Can Disaster Be Made Legible? A Conversation with Forensic Architecture’s Samaneh Moafi

Edwin Nasr

Still from Forensic Architecture’s report on Beirut Port Explosion - Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

On August 4, 2020, Beirut’s central neighborhoods were obliterated off the map following the detonation of some of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a port warehouse. Within a two-minute timeframe, two hundred lives were lost, seven thousand individuals sustained mild to life-threatening injuries, and over three hundred thousand were rendered homeless. Though testimonies have since abounded, the where were you?, what did you see or hear?, and who did you lose? of the August 4 disaster remain a blur for most of those who’d witnessed, at a proximity or from a distance, the unfolding of that annihilative event. Certainly, to recount the aftermath of one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded presumes a responsibility towards its countless victims; a task made all the more paradoxical by our rife impotence to grasp the scope of that event and the loss it wrought forth. Three and a half months following the explosions, Turner prize-nominated, multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture [hereafter referred to as FA], through a collaborative effort with Egyptian independent media outlet Mada Masr, released a meticulous audiovisual reconstitution of the port incident entailing a 3D model of the ill-famous warehouse. After having “collected and examined images and videos taken by witnesses of the blast and shared on different platforms online”, the  research group’s investigation concluded that port authorities had not respected internationally accepted regulations for storing ammonium nitrate and that the Lebanese state should thus be held accountable over negligence. Those findings are now available online, both in the form of downloadable models and an open-access, twelve-minute long video.

Samaneh Moafi is Senior Researcher at Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London. She provides conceptual oversight across projects and in particular oversees the Centre for Contemporary Nature (CCN), where new investigative techniques are developed for environmental violence. She earned her PhD from the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture with a dissertation on the contemporary history of state initiated mass housing in Iran and the class identities and gender roles it informed. 

Edwin Nasr: James C. Scott’s critique of authoritarian high modernism singularizes ‘legibility’ as a central tenet of statecraft. Scott understands dominant modes of state planning – be it through the building and representation of urban and rural infrastructure or the design of bureaucratic operations – as being predominantly concerned with and engaged in making things legible. One could argue, however, that contemporaneous modes of statecraft hold little to no concern for ‘simplification’; on the contrary, there’s a undeniable investment in obfuscating and abstracting state-sanctioned operations and processes, i.e. in making them inscrutable, untraceable, even illegible. How does FA, in a sense, ‘legibilize’ material evidence within legal processes and public political forums?

Samaneh Moafi: We were all shocked by the destruction of a city we love. With so many friends in Beirut, we wanted to find a way to show our support. We didn’t want to do the work in collaboration with a western media outlet for their colonial history of political meddling in the region, though we were asked. A friend of ours, Ma’n Abu Taleb, had been doing his part within a consortium of journalists closely working in Lebanon. I believe we met him at the Tottenham protests, on the anniversary of the police murder of Mark Duggan which we’d also investigated. He asked us to get involved and put us in touch with Mada Masr as  potential partners. I assembled a team for the investigation, which include Kishan San, Nikolas Masterton, and three Lebanese researchers who wanted to go by the names of Ismael Haidar, Leshla Y., and Leila Sibai. To ensure accuracy, we had to pass the 3D model back and forth between the London and Beirut based researchers for the first couple of weeks. Slowly, the work developed.

The state has its own logic and epistemology. You are right about Scott, though I’m not sure how relevant it is to Lebanon which enacts and performs  a very different kind of statecraft. Lebanese authorities had their forensic team at work and soon manufactured a narrative for  basing the cause of the catastrophe around three Syrian welders. This narrative was then quickly echoed by international media outlets including Reuters, Washington Post and New York Times. Forensic teams from member states such as the United States and France were also granted access to investigate the case, but they chose to remain silent, and in fact, are yet to share their findings even with the bereaved families[1]. Thinking with Hannah Arendt, deception has always been part of the toolbox of politics, just as truthfulness has never been its virtue[2].

In this context, we organized a counter-investigation based on a particular set of resources: citizen’s videos. One of the earliest documentations of the port on that day, for example, was a photograph posted on Twitter. Examining it closely, we could plot the location of the source of the smoke plume, and determine that it was rising from the north east side of the warehouse. The photograph therefore held a situated knowledge of the catastrophe, bracketed by the photographer Nabih’s coordinates in the city, the cone of vision of his phone camera, and the time during which he took the picture. We examined dozens of images and videos like his, and positioned each carefully in time and in space. Painstakingly, we pieced together these situated accounts to find fragments from the truth. Our 3D model was grounded on residents’ visual testimonies. It was ‘poly-perspectival’, if you will.

