Photographer Zeina Zeitoun On Navigating Lebanese Culture with American Audiences

AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH ARTIST, ZEINA ZEITOUN.

Zeina Zeitoun - she/her pronouns- is a New York based artist and photographer born in America and raised in between the US and Lebanon. She creates content in the field of journalism and documentary photography that's influenced by her roots as a Lebanese-American woman living in the US. She likes to utilize different mediums that include photography, video, music, poetry, and more. In her last few years at university, she'd been influenced the most by her family and their history. In addition to that, her most recent body of work was made while volunteering at a Syrian Refugee education program in Beqaa, Lebanon.

Since moving to New York in the last year, she's taken on a new full time roll as a Digital Tech at a retail photo studio. Although this is taking up a lot of her time, she's starting to find new ways to go back into creating work that speaks to her and embodies what it means to be foreign in American, but also foreign in Lebanon.

SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & ZZ: ZEINA ZEITOUN


AB: Your work seems very influenced by your family. In comparison to American families, the majority of Eastern cultures values family on a level that is more intimate than American cultures. Do you feel that you've explored this in your work?

ZZ: I definitely feel that I explore the closeness and values of family in my work. Often times I look back at my work and realize that I've explored those topics even when I wasn't directly thinking about them. With all the different mediums (photos, old artifacts, music, poetry, etc.) it really extenuates how close my family is, and other families in the East as well. There are so many layers to it and it's a bittersweet journey to uncover those layers.

AB: How important is it to you to represent the stories of Lebanese Americans, as well as the stories back in Lebanon and the surroundings countries?

ZZ: It’s so so incredibly important to me to represent our stories! Of course, every family and their experiences are different but I think all of the same emotions and history are really similar. You have parents who fled Lebanon during the Civil War and raised families abroad - this is such a common backstory to many Lebanese-Americans. In my case I tend to feel like I don't belong anywhere or that I don't have a place or country to call home, and I know many feel like that too.

AB: Have you encountered issues with audiences not fully understanding your work? One thing I find is that a lot of first generation Americans, as well as immigrants, face difficulties resonating with American audiences who lack context. Have you encountered this and in what ways? Do you feel that it's your responsibility to cater your work to your audience?

Wow. Yes! One experience I constantly have to navigate in particular comes to mind. Whenever I would tell someone I'm Lebanese they would ask if I was born there - and to me I really hate this question. Would being born in Lebanon make my Lebanese existence more valid? What do people think when I tell them I was born here? I was, but right when my sisters and I were born our parents would take us to Lebanon every year for 3-4 months at a time. My time spent in America and in Lebanon are both equal - so I say I was raised in Lebanon and in America, because that feels like the truth. It almost breaks my heart when I have to explain this every time. I've almost considered this too much, and definitely find myself expressing that in my work.

I don't think that it's my responsibility to cater my work to my audience. When it comes to specific projects where I include Arabic script, one thing I would be asked constantly is to translate the writing. In some cases it's important to translate things when you feel the need that it adds depth and context. But when you leave it untranslated it's for a reason, it's there; the feeling it gives you, the unfamiliarity, the way it plays with the photographs or videos its paired with. Those are all things that I think about and admire about the script, but when I'm asked to translate it I find myself having a dreaded back-and-forth conversation of why the translation doesn't matter.

AB: You work has a quiet (yet strong) presence of women. I'm curious if you feel a certain level of responsibility to represent women, especially of Middle Eastern descent, as empowered and not as lost as American media likes to make them seem?

ZZ: I completely agree. Middle Eastern women deserve so much more than what they get. They are the backbone of families, communities, and the whole Middle East for that matter. American media paints them as oppressed and caged, but they are so beautiful and the bravest beings I've ever met. It's my duty, as a Middle Eastern woman, to represent them in my work and in my every day life. That's not just Lebanese women either - it's all Middle Eastern, and North African women/children/refugees/etc.

AB: Your last big documentary project was "Half a World Away", what did that project mean to you and how did you go about organizing it?

ZZ: That project meant getting out of my comfort zone to accomplish something that was so much bigger than me. I went in with no expectations and tried to put aside my privilege to create work that represented a group of people who are so important. I knew someone who could help me get into contact with the Syrian Education program, Jusoor, and just went from there! I was really fortunate that everything worked out, from the funding to the planning, and I hope I can continue to build from that.

AB: Are there any documentary projects you're currently working on?

ZZ: Not currently! Although I've started to play a lot with portraiture, specifically portraits of the people I surround myself with who have made a huge impact on me in the last decade. Many of these people also have roots in a foreign place, and I'm beginning to understand and get to know how others navigate their lives as I do mine.

To learn more about Zeina and her work, you can find her work at http://zeina-zeitoun.squarespace.com or on Instagram at @zeinazei