sexual fantasies are always linked to patriarchy, to everything that we fight against.” Boulos explains, “The fantasies of Lebanese women are a response not just to politics or the economy, but to the entire social situation in Lebanon.”

Sexual fantasies are not only reflections of societies, but tools to reshape them with. Myriam reminds us that to be hidden, or to have urges that society wishes to suppress, is not to be without power. As Audre Lorde wrote, “The fear of our desires keeps them indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance.”

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