Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeThemed issues19IssueImages in South Lebanon: an Absen...


Images in South Lebanon: an Absent Presence. The Case of the Former Khiam Prison

Zara Fournier


This article investigates the status and effect of images in the post-conflict public space of South Lebanon which is the stage of political and social configurations involving specific means of image production on the territory. How, why and for whom are images produced in a post-conflict area that has been perceived as “invisible” for thirty years? Are the images produced a way to go beyond this conflict or do they perpetuate it? All of these artefacts are resources for the appropriation of the southern Lebanese space; but discrepancies are created on the ground by their limited effects and reception. The aim of this paper is to point out the dissonances between the presumed power of these images and their effectiveness on the ground by focusing on the staging of the former prison of Khiam since 2000 and its reflection of all these dynamics. We will show that images in Khiam and in the South are in a liminal state: they are produced for Others who are not directly addressed, they are contested but not on-site and the effect of this contestation is null. They are finally ghosts in the place, ghosts in the territory.

Top of page

Full text


1What do such monuments of such traces do in such remote valleys?” asks Lebanese artist Ahmad Ghossein in his film The Fourth Stage, which focuses on the sudden construction of monuments dedicated to the victory of Hezbollah / Party of God in the main squares of villages in the rural area of South Lebanon that was occupied by the Israeli army from 1978 to 2000. The question and the film in general highlight the construction of images and objects in the public space of the South that stage this territory as victorious and extra-ordinary, in contrast with the marginality of the region.

2Ghossein’s work also allows me to introduce the subject of this paper – that is, the status, meaning and effectiveness of images in public space in a context that is both marginalized and post-conflictual.

3South Lebanon, which today comprises the districts of Sour, Saida, Nabatiyeh, Marjayoun, Bint Jbeil and Hasbayah, is historically seen as a marginalized space where the local population has continuously mobilized itself to evolve from its isolation and socio-economic retardation (Mervin 2008: 103–10; Volk 2009: 263–82). It is also a space that has been occupied by various groups for its geographical and strategic value, the most recent such group being the Israeli army. Since the Israeli retreat, South Lebanon can be considered to be in both a conflict- and post-conflict situation characterized by blurs and interminglings (Djament-Tran G., Le Blanc A., Lhomme, S., Reghezza-Zitt M., Rufat S., 2012), between injunctions to go beyond this conflict and its regular reactivation and updating, whether in everyday narratives or in economic and social aspects. Ever since the Israeli retreat and after the 2006 July conflict, South Lebanon has been caught in a “conflict time” in which the latter “remains the main paradigm against which all actions are read and understood” (Baillie 2013: 300). For instance, “Israel will attack some other time, anyway” is a leitmotiv heard in the common language that is still heard today, while development and reconstruction projects managed by various international stakeholders advocate reconciliation and peace in the South. In this context, various images, from billboards and posters to statues and places, are staged in the public space; if they do not all represent the Israeli occupation and the conflict condition of the area, they nevertheless obey a logic of publicity and politicisation (Avanza, Laferté 2005: 134–52) of various aspects related to the South. Thinkers such as Foucault, Lacan, Lefebvre and Irigaray have shown the importance of images in serving different interests, narrating and putting into politics various aspects of the society in which they are produced. Following these thinkers, questioning the status of images in South Lebanon could allow the processes through which a society represents and narrates itself in a zone that has known material destruction and socio-economic instability to be better understood. How, why and for whom are images produced in a post-conflict area such as South Lebanon, which has been perceived as invisible for twenty-two years?

4To answer this question, I will focus on one case study of staging and image-making in the South: the former prison of Khiam. Between 1985 and 2000, this former barrack built during the French mandate was the main detention centre of the Israeli army and its Lebanese militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), in the occupied area. It quickly became an infamous place, where Southerners were arrested for various reasons and imprisoned in periods that lasted from several days to a decade. The reports of NGOs on the conditions of detention in Khiam speak of 2000 to 5000 detainees over a period of fifteen years; however, there are statistics about the exact number of prisoners. After 2000, the prison was transformed by Hezbollah and staged as a museum into which different types of images were inserted, making it a palimpsest of traces and marks that are themselves politicized and publicized. During the Israeli-Lebanese July 2006 conflict, Israeli aircraft bombarded Khiam, transforming it into a pile of ruins that were subsequently staged and represented. The ambivalent situation of Khiam as both invisible and visible, and as an image-making process, questions the extent to which these images publicize and politicize issues are related to the post-conflict situation in South Lebanese public space.

