The Banque du Liban Accelerate 2014 was simply outstanding. This event holds particular significance to me, as it was the first job that I’ve shot in the middle east, and the first time I’ve visited Beirut.
There are two topics to cover here, the event itself, and my open love letter to the city of Beirut.
I’ve covered a lot of technology and startup related events in the past two years, and can say that a lot of them have similar formats, similar ups, and similar downs. For their very first outing, the Banque Du Liban’s Accelerate conference got a lot of things right.
The mastermind behind the organisation and execution of Accelerate was Samer Karam, and what he managed to pull off was nothing short of astounding. In fact, Accelerate actually made history by being Lebanon’s very first tech conference, which topped out attendance at over 2,000 people on the first day. To have been the official photographer documenting this moment in history was truly an honour.
While organising, I’d caught wind of a few complaints headed in Samer’s direction about the high ratio of male:female speakers. I can’t say I know the timeline precisely, but these comments clearly lit a fire under his ass, as I’d dare say there might have been a 50:50 split by the time the curtains went up. To achieve this ratio, especially in today’s heavily male dominated tech world is remarkable. I don’t know where Samer pulled this magic from, but he did it, and my hat goes off to him.
Similar to many other tech related conferences, there was a healthy mix of keynotes, on-stage interviews and panels. And as the conference was sponsored by the Bank of Lebanon, the opening ceremony featured some heavy hitters including Marianne Hoayek, Director of the Executive Office at Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Francois Bassil, Chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Lebanon. …not a bad way to open the first day.
After the obligatory, “Here’s who we are, and what we want to do,” speeches, I seized the opportunity to capture in portrait the current UK Ambassador to Lebanon and former Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister, Tom Fletcher. For a man of his importance and stature, he was incredibly cool to work with, and very up for a great photo. For the first time while doing portraits, I actually had a security detail examine my camera, flashes and gear. Fair enough. He’s an important guy, and they don’t know me from Adam. And if I’m honest, I had a, “Damn, this is cool, I’m shooting a political rockstar,” moment. Thanks Tom!
The rest of the day saw a number of inspiring talks and panels, and I do want to note that I detected a much heavier Asian presence than at other Western European events. This is the beauty of holding an event like this in the Middle East. It’s a perfect bridge between Europe and Asia. Just about half way for both parties. It’s a strong statement to the attraction of an event when Mike Butcher and Paul Papadimitriou fly in from Helsinki, arrive at 3 in the morning, and are ready to go on stage at 9am.
Based on this year’s event and execution, I can’t imagine the Banque du Liban not hosting the event again next year.
Besides the awesome lineup at Accelerate, one of the attractions of covering this event was the opportunity to travel to, and experience Beirut, first hand. As an American who grew up in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s solely on U.S. soil, I’ll admit that I’d had a few preconceived notions about what to expect. And this is exactly why I wanted to travel there and see for myself.
To my fellow Americans (and some Western Europeans), turn the fucking TV off! Everything that the media is feeding you is only a tiny fraction of what is going on in Beirut. As one Beirut resident that I spoke to put it, “Yeah, we like to eat good food. We like to drink good wine. We all want the best for our families. And yes, every few years…a bomb goes off. But, you know, what’s a bomb or two between friends?” He then smiles and shakes it off.
Upon arriving at the hotel, as luck would have it, Ghassan Salameh was sitting at reception. He gave me a quick glance and asked, “You’re here for Accelerate?” I answered the stranger, “Yes, I’m the photographer.”
“Ah cool, I’m the production manager, so I’m sure we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other over the next few days.”
To say that Gus was helpful would be a gross understatement. I’ve yet to work with a production manager that personally walked me through the entire venue explaining his concept and execution, what was going to happen when, and even asking what I needed (and ensuring I got) to make my working time as smooth as possible. Upon arriving at the venue the next morning, Gus had a desk set up for me at the back of the auditorium complete with two chairs, a power strip, and the wifi password on a piece of paper. Awesome! Production managers take note, this is how you get the very best photos of your event.
The unofficial party the first night was held at BO18, a former bunker, where I got my first taste of the Beirut nightlife. As Paul Papadimitriou put it, “You know the expression, ‘Party like it’s you last day on earth?’, well the Lebanese really do party like that!” Amen.
The second night party was held at 01NE, and while a bit more commercial than the underground BO18, had a seriously impressive sound system and awesome projections. At both clubs I wasn’t allowed to take my camera inside. Admittedly, a bit disappointing, however, the security teams that informed me of this were incredibly accommodating. At both venues, I was allowed to place my camera bag in the office safe, and I’ve never experienced security guards with such big, genuine smiles.
And then there’s the food. zOMG! I’ve tasted Lebanese food elsewhere in the world, but to experience it as the home dish…is simply out of this world. You think you know a good lamb meal? Trust me, you don’t. Go to Beirut and delve deep into a buffet that just doesn’t stop, and you’ll soon find yourself chatting away with the table next to you that just hours before were strangers.
Don’t speak Arabic? No problemo. I only had one awkward moment when I discovered that my taxi driver didn’t speak a word of English, but, given Lebanon’s historic French past, we managed to bluff our way through directions in French, with a whole lot of pointing and nodding involved, but we got there in the end, and both parties were happy.
The only thing I regret about my trip to Beirut was that I caught the early morning flight out the day after the conference. I truly wished that I’d stayed another day, as a number of the conference speakers had, and toured around a bit. I can’t help but have the feeling that there was/is so much more to be discovered and seen.
It’s very clear to me why Beirut was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, and it’s with a heavy heart that I think about how this great city was once destroyed. However, it’s clearly well on it’s way to re-establishing itself as a major player on a global market.
Are there things that need to be improved? Certainly, but my truest, deepest hope is that what Samer and the Banque du Liban have started with Accelerate is another spark added to the fire that can re-ignite the torch of hope, peace, and prosperity in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Middle East. To have played my role of capturing and documenting this bit of Lebanese history is truly a life honour that I’ll never forget.
Thank you all that made this possible.
A special shout out goes to Andy at Chiswick Camera Centre in West London for giving me an unbelievable price on a Tamrac Expedition 8X camera bag that accomodted my extensive gear collection, fit perfectly in the overhead bin of an Airbus A320, and performed flawlessly. If you need gear, go see these guys!
Enjoy, and until the next shoot – Dan