Picture Story: A Show of Hope for Syrian Refugees

By David Walker

© NiNa beRmaN/NOOR
An outdoor exhibition of four NOOR photographers’ images of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is mounted on-site.

More than two million people have fled the civil war in Syria, resulting in the biggest refugee crisis in recent memory. To help raise the morale of some of those refugees, Nina Berman and three other NOOR photographers recently shot images of daily life in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and exhibited them on the camp’s concrete security walls.

“The idea was to show that people are surviving. Some are making families. They have shops. They have schools,” says Berman, explaining that it is easy for the refugees to despair, because their prospects of settlement in other countries are dim and the camp is turning into a permanent settlement.

“They should never forget that they are survivors and their journey was a heroic one,” she says. She also wants newcomers who see the images on their way into the camp to realize: “We can make a new life here.”

Berman conceived the project after an e-mail exchange with a former Newsweek writer, Greg Beals, who was working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) at the Zaatari camp. She mentioned having seen an aerial photograph that showed the camp’s seemingly endless rows of tents and structures. Berman says that Beals replied, “You should see the security walls. They’re really grim.” He then sent pictures of the concrete walls topped with barbed wire. “I thought, man, that’s an exhibition space, really,” says Berman, who is always looking beyond media outlets for new ways to show and distribute documentary photography. She wondered if the UNHCR might want to “make [the camp] not appear so prison-like,” and began thinking about what kinds of images might appeal to the refugees. Images of daily life in the camp seemed obvious, though she realized those would have to walk a fine line between an unvarnished, grim reality and a sugar-coated view.

Another idea she had was to set up a portable studio to make portraits that the refugees could keep or send back to relatives in Syria. Considering that they had left behind all their belongings, including family pictures, having a family portrait might be something they valued, Berman thought. 

She posted a message to other NOOR photographers outlining her idea and asking if anyone was interested in working with her on the project. Andrea Bruce and Stanley Greene, who have both worked in Syria since the start of the civil war, signed up. Berman also encouraged Alixandra Fazzina, who won the UNHCR’s top award in 2010 for work on behalf of refugees, to join.

She then sent a proposal to UNHCR explaining that the team wanted to “make pictures of daily life that will allow people to reflect on the situation and hopefully bring attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.”

The proposal included a budget to cover the costs of the photo booth portraits, exhibition prints, travel and a “minimal fee” for the photographers. (Berman did not want the budget disclosed.)

The UNHCR asked whether she and the other photographers had experience working in refugee camps. “All of us have,” Berman replied. So the UNHCR approved the project and funded it in conjunction with the Japanese Emergency NGO (JEN), a consortium of Japanese NGOs working in the Zaatari camp.

The photographers flew to Jordan for six days of shooting at the end of December last year. Bruce spent most of the time shooting portraits of refugees in the photo booth. At first they were hesitant, she says, but then hundreds of people started lining up and she could hardly keep up with the demand.

“They need housing and food. They need so much. But the photo booth gave them something they wanted desperately: normalcy,” Bruce explained in an e-mail. “To offer each person a portrait of themselves, with a simple black backdrop, sometimes holding one of their favorite possessions, sometimes with a best friend or loved one, was a joy for all of us.”

Berman, Greene and Fazzina spent most of their time photographing daily life around the camp. Greene focused on former Free Syria fighters who had been wounded. Fazzina was interested in the idea of starting anew and tried to photograph weddings and births, Berman says.

The photographers were careful to explain how the pictures would be used and to ask all the subjects for permission to display them on the walls. The team had to be cautious about showing faces of any subjects, for fear of endangering family back in Syria.

The photographers were also sensitive to how the refugees might react to the images posted on the walls. “Our helpers and Jordanian NGO staff members with friends in the camp [were] going to be asked to answer for our work” after the photographers left, Berman explains. “We didn’t want to damage them.”

Once the photographers left Jordan, Berman asked the other three to provide her with 20 to 40 images for the wall exhibit. She ended up organizing the photos by theme and color palette.

In March, she returned to Jordan to mount the images, accompanied by Photoville co-founder and creative director Sam Barzilay. “He has experience conceiving outdoor projects. He was a huge help,” Berman says.

They worked with a printer in Amman to make 3-foot-wide prints. At first, Berman planned to have the images printed on vinyl and secure them on the walls with grommets. “But in the camp, anything that’s not fastened down is stolen. If a grommet comes loose, [the vinyl] becomes someone’s roof because it’s waterproof.”

They ended up printing the images on paper instead and pasting them to the walls. Jordanian officials who stood by balked at several of the images. One of Fazzina’s images, for instance, showed a screaming newborn being measured in a camp hospital. “I’m sure Alixandra saw it as a new life, fighting to survive,” Berman says, but Jordanian officials “freaked out” and said it had to come down.

Another image by Berman showed refugees in a bread line. “The Jordanians said it makes it look like the people are poor,” Berman says. “We said, ‘Well, they are poor.’”

That image stayed, as did another showing two men building a washroom with bricks. Jordanian authorities objected because refugees aren’t allowed to build with bricks (the camp is officially temporary), so the picture appeared to show illegal activity. Berman saved it by suggesting they write a caption in Arabic that appeared under the photo, explaining what the men were building.

Berman says she’d like to bring the project to one of the Photoville public exhibitions in the United States this fall. And with the NOOR team, she’s looking for other venues. “Anything that puts Syria on people’s minds is a good thing,” especially as the media loses interest in the war and refugees slip into a permanent limbo.

Related: Picture Story: Childhood Malnutrition in Afghanistan

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