5I develop a comprehensive approach and a multi-scalar analysis of the production, circulation and effects of these images. I consider images in their diversity of forms and of producers; they are mainly “cultural producers” (Wacquant, 2004), i.e., politicians, intellectuals, artists, activists who produce a variety of images (propaganda, advertising, art work) that stage and represent Khiam. As I focus on the location but also the circulation of these images, this implies a multi-scalar and multi-located approach – on the scale of the place itself and of the territory but also where these images are being conceived and transmitted. The elements that are analysed and discussed here are derived from a qualitative methodology. Thirteen field studies of the former Khiam prison were conducted between 2014 and 2016, in which I have engaged in participatory observation. Not only was I seen as a visitor of the prison, but I also varied the contexts of the visits: I would go alone, with former detainees, with foreigners, Lebanese (from the South and from the rest of the country), Lebanese NGOs. If the reception of these images has seldom been analysed, I will present a few elements of my own experience as a visitor and a receptor and of the visits I have been able to follow. I have also conducted various open- and semi-open interviews in Arabic with the site’s actors: former detainees (20), the actors of the transformation of the site (7) and artists (3).

6I will present the results of the study in chronological order: before 2000, between 2000 and 2006, and since 2006. I will highlight the continuity of Khiam as a (symbolic) resource and as a stage based on the images produced there, where different power struggles occur. Thus, images can be seen as triggers, vectors and expressions of the power struggles but also as a space of tension between the visible and the invisible. I will conclude this paper by highlighting the discrepancies between Khiam as a fantasized resource and the lack of impact of these images on the local scene.

Imagining a Prison, from Absence to Saturation

An invisible place, an invisible territory: Khiam is striking in its invisibility (1985–2000)

7South Lebanon has historically been considered a neglected area (Volk 2009: 263–82), and it has been represented as another space, different from the rest of the Lebanese territory (Beydoun 1992: 35–53; Jaber 1978; Mervin 2003). The production of this difference and this Otherness affects the expression of individuals on the territory (Avanza, Laferté 2005: 134–52) and has nourished various images and narratives. The Israeli occupation of the region has tended to exacerbate this condition. In 1978, the Israeli army invaded the southern part of the country, officially responding to the growing attacks of the Palestinian armed resistance operating from the border space of Lebanon (Beydoun 1992: 35–53). Since then, the region has known various scales of occupation but has progressively been seen as being cut-off from the rest of Lebanon, as Lebanon is seen as being cut-off from its South. In 1978, it became a space that was difficult to gain access to; checkpoints and barriers to entry were established, and the South was becoming militarily controlled. Lucia Volk describes the South as a heterotopia, a “sort of space that is out of all the places despite the fact that it is traceable” (Foucault 1967: 4) and “where routines of everyday life, social norms as well as state laws are suspended” (Volk 2009: 263–82). Indeed, when questioned about their everyday life under the occupation, several interviewees remember passing through checkpoints and recall how different life was in (the occupied area) and out (of the occupied area). The seven checkpoints that were installed by the SLA and the Israeli army to go in and out of the South can be seen as “an opening and a closing system that both isolates [the heterotopias] and makes them penetrable” (Foucault 1967 : 7). The generic appellation the South / Al Janub, because of the occupation, then clearly became a territorial entity distinct from the rest of Lebanese soil. This condition of an illegible and invisible space nourished various images, including the production of politically engaged artistic and cultural actors such as Lebanese artists Walid Raad and Jayce Salloum, Akram Zaatari and, in the 1970s, Jean Chamoun and Maroun Baghdadi. All of this artistic production questions the absence of representation and images affiliated with the South and precisely stages the South as an invisible object. For instance, in the movie Up to the South (1993), Walid Raad and Jayce Salloum highlight the tension of the South Lebanese territory as a space in between invisibility and over-visibility: “we have come to understand so very little in spite of the massive amounts of information we have received regarding Lebanon, the war and especially the situation in the South of the country that for one to even mention the name all sorts of images would come to our minds” (Raad, Salloum 1993). The artists materialize the South as a heterotopia by stating that “the security zone, where we are now, this is what we call the South, because we don't know what is outside the zone” (Raad, Salloum 1993).

