"Do You See What I See?" - Refugee children photograph their own lives
"See refugee life through the voices and visions of children, who are experts on their own lives." Photographer Brendan Bannon that oversaw the project.
Often we look at images of refugees and see a very narrow bit of what the refugee experience is - images of people in flight, roads full of people, all fleeing disaster, hunger, dirt, malaise.
This is a limited view of the refugee situation. It gives us only a sense that they are different from others- not the same.
This project gave refugee children a chance to explore the totality of the refugee experience; to show the world both the differences and similarities of their lives.
In the workshop process a series of images and texts worthy of exhibition have been created. The images will make a journey back to the refugee camps and to the capitals of the host countries. People will experience refugee life through the voices and visions of the children, who are the true experts on their own lives.
Before traveling to Yemen and Namibia I outlined a series of intensive photography workshops enabling the children to introduce their world in a frame. These refugee children, who had never photographed before, needed to be introduced to a vision of photography as a slice of real life; life seen as it unfolds; life bound on four sides by the edges of a frame.
A photographer must decide where to stand, what to include in the frame and at what moment to press the shutter. If these children were to become photographers they would need to make these choices. The children were encouraged to look at the world from different angles and step out of conventional ideas of what a photograph should be.
Many of the children wanted to share printed photographs that their families had carried since the start of their refugee journey. These conventional pictures most often were straight, direct - to - camera images of family members that included the whole body of the person from head to foot.
This is a perfect formula for a certain type of picture; it contains lots of information, but may not capture the essence and particularity of the situation – and of life.
We wanted to create images that expressed the hopes, dreams, experiences and futures of the children in the camp. To do so we had to prepare to go beyond the conventions of African portrait photography into a somewhat different world of action, creative composition, and reflection.
The class was up to the challenge, once it became clear to them that expression and imagination were paramount. The children discovered a new language - and new options - “half-body” “action shots” and landscapes. They learned how to explore the potential of images to tell stories, how to evoke emotional response, how to communicate ideas and stories, and how to emphasize a point of view with imagery.
During this process the class also learned how to couple images with words, pouring forth their ideas on life, family, the past, the future, what makes a good person and what makes a good society.
They were also empowered by using a camera to make pictures that honored their parents, celebrated their siblings and amused their friends. They explained themselves to each other, and became closer in the process. Together, they gave a clear idea of their lives, lives rich in experience, emotion, history, fantasy, humor and compassion.
Their natural creativity and curiosity emerged. One child took a photograph and cut the face of his subject - he photographed a boy “half-faced” to see if he could do it,” which echoes the famous quote by the American photographer Garry Winogrand who said that “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.”
What emerges in these pictures is a commentary on humanity - proposing what to them is love, what is suffering, what is funny, what can be discovered about self, family, history and community: What makes us alike and what makes us different.
These are the great, historical themes of art and life. This is the ground that these young people traversed.
We addressed these ideas by guiding the children through a series of exercises that focused on the self, the community, the family and dreams. The exercises were designed to allow the kids to fully explore the range of human experience.
Now we have a full picture of refugee life. People live in a small community in a small part of the world but their experiences are not small; they are as expansive as the human experience anywhere.
They miss their parents when they don’t see them, they love their siblings, they exercise, and cook and sleep and dream. They flirt and they fall in love, someday they will form families of their own - either in the refugee camp or in their home country if peace can be found.
That is not to say that their experience in every way is identical to others. Family stories are filled with pain and cataclysmic loss and in some cases recovery. Dreams are capped by fate. A business minded person can only conduct business on the small stage of a refugee camp. An actor’s performance may only be seen by thousands of neighbors – if at all - not by audiences of millions.
These children want more opportunities; they want to be part of the world outside the fences of the camp. They want peace and prosperity. In this way, what makes them different also makes them the same as anyone outside the camp.
The pictures and words suggest that these kids have what it takes. But will they have the chance to explore their full potential? I wonder how many doctors won’t become doctors? How many actors won’t see the big lights of a capital city or national theatre? How many novels won’t be written? How many advancements in physics or chemistry will not be made?
The children felt a great deal of pride at being chosen for the course. They carried their cameras around the camp even when they were not photographing. The boys had them in their hands and the girls used them as accessories. They wore them like necklaces or used the strap as a belt, the camera dangling from their waists.
The role of camp based assistants cannot be underestimated. It would have been impossible to conduct the workshop with out the perspective, ideas and translations of Cadet and Veronica in Osire and Abdulkader and Itedal Zobiri in Yemen.
They understood the spirit of the workshop and fostered the children’s unexplored, self-inquiry and self - expression. They were professional in approach. They made a challenging learning process easier for everyone.
There was a sense of compassion among the kids that was profoundly moving to me. During one class session one of the younger
children, an orphan broke down crying at the totality of his loss, at his abandonment in the world, at his loss of family and the love of his parents who had been killed in war.
The response from the class was one of compassion, clear and total compassion. The room cried with him and didn’t see his breakdown as weakness but as an expression of something that they shared either in actuality or in dread.
The kids pulled together when they had to. The compassion I noticed is evident in the pictures and accompanying texts.
The kids wanted the hungry to be fed, the mad to be comforted, and the lonely to find the solace in companionship.
They saw photographing as a away of expressing this compassion and concern for those more needy among them.
As Ayan wrote to explain one of her pictures, “Poor Children - I took this picture because I’d like their life to be changed sooner or later.” Interestingly Ayan found and explained one of the main motivations of concerned photojournalists - the desire to bring about change by witnessing the hardship of others.
Photography also offered a license to be curious and to enter other worlds. Manuel Luis photographed bones in the desert and wrote “Archeologists discovered many different kinds of bones… Taking this (picture) I felt like an archeologist.”
Each photograph in the exhibit is an affirmation of experience, imagination or desire. Ayan photographed a smiling boy on a swing and explained, “While I was taking his picture I liked the gladness in his eyes.”
Idalina photographed a girl turned toward and cloud filled horizon and used the image of isolation and loneliness to highlight the resilience and hope of humanity… she wrote: “There was a girl of 10 years..she felt lonely in this world…She may be little but it is her right to fight for happiness in this world.”
Text by Brendan Bannon