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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.

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