8In this context, and for these image-makers, Khiam exemplifies this enigma and nourishes fantasies. It is portrayed both as a place that incarnates and represents not only the South but the whole country: “it's strange how this centre's history reflects the history of my country” remark the interviewees filmed by Raad and Salloum. It is also a statement that makes Soha Bechara, one of the most notorious former prisoners in Khiam, both a “source-witness and an emblematic figure of the camp” (Launchbury 2014: 51422): “for me, Khiam, as a place, is gigantic as a memory because in itself and until the end, it incarnates all of our histories in the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, all of them”; however, it is a “hell without a name or a hell behind closed doors” (interview with Soha Bechara, 13 September 2014). Khiam is thus depicted as a multi-scalar spatial and temporal entity: it is the “place, the South, the country”, it speaks of both the history and the memory, of both “I” and “Us”. Similar to the South, it is a place everyone has heard of but no one can picture. Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who produced a whole series on Khiam explain their interest by saying that “we started to film and make the Khiam series precisely because we couldn’t see the camp at the time, it was un-representable, we didn’t have any picture of it”. If artists represent this tension between the absence of images and visibility, Khiam is also known for the people who stayed during the occupation for being an unimaginable and un-representable place. Several interviewees, former prisoners and their families, have described how Khiam was infamous for its blurriness: people did not know whether their relatives were detained there, whether they could see them or even just see the place. These images and narratives are social images (Avanza, Laferté 2005: 13452) because they feature certain groups (prisoners but also “people of the South” as represented by the image producers) related to different territorial entities (the place of the prison, the South) that are then represented as invisible objects. This leads the way to images that aim at picturing this invisibility, at publicizing and politicizing it. They tend to define and essentialise the borders of the In and the Out, of the Us and Them. By being produced by individuals who are out of the South and for an audience that is also out of the South, images of this region tend to extra-territorialize the occupied region during the occupation. Producing images in South Lebanon and especially in Khiam after the liberation would then be a way of reclaiming this territory and declaring its new visibility.

2000 and the “Liberation”: Revealing and staging Khiam (20002006)

9After fifteen years of occupation, the Israeli army withdraw from South Lebanon between 23 and 25 May 2000. The roads that lead to the former occupied area are then flooded with people, refugees from the South returning to their villages, relatives, or Lebanese who come to celebrate “liberation day” or just to see this region that has been inaccessible for more than two decades. This mass movement is doubled by a mass of media images and articles that make this day and space a historic event and speak of the “Retreat from Lebanon: A Triumphal Procession” (New York Times, 24 May 2000). On 25 May, the doors of Khiam are broken, and the site is immediately invaded by thousands of people from the city, villages surrounding and from the region, so many that former prisoners and interviewees who were there on “liberation day” speak of “hours and hours of traffic to go up to the prison”. The multiple articles published at the time in local and international newspapers on the Israeli retreat are often illustrated by the same image of the crowds entering the gates of the prison; on a larger time-scale, from 2001 onwards, the “liberation day” commemoration established by Hezbollah stages Khiam as the symbol of liberation. If the visits to the site have since become fewer, the prison is still associated with the liberation of the South in the various media and in the images produced for this annual event.

10For example, the Hezbollah media campaign for the “liberation day” of 2016 featured images of prisoners being freed from Khiam prison (​v/​t1.09/​13240019_1197872180247459_8411577401030988269_n.jpg?_nc_cat=103&_nc_ht=scontent-ams3 1.xx&oh=55bece90f7f0a50aeb685d1cffc9c7ca&oe=5D22BBDE). Articles from various Lebanese media, such as “Khiam Prison: Memory above the Ruins” (28 May 2015, Al Akhbar newspaper, affiliated with a relatively pro-Hezbollah position) or “Hezbollah greets the festivities in Khiam prison on Liberation day” (25 May 2013, Al Nahar newspaper, affiliated with a relatively anti-Hezbollah position) also associate Khiam with the Israeli retreat from South Lebanon and with the “Party of God”. The day the gates of Khiam were opened thus constitutes both a spatial and historical event: it is both remembered and staged; however, it also takes sense from the spatial and geographical dimension of the event, Khiam thus being mobilized as the symbol of the liberation of the “South”.

11At the time, a project to transform Khiam into a memorial and a museum had already been planned by a group of former prisoners and activists affiliated with the Lebanese left. The project was devised in cooperation with the Lebanese ministries of culture and tourism and aimed both at “showing the horror” but also at “transforming it into a museum, something civilized; resistance is showing to the occupant that you are stronger, you can live, make art …: that’s what Khiam was for; for all the Lebanese” (interview with one of the project’s stakeholders, 24 February 2015). However, at the time, the local power balance in the region and conflicts between the ministries of culture and of tourism have allowed Hezbollah to appropriate the place and turn it into what they call a Mazar, a religious term used to designate a shrine or sanctuary. The place is also referred to as a “memorial” and as a “museum”. The Lebanese government was refusing to deploy the national army in the South under the pretext that Lebanon did not wish to acknowledge the Israeli withdrawal as complete (Picard 2000: 32–42). Hezbollah, clearly standing as the victor and as the liberator of the South (Mervin 2008: 103–10), was therefore dominant in the power struggle over the staging and managing of Khiam. Moreover, the prisoners who were politically engaged in Khiam in the last years before its liberation were mainly affiliated to the Party of God. The two main staging projects devised for the transformation of the place are “group images” because they are constituted by “entrepreneurs who claim themselves representatives of the group” (Avanza, Laferté 2005: 134–52); the identified groups range from “inhabitants”, to “Lebanese”, to “foreigners”; however, in the speeches of the stakeholders, all these groups are “united” under the cause that Khiam is supposed to represent. The staging of Khiam as a symbol for both Israeli oppression and torture thus becomes a consensus, mobilized by both entrepreneurs. However, in reality, these images serve the entrepreneurs’ competing agendas because they do not agree on the way it should be staged and on who manages the place; moreover, these entrepreneurs are politically oriented. Hence, the staging of Khiam also reflects the local power balance. Furthermore, the first “memory entrepreneurs” express a feeling of dispossession and loss of control (Naef 2013: 9) regarding the investment of Khiam.

