The work that I've been doing with Syrian refugees this year has me in a unique position. I'm working with the same families in the same camps and it's definitely given me extra insight into what these people's lives have become since the war. I've been invited to or have attended birthdays, weddings, childbirths, school openings, relief distributions, as well as just casual home visits to have tea or meals with families. Most of these events have been joyful, but there've also been times when they've been incredibly sad because someone's just found out they've lost a loved one in the war, or a young teenager is being forced to get married when she doesn't want to and there's nothing I can do about it, or a friend is crying her heart out because her husband's abusing her and she doesn't know what to do about it. In short, it's been tough, but also really, really special, and I've been trying my best to just soak it all in.
None of the invitations into people's lives are on account of much effort on my part since Syrians, and specifically the families I work with, are just the most incredibly warm and welcoming people, and they usually want a lot more of you than you can give. They're quick to let you into their lives when they see that you care for them, probably more so now than ever.
Now because I have this insight that's particularly interesting to the rest of the world (especially given the current surge in refugee relocation) I often feel this tension between wanting to be fully present in my work, but then also wanting to show and explain this insight to others who don't get to be here and see/hear/feel these experiences that I've been privy to.
On an incredibly frequent basis I see NGO workers or short-term relief teams come to visit the camps we work in and without fail pull out their cameras, snap photos of the kids, photos of themselves and the kids, or just in general photos of the camp or the mothers at work outside of their tents. Now I can't really speak for the kids because the majority are pretty camera-obsessed and love to see their faces on a screen. But I can always see the parents disapproving looks, and I can quickly sense that they're tired of this charade. Some aide workers take photos with the intention of using them for fundraising efforts that will eventually turn around and benefit those being photographed, but the majority are simply for the novelty of it, and only end up objectifying the subject (look! It's a refugee!)
I'm often shocked at the insensitivity of all these amateur photographers who whoosh right in, snap photos at every opportunity with or without the consent of the subject, have NO awareness whatsoever of what it would feel like if the roles were reversed, and then disappear. Would you stand for a stranger walking into your neighborhood, building, or backyard and taking photos of you, your children, or your house without any kind of permission? You'd probably call the cops and report them.
I guess one of the biggest things I'm getting at is that asking permission can make a world of difference, keeping in mind that there've also been times I've asked for permission to take a photo and been refused it (which always suuuuuuucks).
In my attempt to gain the trust of the families I work with, and to not produce in them (even on a subconscious level) an association of myself with a category of people who have come to use them, I have to constantly choose to not take photos- which to be honest has been difficult for me. In many ways I'm also the selfish, aspiring photographer who wants that killer-shot, or the aide worker who wants their efforts to be recognized or praised. I have all those same shitty impulses, mixed in with good intentions and a real love for the kind of photography that dignifies people: photography that captures the beauty I've seen in the unique characters I've gotten to know this year.
Now in some ways this could make me a good photographer, but in most ways I'd say I've come to accept that I will never be a great photographer because I think that it takes a level of numbness that makes me too uncomfortable, and often feels ethically questionable. Photos of pain: I just don't think I could do it. I'd much rather live in it and leave with no photos at all- and I guess that makes me both a coward, and not.
So, all that said, a few weeks ago I was asked to photograph all of our students -about 250 of them- for work purposes. And boy was I excited!! I will probably end up printing one out for each student, and writing a personal note for them on the back in English (probably not for ALL of them, just the ones I've worked with the most) in hopes that one day their English will be fluent enough -they're on their way! woot!- to both read and understand it easily.
So here are just a few (I may or may not add more to this later) with a little something about who you're looking at.
Everytime Wael greets me outside of school he looks me square in the eyes, smiles timidly at me and says: "Hi miss Nadine, how are you?" with an intentionality and softness that I get from few students. I sense this kiddo has wonderful awareness of those around him.
Nour (light) absolutely LOVES to ask riddles, none of which I ever understand or can solve (riddles in Arabic always have me in a complete panic). She always has an opinion about what's happening, lots and lots of questions for me, and a wonderful ability to laugh at herself.
Yazan and his older sister (who is academically brilliant) are both in the same class. Despite his not doing as well as she is, this little guy just keeps trying and I love it.
It took a long time before I felt like Rouwayda trusted me. Despite knowing that she could be rowdy and confident, I always sensed she backed off when I was around, got a lot quieter and wasn't sure what to think of me. Just this last month have I felt her soften towards me and accept my presence. She's precious, and I can relate to her inability to express her feelings towards others.
This boy is the biggest sweetheart of them all. Every time I see him I have the instant urge to hug the HECK out of him. Omar has a stuttering problem, but it's never stopped him. He has no sharp edges whatsoever and is just all around soft, soft, beautiful soft.
Mariam is spunky, confident, respectful, brave, and smart. She's a bundle of life.
And last but not least is Nasser (victorious). I've seen this kid grow (literally) an insane amount of cms since I arrived and it's been kind of strange and scary to see this transition into teenage-hood happen right before my eyes! I feel good about it though because Nasser has remained Nasser. He's got a sweet, trusting spirit that makes him a joy to be around.
That's all for now folks.