“The pact that binds us to photographers puts our sight in their hands.”
(From the introduction to Lahza, a book of Palestinian children’s photographs by ZAKIRA, Amers Editions, Beirut, 2009.)
These photographs were taken in July 2012 by Palestinian youth living in four out of the twelve refugee camps in Lebanon. The photographers, students aged eleven to fifteen, were participants in an intensive summer project called SHINE coordinated by both LEAP, an educational empowerment program dedicated to nurturing the intellectual growth and creative curiosity of Palestinian refugee youth in Lebanon, and Beit Atfal Assumoud, a Palestinian NGO in Lebanon that provides a wide range of services. Students in the photography club were asked to brainstorm why photography is important, and what they would want an international audience to learn and see about their lives in the camps. Working together, the students chose their subjects, took photos, debated which ones they liked best, and wrote captions and titles for their images.
The photographs shown here represent a selection from the resulting exhibit at the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. Curated by Sara El Choufi and Nehad Khader, the exhibit offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the youth not by showcasing images of them, but rather by displaying images that the students themselves captured and wanted to display to a broader audience.
These photographs were taken in Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh camps, both in Beirut, and in Bourj al-Shamale and Rashidieh camps, located in Tyre. Shatila, which was devastated during the Lebanese civil war, is home to approximately 9,000 registered refugees. Bourj al-Barajneh is the most overpopulated of Beirut’s camps, with nearly 17,000 refugees. Bourj al-Shamale and Rashidieh, both in the south of Lebanon, have roughly 21,000 and 29,000 registered refugees, respectively.
In Lebanon, there are twelve official UNRWA camps, with around 455,000 Palestinian refugees living throughout the country. Half are under the age of twenty-five. Palestinians living in Lebanon are denied most of their political, economic, and social rights due to systematic inequalities, beginning with an educational system that does not provide Palestinian children with opportunities on an equal basis with their Lebanese peers. A lack of adequate educational resources leaves Palestinian students unprepared for the mandatory high school entrance exam, which is administered in English, resulting in a high failure rate. An AUB study published by UNRWA estimates that half of Palestinian teenagers drop out of school. Moreover, Palestinians are prohibited from working in over seventy professions in Lebanon and most are forced to work in the black market or adopt vocational skills to increase their chances for employment. In addition to these social and political restrictions, many Lebanese camps are enclosed and surrounded by security forces that implement a strict perimeter and additional boundaries, which act as a constant reminder of their status as refugees. Despite over sixty years in Lebanon, Palestinians remain unintegrated into Lebanese society.
It is important to remember that the images in this collection do not reflect the lens of visitors to the camp, but rather the choices of children who intentionally selected the spaces, people, and perspectives that they wanted to share with others. They are a means for our students’ voices to transcend their territorial boundaries and share with you their stories and lives.
Viewed as a group, these photographs convey a striking juxtaposition of the imagery we have come to expect from Lebanon’s refugee camps (decrepit buildings and narrow alleyways) with the kinds of pictures we often do not see (a flock of sheep, the sea). These variations insist that we understand each camp as a discrete place with a particular history rather than an interchangeable composite of exposed electrical wires and dark alleyways. The youths’ choices capture a range of experience within each camp, and the differences among them: selections from Rashidieh’s class range from sandy beaches to rubble; images from Shatila include Ramadan decorations as well as a building destroyed in the 1982 massacre. As a collection, they articulate the challenges of life in the camps, but they also inform the viewer that there is far more to these communities than violence, trauma, and poverty.
As the quotation above indicates, to place a camera in the hands of a person is to empower them in some way: to take a step away from objectifying refugee children with photographs of them by creating space for photographs by them. At the same time, the title of the exhibit, “Windows to Refuge,” is a reminder that, like windows, these images are framed by unseen structures and realities. They offer glimmers, not complete visions, of what they reveal. It also suggests the irony of the refugee camp as refuge. The tragedy of the camps is one deepened by accumulation: each successive year marks another iteration towards unintended permanence. Even now, Palestinians fleeing violence in Syria are seeking refuge in the camps of Lebanon (whose numbers have been compounded over the decades with other now doubly-displaced Palestinians) and elsewhere.
Though convinced of the power of these images, those of us who have worked to bring them to a wider audience are cognizant of the uncomfortable insufficiency of mere awareness. It is our hope that the creative space these photographs represent might be a first step, an opening, to future spaces in which Palestinian youth – and others who face discrimination and injustice – are represented not through the voices of others, but with their own.