12What stories are told in Khiam, and how are they staged? Several visual images and staging processes and artefacts were implemented at the site between 2000 and 2006 and can be divided into four categories:

  • Pedagogical and documentary images: explanatory panels for visitors were installed that also traced a guideline for visits to the site. They were yellow billboards written in English and in Arabic detailing the organization and the functioning of the prison but also the different torture techniques that were used and the conditions of living of the detainees.

  • Memorial and transmission images: panels with pictures of “martyrs” who died during detention were also inserted into the site, and a monument dedicated to them was built at the entrance (fig. 1).

  • Witnessing and re-enacting images: a particular focus was directed at the staging of the various torture techniques that were used; not only was the torture illustrated by pictures, but it was also re-enacted. Former detainees were mobilized as tour guides for visitors, and they staged and mimed the torture techniques they themselves had suffered. They also placed the visitors in a re-enacting position by asking them, for example, to go into the “chicken box”, a very narrow box that was used as an isolation cell. The site was then staged not only as witness of the torture that was perpetuated but also as a re-enactment site of the staged trauma. Visitors were not only the receptors of the testimony, but they were also emotionally and sensorially engaged.

  • Political images and projection in the future: murals were painted on the wall:​sites/​default/​files/​styles/​original_800w/​public/​2004-10/​khiam483a.jpg?itok=Lwyypz27×tamp=1448949295 with symbolic and political messages: the chains and barriers represent the place of oppression that will not contain freedom (the dove) that is made possible by the Islamic resistance of Hezbollah (the yellow flag). As resistance is the political project of Hezbollah, the message delivered by these paintings stages not only a political accomplishment (the liberation of the prison) but also a political project to be continued in the future.

Fig. 1. Commemoration monument at the entry of Khiam erected in 2002

Fig. 1. Commemoration monument at the entry of Khiam erected in 2002

Source: Author, 2015.

13On a museal scale, the way Khiam in which is staged and reflected in images between 2000 and 2006 is comparable to what Patrizia Violi describes in her article “Spectacularising Trauma: The Experientalist visitor of Memory Museums” (Violi 2014: 5171). By the different artefacts and visual disposals that are inserted on-site, the former prison of Khiam is transformed into a semiotic object and space that manipulates the visitor and guides her or him towards a particular (political) message: oppression (by the Israeli occupier) and resistance by the (Islamic) resistance. Khiam between 2000 and 2006 hence becomes a performative space that acts on the visitor. On one hand, these devices seem to fulfil the three functions identified by Jackie Assayag regarding memory museums: they offer a space of public speech for the violence and injustices perpetuated to be staged, they are spaces of moral education, and they give justice back to the victims (Assayag 2007).

14However, on the other hand, the former prison’s past is staged, and it becomes a strategic resource (Assayag 2007) for the main “heritage makers” (Rautenberg 2003). Images here indeed modify the nature of the place and narrate a selective story and history of the prison, focusing on the history of Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance and silencing other types of resistance. Nothing is staged about the diversity of resistances embodied by the former detainees at the time, and the border between “Resistance” and “Islamic Resistance” is quite blurred. Hence, by representing Hezbollah’s message, images are also screens and a tool for erasing other messages. However, the blurriness around the role of the artefacts added to the site is what makes this hegemonic message consensual. For example, the guides who were hosting visitors during the period from 2000 to 2006 (all affiliated with Hezbollah) were referring to “the prisoners” and not making clear which ones. Additionally, consensual figures such as Soha Bechara are mobilized and mediatized to narrate the story of the prison “in general”. Hence, the discursive and figural register that is used tends to create a consensus around the symbol and figure of the prison – a symbol of resistance against oppression and torture but it also simplifies the shadings and different forms and branches of these events. Finally, the management of the place is also blurred.

