Making a difference
Lebanese photojournalist Ramzi Haidar encourages young refugees to tell their story through a lens.
In one photo, a young girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and sunny yellow hijab leans comfortably on the side of a building, looking confidently at the camera held by her friend. In another, two sisters stroll barefoot along a muddy unpaved street, the crumbling ruins of a building visible in the background.
These snapshots – glimpses of life inside Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – are two of the many moving images featured in the eyeopening photography book, Lahza.
The book was the result of the 2007 Lahza project, which aimed to bring art and culture to children at Palestinian refugee camps.
The project also represents the birth of volunteer organisation Zakira, whose primary goal is to promote the value of photography and images in general in society. Since the publication of the book, Zakira (which means ‘memory’ in Arabic) has undertaken several more projects to improve the lives of displaced children through photography. It all began when photojournalist Ramzi Haidar was on assignment in Iraq in 2003 during the American invasion and found himself concerned by the lack of creative outlets in the lives of the children he came across. Then, on returning home to Lebanon, Haidar found a parallel in the lives of children in his country’s Palestinian refugee camps. (Nestled in little pockets of contemporary Lebanon, the refugee camps house a portion of the population who fled or were expelled from Palestine in 1948. Unable to return to their country and with restrictions limiting their integration into the Lebanese state and society, many have only the camps to call home.)
Haidar decided to build on his professional knowledge to launch an initiative addressing the creative void he had witnessed. The project, Lahza – meaning ‘moment’ or ‘glimpse’ – saw a team of journalists, artists, photographers and other volunteers working with 500 children between the ages of seven and 12 who had been selected based on their artistic skill in a drawing exercise.
The first part of the project took place in a classroom setting where groups of 40 children were given disposable cameras – for most, a first – and taught how to use them. They were also instructed in the basics of photography, such as focus and subject selection.
The children, from 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, were encouraged to take snapshots of the places, people and activities that represented their daily lives.
Over the next year the children took thousands of photos, each giving a rare glimpse of life inside the camps. “It was eye-opening to see normal life unfold in such difficult conditions,” says Haidar. “The photos speak volumes. Living in the camps as refugees kept them largely isolated from the people and the environment of the outside world so the camera became a means to overcome certain boundaries, shattered preconceived ideas, revealed their daily experiences and kindled their need for sharing.”
Many of the photos have been exhibited around Europe and the Middle East and 140 of them were chosen to be published in the book
Hundreds of copies have been
Lahza. sold worldwide (it’s available on Amazon.com.)
Haidar was able to get a variety of sponsors on board, from local photo studios to regional publishers and Palestinian cultural organisations. He sought to provide a constructive creative outlet for these children to funnel their frustration, while also equipping them with a skill that could be useful later, in their careers.
With the success of the Lahza project, Haidar was able to fund a second initiative in 2009, entitled Ma Baad el Lahza, meaning ‘after Lahza’. This follow-up project targeted teenage children, and mixed Palestinians from refugee camps with Lebanese from outside the camps.
The participants, some of whom had worked on the first Lahza project, came from a variety of backgrounds, with a preference for those who had dropped out of education, in various regions of Lebanon.
Though generally teens living inside and outside of refugee camps have little interaction with each other, they all face a similar struggle with high dropout rates from school, rising financial difficulties and dwindling career prospects within a struggling economy. Haidar hoped
the project would encourage a dialogue between refugees and the Lebanese youth, thus closing, or at least narrowing, the gap between them. All communities within Lebanon are family-oriented and close-knit, therefore empowering youngsters also affects their families and other community members positively, says Haidar.
“We did not experience problems between the different groups. Sometimes it took time to break the ice but otherwise they enjoyed introducing one another to their worlds. They took their classmates to their neighbourhoods to take pictures. So they often visited places they otherwise wouldn’t and any preconceived stigmas often eroded,” recalls Haidar.
