Articles

ART SCHOOL

Fleeting Glimpses
Palestinian children around Lebanon have learnt to escape the grim reality of refugee camps through the art of photography. Today, through a series of international exhibitions, they connect with the world.

Ain El-Helweh, Nahr El-Bared, Chatila and Bourj Barajneh are some of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the names of which have become synonymous with conflict and violence. For many Lebanese, they trigger images of a brutal world, where gunmen wage wars in narrow alleyways.  But for many refugee children, it is the only home they have ever known.

In an effort to make a difference in these children's lives, Lebanese NGO Zakira has launched an initiative that allows them to express their feelings and reveal their difficult living conditions to the world through the lens of a camera. Founded by photographer Ramzi Haidar, Zakira was created after an assignment in Iraq, where he witnessed the violence seen by Iraqi children. When he returned to Lebanon, he decided to introduce photography to youths living in Palestinian refugee camps.

"[Haidar] felt they had no real creative means to express their curiosity and emotions," explains Zakira project coordinator Rima Abou Chakra. Lahza ('glimpse'), which was the NGO's first project, identified young Palestinians with artistic talent and helped them develop their skills by providing them with training with prominent professional photographers.

Around 500 children between the ages of seven and 12 were enrolled in the programme, given a disposable camera and instructed to document the reality of daily life in the camps. Before they were given cameras, they were asked to provide a painting to determine their likes and dislikes and what appealed to them. The selection process was not necessarily always based on who the best artist was, but on the child's personal sensitivity. "It was a pleasure to see the kids hold a camera, many for the first time in their lives," says Abou Chakra. 

Nourhan Khaled El-Sabeh, one of the selected participants, has beautifully captured a serene shot of a girl standing on a white-washed rooftop, a pristinely blue sky carved by the silhouette of a mosque in the backdrop. Another picture, one more revealing of the camp's harsh reality, shows a girl peeking through a heavy metallic door ridden with bullet holes. Robert, a bright 12-year-old living in the Dbayeh camp, was excited about the project. "I wanted to show the beautiful side of people and objects," he says. He was one of the few children to focus on happy moments, such as the camp's Christmas tree. Another picture depicting some joy shows four smiling teenage boys gleefully jumping in a blue concrete swimming pool, with a few kids standing by a rundown metallic wall looking on in envy. Other pictures are not so rosy, and depict teenagers carrying makeshift guns and ominous alleys.

To capture these moments, the children were guided by photographers such as Ramzi Haidar, Oussama Ayyoub and Bilal Jawish, among others. "We learned how to use the camera, focus and pick our subject," says Hiba from the Chatila camp (home to some 10,000 Palestinians). Abir Sukkar, also from Chatila, adds that they were also taught how to take the best picture in the light or dark. The pictures also highlighted differences in living conditions between camps. "For instance, photographs taken by children in urban camps, such as Chatila or Ain El-Helweh, differed to a great extent from ones taken in Dbayeh or Rashidiyeh, which are both rural camps," points out Abou Chakra. In the former, many children portrayed militia on the street, family members indoors, or piles of debris, while in the latter two, many chose scenes of nature.

One hundred and twenty of the best pictures were chosen and published in a book that has been distributed around the world. Last year, they were showcased in Greece and Germany. "Many of the spectators were shocked to learn that the problems of Palestine go beyond Palestinian borders and into other Arab countries," explains Carla Tanas, Zakira's representative in Greece, where Lahza was featured in the Remap2 exhibition of October 2009. "Our aim was to inform our audience that the problem is not limited to Gaza. We wanted to move away from the violence and show the ramifications on the children." A more recent Lahza exhibition held in March in Germany at the Adelheidshof centre garnered similar reactions from visitors. "They were amazed that such pictures had been taken by children. They also showed a lot of interest in Lebanon and Palestinian youth. Some of them were apprehensive, however, at the idea of hanging the pictures in their homes, due to their content," says Burkhard von Harder, a photographer and filmmaker who also organized Zakira's previous German exhibit at the Gallery Haus Chelsea.

With the money generated by the books and exhibitions, Zakira has been able to make a difference in the lives of Palestinian refugee children. The organisation was able to donate funds to help a children's dabke (Lebanese folk dance) troupe in Ain El-Helweh, build a studio for them to practice in and build a playground for kids in the same camp.

The Lahza project is currently running in tandem with another project After Lahza, which has taught 200 Palestinian and Lebanese teenagers advanced photography skills. "This new project has allowed Palestinian children to build relationships with one another and with Lebanese kids living in close proximity to their camps," says Abou Chakra.

With Lahza, photography has given Palestinian refugee children a break from a reality plagued with poverty and violence. Although providing only a brief respite, it has at least brought a glimmer of hope to their eyes.  

By Mona Alami (mona_a_k_a@hotmail.com). Images courtesy Lahza.

New exhibitions are expected to be held in Norway in August 2010, London in November 2010 and at the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, DC on 11 March, 2011. For more information on Zakira, Lahza, how to donate, and upcoming exhibition information, contact info@zakira.org or visit www.zakira.org


 

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