15If the common discourse on the site states that “it is run by Hezbollah”, it is difficult to identify precisely which association and branch of the party runs the place. The management of Khiam since 2000 has reflected the progressive corporatization and institutionalization of the party (Saade 2016: 35), which began with the birth of the Risalat association in 2002 that aims at “writing the history of resistance and diffusing the norms of the society of resistance” (Calabrese 2013: 17181). Risalat, which is based in Beirut, takes central control of Khiam but also appoints local agents for the daily management of the place. I will not go into detail concerning the party’s actors’ strategies; however, Khiam’s evolution reflects the complex and satellized organization of Hezbollah between local and central governance, a changing management and ad hoc temporal structures. Since 2010 and the subcategorization of Risalat into four specialized associations in the cultural field of the party, the Khiam site has been managed by Siyaj, “the Lebanese association for resistance heritage and tourism”. Its narrative concerning the history of the former prison and the plurality of resistance movements that it witnessed is more consensual and approaches an oral recognition of the complexity of Khiam’s history.

16Precise statistics are unavailable concerning the number and type of visitors; however, the significant amount of graffiti written on the walls during the first years after the Israeli retreat from South Lebanon is an indicator of the public’s consideration for the prison and what it represented. If many of the former prisoners interviewed condemned the graffiti and understood it as an absence of respect for their experience, these markings and “popular practices follow the established conventions of commemorating” (Volk 2008: 291314). However, from 2004 onwards, according to different testimonies, the crowds decreased in Khiam, and on 19 July 2006, when Israeli aircraft bombarded the place, Khiam was already almost empty. The destruction of the site is denounced, by the media and by all the stakeholders around the place, as a deliberate attempt by Israel to physically and symbolically erase what Khiam represented: a place of oppression and torture that was perpetuated under the Israeli occupation of the South. It can also be analysed as an act of “symbolic negation” (Veschambre 2008: 92) of what Khiam had become after 2000: a “lieu de mémoire” where the Israeli “enemy” was exposed and where resistance was celebrated.

17By destroying the site, the 2006 war produced a new space in which images are both a reminder of the prison’s past but also a projection into a potential future.

Images for Reconstruction, Images for Testifying, Images for Denouncing: Khiam After Its Destruction (2006today)

Dealing with destruction, absence and memory: Reconstruct, reconstitute or let be?

18Immediately after the destructive summer of 2006, Khiam’s ruins are partially cleaned up, and the site is staged once again. If slight changes have occurred on the site between 2006 and today, its disposition still remains similar to what I observed during previous field work. For the site’s stakeholders, Khiam’s transformation into ruins has actually redefined the museum project and represents an opportunity for Hezbollah to narrate the 2006 war within Khiam’s walls (Deeb, Harb 2011). The Risalat association took on the initial museum project that had been intended for the prison before 2006 and planned to reconstruct it as it was in 2000. Although funds were lacking at the time, the project is still ongoing and embodies the contemporary turn in memory museums: an iconic turn (which consists in a strong utilization of visual materials), a testimonial turn (which consists in the multiplication of personal testimonies) and a multi-media turn (which consists in the use of new technologies) (Violi 2014: 53). The main objective in Siyaj’s museum project is “to make it as it was […] in order for the visitor, whether coming from a European country or an Arab country to come to this place and to feel the cruelty and the violence of the prison. In order for him to feel how much these people have suffered and became tired […]. We want to come back to that precise moment in which this man, a persecuted prisoner, suffered, to see what he felt … and transmit it to the visitor” (interview with the manager of the project, 16 August 2016, translation from Arabic to English by the author). In accordance with a “globalization of memory politics” (Assayag 2007), the appropriation of international memorial and museum patterns in Khiam’s museum project is quite clear as Siyaj cares for “European visitors” and uses international museum terms such as Avant-projet, scenography, visual disposals, visual identity …”; and the testimonial turn involves “re-enact(ing) the trauma, to represent it in an a-temporal dimension” (Violi 2014: 55). The images and multi-media disposals that are planned for the project also borrow from internationally inspired museums, as the museum project team went to seek inspiration amongst “Iranian museums and European museums” (interview with one of those responsible for the project, 16 August 2016). Thus, from this perspective, images play a central role: by re-enacting the time when Khiam was a prison, they blur the different temporalities the site has known and represent Khiam’s story in an a-temporal dimension. Furthermore, Khiam’s project aims to make it a museum “for all Lebanese detention centers” (under the Israeli occupation), proclaiming the former prison as an emblem. However, to date, Siyaj has not obtained sufficient funds to implement the project. Instead, several staging and scenography artefacts and devices were installed in Khiam immediately after its destruction. These measures, which were initially supposed to be temporary, are still in place today.