Each workshop lasted for about three months, with classes focusing on the theoretical and practical application of photography using digital cameras.
International sponsors, such as the Norwegian Embassy, came on board this project after the success of Lahza. Profits were both reinvested into Zakira and invested into community projects such as a playground and library.
In April 2012, Zakira launched another initiative, titled Rua’a or ‘visions’. This workshop aimed to bridge the gap not just between Lebanese and Palestinian youth, but also with Egyptian, Iraqi and Sudanese communities found in Lebanon. “Within the Middle East region there are innumerable nuances in language, culture and traditions, which often create divisions through their perceived foreignness,” says Haidar. “I wanted to help bridge this gap.”
The workshop taught 80 youth aged 14 to 18 about photographic theory and practice, while continuing Zakira’s mission to instil cooperation and tolerance by enabling participants to learn together and see the commonalities in their individual backgrounds.
Funded by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development and in partnership with Cives Mundi, the General Union of Palestinian-Women and the Lebanese NGO Insan, the workshop lasted six months and participants’ work was later exhibited in both Lebanon and Spain.
In February 2013, Zakira changed its focus from the youth to adults. In its next initiative, titled
Al Nouzha, or ‘outing’, it addressed women incarcerated in the Barbar Khazen prison.
The initiative involved around 80 women who were jailed for small crimes with sentences of a few years or less. By running a photography workshop for the inmates, Zakira developed the women’s technical and interpersonal skills.
“Enabling these women to photograph their lives provided them with a voice and an outlet to express themselves,” he says.
“It’s something Zakira hopes will be positive to their psychological well-being and to their lives once they leave prison.”
The photographs taken were displayed in Beirut and helped demystify prison life to those outside the prison walls.
Zakira’s various initiatives have lasting effects on both participants and viewers. In a country such as Lebanon, whose social fabric is so
delicately composed of various social, religious and ethnic groups, individuals tend to stay within the confines of their individual communities.
Zakira’s initiatives are exercises in tolerance, understanding and compassion, building camaraderie and breaking barriers between individuals from communities who might otherwise never interact. By focusing on the youth, Zakira hopes to break the cycle of division within Lebanese society and initiate lasting change in generations to come.
Furthermore, equipping students with career skills provides hope for greater economic stability. As Haidar says, “We have seen a tangible difference in many of our students. The camera gave many a great sense of confidence and an ability to take in and absorb their surroundings differently.
“Some of our students have been able to translate the skill into a career. One of our students had photos published in a Lebanese national newspaper. Others have got jobs at studios near their homes. The participants certainly feel empowered, and sort of proud, through the camera... they feel they have finally been given a voice.”
Zakira’s initiatives also reach viewers of the photo exhibitions. Though not experiencing the workshops first-hand, these viewers still get a glimpse into the lives of other communities and see the cooperation between children who, as Haidar describes, “would otherwise have little opportunity to have an organic, shared experience.” This cause-and-effect relationship between cooperation and accomplishment provides hope and positivity for generations in the future.
Although first inspired more than 10 years ago by the children of a different conflict, Zakira’s mission is as relevant as ever even today. The organisation, in conjunction with Unicef, is currently working with 500 children living in Syrian refugee camps throughout Lebanon and starting a project similar to Lahza, entitled Lahza 2.
The most moving photos will be displayed in an exhibition.
Haidar and all of Zakira’s supporters hope that increased awareness will lead to more outside support and internal compassion for these communities.
Haidar founded Zakira with the belief that each child deserves to have a voice. From the evidence so far, the results of these initiatives have done just that, enabling their lives and how they live them to be shown to the rest of the world, while empowering them in the process.
Reaching out to those in the most need of help, Zakira illustrates the story of a more peaceful Lebanon, one photograph at a time.
Children in the initiatives have a say in which of their photos will be published
The Lahza project used cameras to bridge gaps in society
Pictures from the Lahza project were exhibited in Europe and in the Middle East
Haidar gives children lessons in photography