EN: Following the conclusion of the 1975-1990 civil wars, the country was thrust into a protracted ‘postwar’ temporality[3] that neither held sectarian militia leaders and political representatives accountable nor provided victims with a reparative justice framework. Moreover, around ten years ago, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established by the International Criminal Court to carry out the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. Though the tribunal issued a verdict finding a Hezbollah official guilty on the basis of conspiring to “commit a terrorist act”[4] and sentencing him to five concurrent terms of life in prison, no direct measures on behalf of the Lebanese judiciary were made to locate the suspect or implement sanctions on Hezbollah. What happens when the context in which FA is intervening refuses the political acknowledgement and legal reception of the very evidence it produces or uncovers in the first place – contexts in which extralegality is an institutionalized state practice?

SM: I’m a student of Lebanon. Ever since I can remember, I’ve found myself admiring and taking lessons from Lebanese novelists, poets, architects, artists, musicians, journalists, queer and feminist advocacy groups, racial justice defenders and  legal scholars—many of whom are also dear friends of FA. Following the August 4 catastrophe, we of course knew civil society groups were taking action on the ground, just as they had been since the October uprisings in 2019. We thought we could contribute to their cause with a small study that would be developed using our FA methodologies. The fight for justice has always been a collective effort, more so when states fail in delivering even the most basic of their responsibilities.

From the cases I’ve worked on within FA, the Grenfell Tower fire is a useful example. On June 14, 2017, an incidental fire in the kitchen of a fourth-floor flat in a council housing tower block close to where I lived in West London accelerated into a building fire that would ultimately claim seventy-two lives—85% of whom were from ethnic minorities[5]. One day after the fire, the British Prime Minister ordered a public inquiry. In the weeks that followed,  survivors shared stories of how people with precarious immigration status experienced fears of deportation and how the state failed in its provision of pro-bono lawyers and translators. The violent racial/class dimension of negligence in the Lancaster West housing estate was a 40 years long condition: the 1980s case of damaged asbestos and the cockroach plague, the 1990s enclosure of public gardens and increased policing, and the recent round of refurbishments to the tower were all part of the same continuum.

It took two years for the report of the first half of inquiry to be published, concluding that the recent cladding system of the recent refurbishment did not meet regulations and was the primary cause of the fire’s rapid spread. The second phase of the inquiry began on January 27, 2020. Emails revealed that several companies involved in the tower’s refurbishment knew the cladding was a fire risk. Sessions were delayed in February as corporate witnesses looked for immunity from prosecution. Today, over three and a half years on, the fight for accountability continues, not only in the court and through the media, but also on the streets.

EN: Many of Beirut’s inhabitants who were in their homes at the time of the explosion reported hearing the sound of Israeli warplanes directly preceding that of the first blast. A video of an aircraft delivering a bomb over the city that had been circulating at the time on social media platforms was debunked a couple of days later by news organization Reuters, who fact-checked the material and confirmed it instead depicted “an earlier incident”[6]. Local media outlets, such as Aljadeed, went on to also provide the public with different variations of security camera footage overlooking the port, all of which did not capture the presence of warplanes or flying engines. Though these clarifications were both widely disseminated, there was a noted refusal to abandon that theory. What if, instead of dismissing that refusal as exhibiting an acceptance of conspiratorial logic, one could believe it to hold a certain potential to unsettle dominant mechanisms of truth production? In other words, while the sound that was heard prior to the explosion was not that of Israeli warplanes, it was identified as such because of inhabitants’ past experience of Israeli bombings, thus inscribing these chains of events within a continuum of violence that constructs its own distinct truth. With that in mind, how would FA generate meaning from forms of evidence that are otherwise inadmissible in a court of law? How would it tend to an ethic of witnessing when human testimony and material evidence stand at odds with one another?

SM: Well, they don’t. In our approach, a video is both a piece of evidence and a witness testimony. It is a documentation of what the camera is pointing to[7]. And it is also a documentation of the subject who is doing the work of recording. I’m thinking through our previous investigations, and this has always been the case: in Palestine, a Gazan farmer takes the picture of a leaf of spinach damaged by israeli herbicide; in Chile, a protester in Plaza de la Dignidad takes the video of a cloud of teargas being fired at an elderly pedestrian; in the oil fields of Vaca Muerta in Argentina, an oil worker secretly takes video of a devastating oil leak, and risks his job in the process.

