Selections explores the dream world of photographer Lara Zankoul


Lara Zankoul is one of those people who can immediately catch you off guard. When I tell her that her photographs remind me of scenes from a David Lynch film, she reveals that she isn’t familiar with his work, which is all the more remarkable when you look at one particular image. A man and woman, dressed in black and white formal attire are seated in a room, half-filled with water, below a chandelier. Beneath the water’s surface, you can see the woman’s hands clasping a teacup, her head protruding in the form of a rabbit, and her companion is sporting a horse’s head. Moody and surreal, it is all very Lynchian.

Much more than the stuff of filmic dreams however, her photographs involve a certain degree of mathematical reasoning. “I always wanted to photograph with water – people look different above water from below – but I wanted to do it without Photoshop, or the manipulation that means you photograph the two different sections separately and then glue them together,” she says. And so to be able to picture a seamless, submerged image, she created her own large-scale aquarium, a three-walled open box, framed with frontal glass. But the most incredible thing about it is, while you might think the room’s partitions in the image are actually real and the water part is fake (because how could that be filmed in real time?), it’s actually the other way around – the room’s walls are completely constructed on a stage set.

The Zoo, available at Ayyam Gallery, The Underwater Series are in editions of 5

The Zoo, Lara Zankoul, available at Ayyam Gallery, The Underwater Series are in editions of 5



Lara began very differently, by working with natural conditions outdoors. “I would take photos in nature during my lunch breaks, or go to my parents’ house in the South on weekends, it has beautiful rooms in pastel blue, yellow and green. It became the setting for many of my images and I learned the technical aspects of working with different conditions, even low light, though it’s much more restrictive. Then I moved to working in the studio, where I could control many of the elements I needed.” Completely self-taught, 27-yearold Lara has an academic background in economics and only began working with photography in 2008, when she bought her first camera and embarked on the 365 project (which was trending on Flickr) to take one photo a day for a whole year. “By doing this, I made a personal commitment with the camera,” she says, “and it grew on me. I got drawn in, into dreams and a sense of timelessness.”

“I always wanted to photograph with water – people look different above water from below”

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We are sitting in Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery, which represents her work – it was after the Shabab Ayyam incubator programme that she won her first award in their photography competition in 2011. She describes her real artistic breakthrough as the The Unseen series from 2013, also her first solo exhibition at Ayyam. “I always say my work was born from the conceptual movement in photography and this was how I got into dream and fantasy. The Unseen was my most developed work by far.”

Then there are her cinemagraphs, which incorporate video. “Video adds life to the image, for a 3-D effect,” she says, pointing to one which zeroes in on the body of a woman in a white dress, holding a glass jar with a butterfly flapping its glowing blue wings inside. Everything else is still, but there is so much depth to the photo that the woman’s hands and lap seem to project out towards the viewer. “The stop motion enhances the entrapment,” Lara continues, explaining how the video is superimposed onto the still and she then erases all the other elements of movement around the butterfly to create this effect.

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The workspace, Lara Zankoul, Work in progress 2015

The workspace, Lara Zankoul, Work in progress 2015

“I’m also interested in psychology and the analysis of human behavior. In capturing the absurdity of the mind,” she adds as we take a look at her recent work, which was triggered by one piece from The Unseen – a vertical panorama of several people, posing, tumbling or diving into the water in their flowing fabrics.

“It’s chaos,” Lara says, “and the relationships between them aren’t clear. I felt like exploring the collective and how they behave.” In one untouched image from her latest photo shoot, a caricature of human greed, people are scrambling in an office space, to reach the top, even if they have to climb on one other to do so. The composition is reminiscent of a Renaissance painting, which she says is intentional. Here, she is depicting different dichotomies from those in her water rooms: it’s another sense of confinement. “There, I always had windows, openings to the outside, women levitating around them. The lines of the room represented a Cartesian reality. For me, it always feels like a closed space, like this square we are sitting in now. I guess you can say I like to research freedom.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Curious Issue #30, on page 139.