This summer, Tony O’Brien hopes to travel to Jordan to continue his project documenting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are living there in tent cities. A selection of photographs and refugee stories from his 2013 trip to Jordan is featured in Tony O’Brien: Sketches From Syria at Verve Gallery of Photography, opening on Friday, Feb. 6. On the cover is an untitled archival pigment-ink print from 2013.
Millions of citizens of Syria have left their country as refugees because of civil-war violence. TONY O’BRIEN ’s photographs of the people bring home the reality of their miserable plight and their humanness. “You realize it’s real,” he told Pasatiempo . “When you see it on the news, it’s like theater. But what you find is that we’re all the same. There are some bad people out there, just like here. But we are all the same. We want peace, we want good things for our family, we want education for our children.”
The Syrian civil war, now just about in its fourth year, has created more than 2.8 million refugees who survive in five neighbor countries, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. More than half a million of the displaced people live in refugee camps in Jordan ( which also has about 55,000 Iraqi refugees and more than two million Palestinian refugees); it was in Jordan that O’Brien photographed and collected stories in 2013. Tony O’Brien: Sketches From Syria opens on Friday, Feb. 6, at Verve Gallery of Photography, with photos and snippets of text telling the refugees’ stories. It hangs concurrently with Norman Mauskopf:
American Triptychs and David Scheinbaum: Kalós . O’Brien earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1970 from the College of Santa Fe. Today he is the chairman of the photography department of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. He began his professional career in photography at The New Mexican and later worked at the Santa Fe Reporter and the Albuquerque
Journal . His résumé includes projects about the lives of prostitutes; a British expedition on Mount Everest; the Soviet-Afghan War (while accumulating documentation for that, he was detained in an Afghan prison for six weeks); the Persian Gulf War; and a 2004 project about a rural education program in the village of Lalander, Afghanistan. His photographs have been published in Life , Time , and Newsweek magazines, and are featured in two books: Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan and Light in the Desert: Photographs From the Monastery of Christ in the Desert . Pasatiempo : What are you showing at Verve?
Tony O’Brien: It’s my most current work, work that I hope to continue. When I went in 2013, it was more of a quick in-and-out. I was in Jordan for close to two weeks. I was doing work for an organization. Pasa: What organization?
O’Brien: Relief International. They had asked me to photograph in the camps in Jordan and to collect stories. I’m referring to this show as sketches because, to me, it’s the beginning of a longer project.
Pasa: How are things going for all of those refugees from Syria?
O’Brien: There is now a second camp in Jordan, out in the middle of nowhere. Well, Zaatari, where I went, is in the middle of nowhere, but this new one is really out in the middle of nowhere. It’s taking some of the pressure off Zaatari. I think now there are probably about 600,000 refugees in Jordan, and I think it’s higher in Lebanon. When I went to the camp, there were about 200,000 refugees, and it was the second-largest refugee camp in the world.
Relief International does a lot of work with education and hygiene, so I was looking at those things. I was not only in the refugee camp, but I went into some of the cities and into makeshift camps that just pop up, with families that do not want to be in a camp. I think that is about loss of dignity, and to be out on your own makes you feel you haven’t had to go into a camp and follow all the rules, where you become dependent and you’re told what to do.
People only thought they were coming for a few weeks, then they realize they can’t go back for a long
time, and there’s a sense of hopelessness. Another problem in the camps is who do you trust? The government has people in the camps. There are factions trying to recruit people to fight. But the other reality is that the longer you’re in a camp, it becomes sort of a home for fighters. It gives you something to do. You’re young, and it gives you meaning. Pasa: Who had to leave Syria? Was it people living near the border? Was it entire families? O’Brien: It has become every segment now. It started in the cities with rebellions, and people would flee their homes; then they began fleeing different factions in other parts of the country.
I would ask people in the camp what was the most important thing they brought back, and some would say pictures of their families. I had in my mind the little snapshots of the grandparents, and I could take photos of them holding the pictures, but then they would pull out their cellphones and show me! Pasa: You’re focusing on children with your selection for this show. O’Brien: One thing I find with children is they speak the truth. And education is so important, because it’s the children who are going to be able to rebuild Syria. In some of these stories, people are saying: “We’re trying to make a future for the children by offering them a good education,” “Without an education, there will be no future for Syria,” and “These children are the future.” I guess, too, in all of this, it’s the resilience of human beings that is remarkable to me. This is a country of people being displaced, losing their homes, and trying desperately to maintain their identities. Pasa: It’s hard to imagine the cultural void that people must be enduring in tent cities like this. O’Brien: There is nothing to do. You have nothing to do, unless you happen to be able to be working with an organization or volunteering for an organization. Pasa: Where do they get food? O’Brien: It comes from the United Nations, and it’s distributed in the camps. You get a food ration.
There may be 75,000 left now in Zaatari. Some have left, including integrating into society in Jordan. Some of them left Syria with money, and they think they’ll find work in the cities. But there are some of the same issues you have in other places regarding immigration and immigrant workers: Who are these people? They’re taking our jobs. In Zaatari there is now a commercial district where you can buy TVs and clothes and swamp coolers. In another section is like the local mafia. It’s a city. Pasa: Have you been to Syria as well? O’Brien: I went there in about 2007 to teach photo workshops in Damascus and Aleppo. I wish I could have spent more time. I got touched by Syria and the people. I really did, and I wasn’t expecting it. For one thing, that part of the world takes you back in time. In Damascus, all of a sudden you’re walking on the same stones that St. Paul walked on. It’s like, whoa!
I had shows there of my Afghanistan work. In Aleppo it was at a gallery, but in Damascus the U.S. embassy was attacked just before the opening, so they ended up holding it at the U.S. Agency for International Development offices, in a gallery at the embassy. Pasa: Are you planning to go back to the refugee camps?
O’Brien: I am. I was going to go last summer, but that’s when things really fell apart in the Middle East and there were a lot of problems in Lebanon [which is home to more than a million Syrian refugees]. I hope to go this summer, and I’d actually like to try to create an internship for some students here. It would be in the photography department, in our new media journalism track, to take photos and collect stories, to step out in the world.