In Exile: Finding a Fresh Approach to Documenting Syrian Refugees Living in Jordan

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Michael Friberg
Abdul Rahman Mounir Al-Zalem from Dara'a, Syria, holds an olive branch from the tree he planted at his sister's apartment in Zarqa, Jordan. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more work from "By the Olive Trees."

The story of any civil war is told by how its refugees speak of home. The Palestinian of 1948 speaks of a home that persists only in memory. The Yugoslavian of 1991 grieves for a home that appears on no map. The Rwandan of 1994 gestures to a home that is near, yet so far. For the Syrians of 2011, their wounds are fresh, home is tangible; anxiously they speak of patience. The idea that perhaps soon all will be returned to normal, and they will go back to the lives they knew, hangs in the air like gunpowder.

“By the Olive Trees” is a fresh look at the ongoing Syrian Civil War by two photographers from the American West. Salt Lake City-based Michael Friberg and Denver-based Benjamin Rasmussen have little previous experience documenting conflict, but their editorial photography backgrounds helped them find a distinct approach to the subject matter.

The photographers created “By the Olive Trees,” which they published as a multimedia piece and print newspaper, by interweaving portraiture with each refugee’s personal narrative of war and exile. The work pulls its subjects from the faceless, victimized crowds of “displaced people” and restores their humanity and their agency by sharing their individual hopes and fears. While the photographers appreciate and respect traditional photojournalism, Friberg and Rasmussen credit their editorial backgrounds for providing them with the tools to present Syria’s refugees in a different light.

“The way that we shoot for magazines, you try to photograph a subject in a way that people are going to think they are important enough to read that story,” Rasmussen explains. “We have a visual language that we use to communicate the fact that somebody is important. We wanted to take that language and use that on a group of people that no one was really paying attention to.” He points to the cover of “By the Olive Trees” as an example; in it a handsome, young man stands holding an olive branch. His clothes fit well, a fashionable shirt unbuttoned to the chest, and he holds the branch carefully, looking away, but his gaze is troubled. Friberg shot it in natural light, but the key to their approach was spending quality time with their subjects and letting the photographs become an extension of that, instead of simply following someone around taking pictures.

The photographers had long discussed collaborating, and found a common interest as they followed the burgeoning war in Syria. “Mike sent me this NPR article that was talking about how there were 500,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and [the number] was expected to potentially reach one million by the end of the year,” Rasmussen recalls. While both had been following the reports and images coming out of Syria since the initial uprising, that article helped them realize there was a void that perhaps they could fill. “Neither of us felt like we were seeing very much work that made us interact with the fact that these were people being affected,” Rasmussen continues. “It all felt quite impersonal.”

Rasmussen and Friberg left for Jordan with just one concrete assignment: to create a multimedia piece for the New Republic’s tablet edition. In retrospect, they both see that commission as an unintended-yet-crucial component of their editing process for “By the Olive Trees.” When they returned from the Middle East, the looming New Republic deadline forced them to get started on editing the images and text. Having to hunker down with the New Republic’s creative director and make sense of all their raw material, while the ideas they had discussed in Jordan were still fresh in their minds, laid valuable groundwork for the next step.

After the piece was published by the New Republic, the photographers continued to push the work, earning coverage in Bloomberg Businessweek and M: le magazine du Monde, and on the TIME LightBox blog. Those experiences made it clear to Friberg and Rasmussen that if they wanted to do something more expansive with the work, they would have to self-publish it. They raised over $12,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund a newsprint version of the project, which they are distributing for free, in bulk, through their personal networks and through the networks of their Kickstarter contributors who have volunteered to participate in the crowd distribution. It is an intriguing marriage of old media and new, one that they hope will allow a wider audience to engage with the work.

“I would love to not print on newsprint but the idea here is to not make $80 to $100 photo books which only 200 people, who are already interacting with material like this, will ever buy,” Friberg says. “To get us out of the photo, art, editorial ghettos that we exist in, why not make something cheap? If one person interacts with this who wouldn’t have before, that is a win to me.”

For Friberg and Rasmussen, conditions on the ground in Jordan were illuminating. In those early days of the conflict, media outlets in the West had given them the impression that the Syrian people were united in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Once they arrived in Jordan, they began to realize that the conflict was much more complicated.

Rasmussen was mainly shooting 4 x 5, large format in natural light, while Friberg was shooting medium format and using lights, so the question of who should take a particular picture was often self-explanatory. Both men agree that the most valuable aspect of their collaboration came at the end of those long days, back in their “crappy hotel room, drinking warm whisky” when they would plot the next day’s activity and discuss the work’s growing narrative.

Avoiding easy tropes also meant that both photographers purposely searched for subjects outside of the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. Roughly one-quarter of the Syrian refugees in Jordan reside in the overcrowded camp, but the photographers estimate it is the source for 90 percent of reportage on the subject. Of course, it is much easier to fly into Amman and head out to a camp with 144,000 people than to try to locate the other three-quarters of the refugee population amidst the wider Jordanian populace. “We were pretty intentional about seeking out under-represented narratives, even to the extent of wasting several days trying to find pro-regime minority groups willing to talk to us,” Friberg says. It wasn’t that regime supporters didn’t exist, they were just unwilling to speak publicly.  

Still, there is a wealth of diversity to the stories told in “By the Olive Trees” and a palpable intimacy in the images that accompany them. Despite the disturbing subject matter, the project is not a grim compendium of sorrows, but a careful piece of documentation on a humanistic scale. The Syrians profiled have their own personal tales of exile and concerns for the present, their own ways of talking about home.

Related Article:

"By the Olive Trees" Photo Gallery

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