19Waiting for the project still to come, the stakeholders of the Khiam site have chosen to keep and stage its ruins by inserting several iconic artefacts that referred both to the period of Khiam as a prison and to the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict, in which Hezbollah was seen as the winner of the war (Mervin 2008). Three main iconic and artefactual devices were established: the insertion of warcraft of 2006, a small museum displaying artefacts from the prison and the 2006 July war, and photographic billboards that depicted details of Khiam prison at the time of its liberation (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Billboards installed in the Khiam site

Fig. 2. Billboards installed in the Khiam site

Source: Author, 2016

20The 2006 ruins become a central element of the site, and they “crystallize different rhythms” (Brones 2010: 459-477): they can be seen as witnesses of the detention centre from 1985 to 2000, of the site as a memorial between 2000 and 2006, and of its destruction. Finally, for the site’s stakeholders, keeping these elements reinforce the message of Hezbollah: despite the multiple destructions, the (Islamic) resistance will live on. “The idea was to show the prison and what it represented, despite the destructions” (interview with one of the project managers, 6 January 2016). The idea of showing the prison is also central in the iconic artefacts that were introduced on-site. I cannot generalize the changes in the pictures that have been displayed since 2006 as my surveys were set between summer 2014 and spring 2017; however, I have noticed the following. Immediately after the 2006 conflict, just over ten panels were installed on the ruined site, which also marked the path for visitors to the converted space. The pictures displayed details of the prison (doors, cells, pathways) but also various moments from throughout the years: from the day of “liberation”, Khiam as a memorial, the destroyed site: all these fragments of temporalities and spatialities of the site staged at the same place and time. The period of their displaying also changes: judging from their state, some of the panels have been left there for several years. It also reveals the degree of consideration by Hezbollah for the place: as it has not been a priority for the party for the last ten years, panels have been left there to age. However, on my last field survey, and as the project for reconstructing Khiam has been updated, the panels had been changed and the photographs renewed.

21Hence, the exhibited images induce a contraction and a blurring of temporalities and spatialities in Khiam. Within the ruins on-site, these pictures refer to both before-destruction and Khiam as a museum, Khiam as a prison and at the time of destruction and “post-destruction”. This configuration bursts rhythms and spaces. However, these artefacts, and the site itself, also serve as a constant reminder of the conflict and of the occupation in the public space: the former Khiam prison, understood as an image and as a narrative established by its stakeholders, implies the following message: to live with the conflict (its destruction is a direct result of it), despite the conflict (but still it stands) and beyond the conflict (it will become even better and more powerful in the project to come).

22The destruction of the site and the reconstruction projects yet-to-come made Khiam a “ghost building – a half-reconstructed structure where the completion of the reconstruction was abandoned due to its “unwantedness’” by a certain group (Otten 2007 in Baillie 2013: 313). When asked for their opinion on the staging of Khiam after its destruction, the former prisoners I have interviewed are clear on two points: the importance for them to keep the ruins as they are and as a witness of the prison for it “to be remembered” (interview with former prisoner belonging to the Lebanese Communist Party, 22 January 2015), and the danger of having it reconstructed. The twenty former prisoners I have met are representative of those who were politically engaged in secular political parties and who were imprisoned after having been involved in military operations against the Israeli army. For them, Khiam represents both a very strong personal engagement and a period when they contributed in the building of a political project for their country. They are concerned that the site be preserved as a trace of their engagement.

23If they agree on the pictures displayed as a way of addressing the absence of the physical place, they note the incomprehension one can feel when visiting the place without any previous knowledge. Images staged here are officially a way of going beyond the destruction of Khiam and of serving its memory (according to Siyaj); however, they also serve a political message and are part of the exercise of power by Hezbollah. The status of images is then blurred and intertwined. Since 2006, visits to the site have become fewer, and several interviewees spoke of Khiam as “falling into oblivion”. On all the field surveys I have conducted on an average day (that is, apart from the commemorations celebrated in situ), I have seldom seen more than ten persons on-site.

24Because of this decrease, several artistic productions question these images and the transformation of the site in general, positioning the image as a possible tool for contestation to this power.

Landscapes of Khiam: Contesting the Official Narrative through Images?

25Khiam staged as a means of displaying Hezbollah’s domination over the territory and as a tool for re-writing history has been investigated by several Lebanese artistic productions, which also question the status of images in South Lebanon’s public space: they are presented as a means of both revealing and hiding the power and domination struggles taking place on the ground.

26Among these art works is the series of Joana Hadjithomas’ and Khalil Joreige’s Khiam, which directly questions the methods and logic of making visible “a place you couldn’t represent”. Through Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s art work, I examine the capacity of spatial and visual art to contest official images and official space and its ability to produce counter-images. I conclude my reflection by querying its effectiveness in public space: what does art do to Khiam’s space?