I remember that, among the videos we examined for Beirut, two were taken from the grain silos building. Given its proximity to the warehouse, they were possibly taken by a dockworker. In the earlier one, he was panning his camera left and right, trying to cover the entire length of the warehouse as well as a heat source on the north east of the building. In the later video, the situation was worse. He filmed the fire blazing out of the windows on the west wing of the warehouse. His hand was shaking. Then he started moving backwards. He stepped out of the shadow and into the sun, and for a split second, he appeared in his own video as the shadow of a figure holding a camera was cast on the floor. Behind him, another shadow appeared. So the videographer had a companion. He continued filming until he was hit by the explosion from the fireworks and his camera fell to the ground lens down. The camera continued filming for another 10 seconds or so. We now know from our investigation that the ammonium nitrate explosion would rip through the port about 25 seconds after the end of his video. After these 25 seconds, the east side of the Silos were turned into rubble.What happened during these seconds? Did the videographer manage to recover from the shockwave of the fireworks explosion? Did he manage to find a safe space? What about the human figure behind him? 

In our investigation, we pieced together testimonies from different and differing witnesses: subjects who had filmed parts of the catastrophe on the day, inspectors who had documented the warehouse months earlier, explosives experts who had observed the storing of ammonium nitrate in other countries, and scientists who had studied the extent of urban damage in Beirut using satellite images. The differences between these witnesses and between their positions in time and space, opened up the possibility for a series of translations, for example between the interior and exterior of the warehouse, the shape and color of smoke plumes visible from outside on the day of the catastrophe and the content and spatial layout of the goods stored inside a few months before. Of course, our 3D model is only one step. It is one step that can be used by researchers and civil society groups investigating the case. As new testimonies come in, the model will be able to do more. 

EN: Going back to the question of and motivation for legibility: FA has uncovered, through its reconstitution of the port warehouse storing the ammonium nitrate, a spatial layout akin to one of a “makeshift bomb” awaiting detonation, as well as storage conditions that are in apparent violation of internationally accepted safety standards, highlighting the “multiple layers of state negligence which led to this tragic explosion.” Scholar Laleh Khalili, on the other hand, warns “that the roots of the catastrophe run far deeper and wider – to a network of maritime capital and legal chicanery that is designed to protect businesses at any cost.”[8] While FA’s findings do provide some legibility to the scene of the crime, what would they want for them to draw a blueprint for? Can – and should – an evidentiary mode of address signal towards a political horizon that entails more than just having a slew of cadres and bureaucrats tried for negligence, at a time when local populations are still embroiled in an insurrectionary process that had set to dismantle the very foundations of the neoliberal sectarian order in Lebanon?

SM: Justice can of course go beyond retribution and vengeance[9]. It can be geared towards reparations which are part of an “incessant labor of repair”[10]. They cannot be handed out by the ruling of a judicial forum, be it a state court or one that operates at an international scale like the ICC. Cultural institutions, media outlets, public spaces, and even protests have a part to play. I think together, our counter-investigation at the scale of the warehouse and Dr. Khalili’s work at the scale of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, open up the possibility for an awareness: The negligence of the Lebanese authorities in their duty of care for the public, and the legal chicaneries designed to protect and care for businesses internationally as being two instantiations of a multi-scalar violent continuum. Identifying, articulating and socializing these cases  is necessary for a shared awareness, one that is rooted in evidentiary materials rather than being ideologically driven. The power of socializing evidence, I think, is that it enables us to ask questions, again and again, together—by all means possible.

[1] “Report on behalf of the victims of the Beirut Explosion of 4 Aug 2020”, Legal Action World Wide (Nov 13, 2020)

[2] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in politics, Civil disobedience, On violence, Thoughts on politics and revolution (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 4 and 45.

[3] Scholar and artist Walid Sadek terms the protracted now a temporality “maintained by politico-sectarian factions structurally capable, through the deployment of intermittent bouts of violence and tenuous truces, of renewing the conditions of civil war and maintaining their prolonged dominance.” (“In the Presence of the Corpse”, Third Text, Volume 26, 2012 – Issue 4)

[4] “Rafik Hariri tribunal: Guilty verdict over assassination of Lebanon ex-PM”, BBC News (August 18, 2020)


[6] “Fact check: Video does not show a drone bombing Beirut”, Reuters (August 6, 2020)

[7] The small inquiry that we did for Beirut was visual, but we have shown how sonic testimonies can be evidentiary in some of our other investigations, like the one on the Saydnaya prison.

[8] “Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping”, Laleh Khalili, The Guardian (August 8, 2020)

[9] Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) pp.107-8.

[10] Ariella Aisha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2020) pp. 565-567.