Entering the Syrian refugee camp Zaatari in the north of Jordan, by now the second-largest refugee camp in the world, the eye-catching scenery mirrors most other such camps – children in dirty clothes playing on the dirt roads, tents and temporary structures, mothers carrying water home and blank-eyed old men sitting and smoking.
Forbidden to leave the camp, these displaced people, whose identity regardless of their previous status, occupation and class in Syria, is now reduced to “refugee”, are easy prey for the journalists, photographers, filmmakers, international donors and Jordanian government officials circling the camp during visiting hours, scouting for photo opportunities, news stories or testimonies for their appeals to request more money for their organisations or the government.
“You give me a lollipop so you can take my picture,” a young boy challenged a filmmaker. A photographer working for Save the Children in the camp said he witnessed angry people who chased him away and colleagues whose cameras were stolen or broken by camp residents.
“You come here to get our stories so you can make money from it,” a teenager said, refusing to have his picture taken by a photographer from the Jordan Times newspaper.
Walking around the camp with my own camera, I experienced children posing for me and then asking for money; they, too, know their value for the media professionals who have come to tell the world about their existence.
But in a big tent, in one of the 50 youth spaces in the camp, a group of five girls, between the ages of 15 and 20, discuss which photos from a pile on the table are “good”.
They have received training twice a week for three months in composition, storytelling, interview techniques and other elements of photojournalism by the French photographer Agnes Montanari. She runs three groups of 50 students, of whom 28 are girls.
In the camp, girls attend school from 8am to 11.30am and boys from 12.30pm to 4pm. But when school is over, the dull life of the dusty camp awaits. The photography programme is one of Save the Children’s after-school activities for the youth.
In the beginning, the students photographed their daily lives with disposable cameras. In the second phase of the training, everyone has received a digital point-and-shoot camera and an audio recorder. The advanced students are now creating portraits from the camp based on their photos and recordings.
It’s their time to document the life of the camp, the way they see it and to their own benefit.
“We came here to spend our time in a useful manner because photography is the only thing that backed up the revolution. We managed to communicate to the world what happened in Syria and that is very important to us,“ said 16-year-old Noor from Al Tadamon in Syria. Her 15-year-old sister Iman said that when she returns to Syria she wants to apply her skills there.
“My hope is to be a journalist, I would love that. I came to the school here for that,” she said. The same dream holds true for the rest of the girls in the course.
“My hobby was originally photo-graphy and I came here to build on that. When I return to Syria, I want to do the same as Agnes,” said 20-year-old Sanaa from Dara’a.
Their work is being published this month in Now and Then, a book edited by Montanari and financed by Unicef and Save the Children. The first part is illustrated by drawings of memories from Syria, the second on the photographs from the camp.
“Life doesn’t stop because you are here, it’s just another experience. So make sure it’s your life,” Montanari told the students.
One photo shows a girl pushing a wheelbarrow with a child. “They are our pushcarts in the camp” is the accompanying caption.
“They have access to things we don’t see; it’s extremely important that they tell their own stories. This way they become actors, not just victims,” Montanari said.
The next step is to create a photo agency in the camp that will offer photographs for the media and produce a newsletter for the “residents”.