27The work of these Lebanese artists generally addresses the power of images, in relation to invisibility, to absence, memory, history writing, oblivion, traces and marks, erasure. According to art curator Suzanne Cotter, “they practice an archaeology of events where the image plays a fundamental role in the writing of history because she helps to understand the position everyone has in the world” (Cotter 2013: 27). The relationship between images, history and space writing is even more central in the work they produced on South Lebanon; all of their seven audio-visual pieces Khiam 20002007, Ansar, Objects of Khiam, Trophies of War, Landscapes of Khiam, I want to See aim to answer the question “Where is the South?” and address their yearning to “see the South” (interview with the artists, 11 January 2015). Furthermore, the first piece, Khiam 2000, which consists of interviews with seven former detainees, is motivated by the urgency they felt in front of the bursting of space and time in Khiam: “as though something was at the risk of being imminently lost unless its inscription in some form took place in the year 2000, as Israeli forces withdrew from the South. This same impetus arises once more following the camp’s destruction in 2006 as temporal borderlines, which commit the past to trace and experience to memory, instigate these cultural afterlives” (Launchbury 2014: 517). Their work on Khiam and more precisely Landscapes of Khiam, which I present here, questions both the ambiguous status of the place and its evolution since 2000 from prison to museum, from museum to ruins, from ruins to staged ruins to a projected museum. However, above all it directly criticizes the action of the site’s stakeholders who, by bursting the space with images, end up creating an absence of narratives and memory in Khiam. For example, in the documentaries Khiam 20002007, the two artists interview six former prisoners who testify both to their incarceration experience but also to the injustice they felt after liberation and after 2006 concerning the transformation of the place and its stakeholders. Their main grievance was that their story had not been fully told and that some of Khiam’s history was being silenced. Landscapes of Khiam (​landscape-of-khiam/​), made in 2007, revisits the insertion of the billboards into the ruined site and consists of fourteen photos of the existing billboards shot at different times of the year. For them, these billboards “transform the razed camp once more into a museum […] and recreate the topography of the camp”. However, according to them, this staging “creates a temporal confusion and challenges our position as viewers, our relationship to the image, to its ‘mise en abîme’. How can one relate to history, to memory if, whenever faced with the past, instead of coming to terms with it, we are content with superimposing another image on the ruins of an image, a temporality on another, a reality on another?” ( Hence, the two artists throughout their work and their critical perspective, depict an artificial place, where the denial of history, as they put it, has led to a saturation of images. Through the act of creation, they claim to allow silenced agents to speak and to make visible hidden elements. Behind the idea of temporal confusion, of superimposition of temporalities and images on one another, lies the idea of a haunted place, which is also an idea brought up by Claire Launchbury who speaks of the effects of Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s work as making images “doubly revenant, doubly spectral”. If we understand ghosts as “the just perceptible, the barely there, the nagging presence of an absence in a variety of spaces” (Addey, Madern 2008: 2915) then surely Landscapes of Khiam and the art works around this ambiguous place picture it as a spectral place, a place that is both over-filled with images and invisible, bursting with intertwined temporalities and multiple experiences that are silenced. As we have seen, the power struggles over the staging and picturing of Khiam have led to “silenced agencies and forgotten voices and histories”, which are precisely revealed (or at least claim to be) through art, in the sense that they attend “to the political aspects of those voices and histories” (Addey, Madern 2008: 2915). Hence, the artistic images can be seen here as revealers of the injustices and power struggles made invisible over the space; however, the question remains: what do the artistic images do to the place? What is the effectiveness of these images? The haunting nature both of Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s work and of the place itself can also be a theoretical tool for assessing the performativity of the artistic images on the space. Indeed, the Khiam series defines the site as an image that is, “a present absence” (Marin 1993). If their work directly questions the nature of space and the ability of artefacts and images to transform it, its effect on the ground is non-existent, as it has never been displayed in situ. Furthermore, and given the artists’ sociological background and geographical trajectories, the contestation potential of their work in the territory they depict is limited, as they are Beiruti artists and intellectuals, mainly living between Paris and Beirut. Hence, all the political and memorial protest the artists claim does not remain on the ground but elsewhere, where the art is exhibited and shown and the images are made visible. This leads to an extra-territoriality of Khiam but does not prevent or question the continuation of the power struggle on the ground for the investment and making of its space. If Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s work stages a “lack of traces in Khiam” (Launchbury 2014), their work itself sustains a lack of traces, incarnating a “fabulation of geography” (Robinson in Launchbury 2014: 515).


