Pho­tog­ra­phy helps Shatila women break bound­aries

FemLENS aims to give lo­cal women the skills to cap­ture their world and ex­pe­ri­ence

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Fin­bar An­der­son

BEIRUT: A decade work­ing in pho­to­jour­nal­ism around the world taught Jeka­te­rina Savel­jeva two things: Not enough pho­to­jour­nal­ism is done by lo­cals, nor are there enough women work­ing in the in­dus­try. To ad­dress this, she set up femLENS, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides work­shops and ed­u­ca­tional sup­port to women in­ter­ested in doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy.

“There should be lo­cal peo­ple within the com­mu­nity who should be trained and able to tell the story from their per­spec­tive,” she told The Daily Star.

FemLENS’ fo­cus on women is a re­sult of Savel­jeva’s “re­ac­tion to work­ing in for­eign jour­nal­ism for ten years, and notic­ing the mi­nor­ity of women in the in­dus­try.”

Ac­cord­ing to World Press Photo’s 2016 State of News Pho­tog­ra­phy re­port, just 15 per­cent of pho­to­jour­nal­ists are women.

Savel­jeva has run pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops with femLENS in coun­cil hous­ing es­tates in Dublin, Ire­land, and for women with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties in Poland. Her most re­cent work­shop took her to the Shatila Pales­tinian refugee camp in the south­ern sub­urbs of Beirut.

“Many of the women who work in pho­to­jour­nal­ism have a master’s de­gree and a fam­ily that will sup­port them,” she said. Work­ing in Shatila gave her the op­por­tu­nity to of­fer her ser­vices to women who would never oth­er­wise have the chance to learn about the field.

Lo­cal NGO Bas­meh & Zeitooneh, which runs a num­ber of com­mu­nity cen­ters in Le­banon and Tur­key, of­fered to host the work­shops.

The re­cruit­ment process re­vealed some of the dif­fi­cul­ties as­so­ci­ated with run­ning cul­tural work­shops for women in a camp like Shatila. Many were too busy with work or fam­ily com­mit­ments to at­tend all four ses­sions, each of four hours, which ran over two weeks in Oc­to­ber.

Some also faced pres­sures from within their fam­ily not to at­tend.

Savel­jeva re­called re­ceiv­ing an an­gry phone call from a male rel­a­tive of a woman who at­tended the first ses­sion, in which Savel­jeva had pho­tographed the at­ten­dees and shared the re­sults in their pri­vate What­sApp group.

The man had seen the photos and con­fronted Savel­jeva over the phone; the woman did not re­turn.

“We even in­vited their broth­ers to the work­shop [to] see what we’re work­ing on,” said Maria Has­san, co­or­di­na­tor of Bas­meh & Zeitooneh’s art and cul­ture cen­ter.

“This is how the com­mu­nity goes. Some of the peo­ple are re­ally strict; some are try­ing to be more open.”

For the two women who com­pleted the course, it was a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’m a bit shy by na­ture,” said Faten An­bar, 30, a Pales­tinian-Le­banese woman who has lived in Shatila for over 20 years.

“When we first walked into the [work­shop], we were wor­ried … with more ses­sions, the fear and worry went away, and we were con­fi­dent enough to go down the street and cap­ture our own pho­to­graphs.”

“You need guts to take photos, es­pe­cially here in Shatila,” said Hal­ima al-Haj Ali, 30, who has been in the camp for five years hav­ing fled Syria as a refugee. She said she first be­came in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy by tak­ing photos of her fam­ily.

“If I take photos in the street, peo­ple say, ‘what are you do­ing?’ Now I have the courage to face that.”

The work­shops took the women out onto the crowded streets of Shatila, which gave the women plenty of in­spi­ra­tion. “We took photos of the nar­row streets, the elec­tric ca­bles, de­tails of my life,” Haj Ali said.

They also learned tech­ni­cal skills, and the abil­ity to think as a photographer. “Now when­ever I’m walk­ing in the streets, I look around and in­stantly get an idea of what would look nice in a photo. I de­vel­oped a pho­to­graphic vi­sion,” An­bar said.

The many years the women have spent liv­ing in Shatila gave them a cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity un­matched by for­eign pho­tog­ra­phers. “Not ev­ery­thing is ac­cept­able to pho­to­graph,” An­bar said. “It’s not enough to be brave, some­times peo­ple don’t give per­mis­sion and you have to stop.”

Haj Ali echoed the sen­ti­ment. “Lo­cals just know how to be­have here and ap­proach other lo­cals bet­ter than for­eign­ers,” she said.

The women have cul­tural sen­si­tiv­ity un­matched by for­eign pho­tog­ra­phers

“If some­one new shows up around the block tak­ing photos, of course, they will be asked what they’re do­ing and be met with sus­pi­cion.”

She also noted that de­vel­op­ments in cell phone tech­nol­ogy have helped her to blend in. “If there are im­por­tant shots I want to take, I can pre­tend I’m talk­ing on What­sApp and take photos with­out peo­ple notic­ing. With a cam­era, they will def­i­nitely ask me what I’m up to.”

Hav­ing had such a pos­i­tive re­ac­tion from her stu­dents, Savel­jeva is look­ing to the fu­ture. She aims to pro­duce a mag­a­zine show­cas­ing their pho­tog­ra­phy, which she plans to pub­lish next year.

The work­shop also helped her to iden­tify each of the women’s par­tic­u­lar skills, which she hopes to help de­velop; Haj Ali is a nat­u­ral street photographer, whereas An­bar is a tal­ented art photographer who likes to ac­com­pany her images with words.

“You start to see the voice of each photographer,” Savel­jeva said.

Both women hope to take their skills fur­ther. “It’s bet­ter to be able to do this as a job, but I also don’t mind do­ing it as a hobby,” An­bar said. “If one of my friends asked me to do a photo shoot for them, I’d be happy to know I’m able to do it.”

Haj Ali has set her sights on fol­low­ing Savel­jeva into a ca­reer in pho­tog­ra­phy. “Af­ter the work­shop, even though there are things I still don’t know, I can take bet­ter photos,” she said. “I would cer­tainly like to be a photographer if an op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self. It’s more than a hobby.” – Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Ga­sia Tr­trian

A photo taken by Faten An­bar, one of the work­shop at­ten­dees.

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