28By investigating the status and evolution of images in the former prison of Khiam, I have sought to address the process of image-making in post-conflict spaces such as South Lebanon that are marked by transitions and uncertainties “which reactivate heritages from several anterior historical periods” (Djament-Tran et al. 2012). The former Khiam prison, in the way its space has evolved, from prison to museum to ruins to staged ruins and projection into the future, can itself be considered a post-conflict space. We have seen that the images that have been produced on-site since 2000 contribute to naturalizing the link between the place, the people and the territory and fix the place in an a-temporal dimension. However, this making of space by images is marked by the intervention of political and artistic others who, in reality, produce these images for others. This leads to the making of what we can call discrepant images, in the sense that the production and insertion of these images are confronted with an absence of investment in them by local inhabitants. By claiming to reveal a space that has been seen as invisible during the conflict and by claiming to give back to the people the memory and control of this emblematic place, the images of Khiam contribute to renewing and fuelling power struggles over the production of the post-conflict space. They contribute to assessing Hezbollah’s domination in the spatial, social, economic and political game over the region by being a means by which to exercise this power: “il faut en somme admettre que ce pouvoir s‘exerce plutôt qu’il ne possède” (Foucault 1975: 31). Images in Khiam are then in a liminal state: they are produced for Others who are not directly addressed, they are contested but not on-site, and the effect of this contestation is null. They are finally ghosts in the place, ghosts in the territory.

Top of page


Addey P., Maddern JF. 2008. Editorial : Spectro-Geographies. Cultural Geographies 15(3) : 291-295.

Assayag, J. 2007. Le spectre des génocides. Traumatisme, muséographie et violences extrêmes. Gradhiva 5 : 1 - 19.

Avanza M, Laferté G. 2005. Dépasser la "construction des identités" ? Identification, image sociale, appartenance. Genèses 61 : 134-152.

Baillie, B. 2013. Capturing Facades: Structural Violence and the (Re)construction Vukovar’s Churches, Space and Polity 17(3) : 300-319.

Beydoun A. 1992. The South Lebanon Border Zone : A Local Perspective. Journal of Palestine Studies 21(3) : 35-53.

Brones S. 2009. Ruines en attente, in Mermier F. Varin C. (ed.) Mémoires de guerre au Liban (1975-1990). Paris, Actes Sud : 459-477.

Djament-Tran G., Le Blanc A., Lhomme, S., Reghezza-Zitt M., Rufat S., 2012. What Resilience Is Not : Uses and Abuses. Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography 621, (Retrieved August 16, 2018).

Foucault M. 1975. Surveiller et punir. Paris, Gallimard.

Ghossein A. 2015. The Fourth Stage. France, Lebanon. 37’.

Launchbury C. 2014. Staging Khiam : documentary, theatre and archive in postwar Lebanon. Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 18(5) : 514-522.

Marin L. 1993. Des pouvoirs de l’image. Paris, éditions du Seuil.

Mervin S. 2007. Le Liban-Sud, des bandes armées à la guérilla (1920-2006), in Mermier F. Picard E. (ed.) Liban une guerre des 33 jours. Paris, La Découverte : 103-110.

Mervin S. 2008. Tu n’effaceras pas notre mémoire in Mervin S. (ed.) Le Hezbollah état des lieux. Paris, Actes Sud : 213-219.

Naef P. 2013. "Souvenirs de Vukovar": Tourisme et mémoire dans l'espace post-yougoslave. via@ - Internationale Interdisziplinäre Tourismus Zeitschrift 3, (Retrieved January 28, 2018).

Picard E. 2000. Autorité et souveraineté de l’État à l’épreuve du Liban Sud. Maghreb-Machrek 169 : 32-42.

Raad W., Salloum J. 1993. Up to the South. Lebanon, United States. 87’. (Retrieved April 4, 2018).

Rautenberg M. 2003. La rupture patrimoniale. Paris, A la Croisée.

Saade B. 2016. Hizbullah and the Politics of Remembrance - Writing the Lebanese Nation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Violi P. 2014. Spectacularising Trauma : The Experientalist Visitor of Memory Museums. Versus Quaderni di Studi Semiotici 119 : 51-71.

Veschambre V. 2008. Traces et mémoires urbaines : Enjeux sociaux de la patrimonialisation et de la démolition. Rennes. Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Volk L. 2009. Martyrs at the Margins ; the Politics of Neglect in Lebanon’s Borderlands. Middle Eastern Studies 45(2) : 263-282.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Commemoration monument at the entry of Khiam erected in 2002
Credits Source: Author, 2015.
File image/jpeg, 100k
Title Fig. 2. Billboards installed in the Khiam site
Credits Source: Author, 2016
File image/jpeg, 144k
Top of page


Electronic reference

Zara Fournier, “Images in South Lebanon: an Absent Presence. The Case of the Former Khiam Prison”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 19 | 2019, Online since 07 March 2019, connection on 25 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Zara Fournier

Top of page



Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search