x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Beyond the frame

Feature Photographs of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps have at times proven exploitative and unhelpful for the subjects in front of the lens. We look at the projects aiming to put photographic skills in the hands of the camps' youth.

One of the most shocking images in the <i>Lahza</i> book is the 12-year-old Rasha Ali Abdallah's picture of a little girl in pink sweatpants seated on a set of concrete stairs in Nahr al Bared.
One of the most shocking images in the <i>Lahza</i> book is the 12-year-old Rasha Ali Abdallah's picture of a little girl in pink sweatpants seated on a set of concrete stairs in Nahr al Bared.

When Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh first started organising photography workshops in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, she recalls, "I was 20 years old and naive." With a friend and fellow photographer, Simon Lourié, who is French, she initiated six workshops in six camps in the summer of 2001. The participants were 100 children. "We were stupid," says Eid-Sabbagh. "We gave kids cameras and sent them out to take pictures. On every roll of film that came back there were kids with guns." The children's pictures were probably meant to shock their foreign guests. "You want life in the camps? Here it is." Then, to underscore the point that such children's photography projects are more complicated than their feel-good factor, a 10-year-old boy stepped up to Eid-Sabbagh and said: "You won't come back. We know."

"That's when you realise there were photographers who came before," she says. "These kids think something is going to be taken from them. Their pictures, their time, the cameras they might have hoped were theirs to keep. "But these kids should be given to." What went wrong? Eid-Sabbagh's workshops adhered to the model of what is commonly referred to as "participatory photography", the practice of putting cameras into the hands of the disenfranchised and deprived. The idea of participatory photography - which was pioneered in the 1970s by the American photographer Wendy Ewald - is to empower marginalised segments of society through workshops that promote self-expression. Participatory photography, particularly as it has been exercised in the Middle East over the last five years, has also come to serve as an antidote to mainstream media coverage, giving people who are typically photographed by others and depicted as anonymous victims the opportunity to make images of their own and to document the intricacies of their lives for themselves.

The problem Eid-Sabbagh faced among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, however, was that too many photographers, primarily foreigners, had already come and done the same thing. They handed out cameras and disappeared with the prints. Aside from a few days of tinkering with new toys, the children who took part in their workshops never got any benefit from them, nor did they know what became of their pictures, where they were shown, to whom they were sold or what the money was used for outside of funding further adventures for the photographers themselves.

In Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, Eid-Sabbagh concluded, the participatory photography model was broken. So she decided to give it a re-think. She researched the issue and decided that in order to succeed, the workshops needed to be longer, more involved, more sustainable and closer to home. They also needed to give something back to the kids who participated in them. In these ideas, she was not alone. Eid-Sabbagh is part of a new generation of photography projects focusing less on the tragedy of Palestinian refugees and more on the acquisition of meaningful, even bankable, skills.

There are more than 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and 12 official refugee camps. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) does not administer the camps but does run education programmes and provide health and social services in all of them. Due to the terms of the Cairo Agreement, which was signed in 1969, the Lebanese army holds no sovereignty over the camps. As a result, they are armed to the teeth and policed by an overheated network of militant groups, political factions and ragtag militias.

The camps are also a major attraction for photojournalists and foreign correspondents, to the extent that one might argue that Palestinian refugees are already overexposed. The Beirut-born, Boston-based photographer Rania Matar, who is currently exhibiting her work at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art in a show for the nominees of the James and Audrey Foster Prize, has built up an extensive and sensitively produced body of work documenting the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. But she is bracingly articulate about the difficulties of such work. Only once, early on, did she actually take an organised tour of refugee camps.

"It was awful," she says. "We were on this huge bus. So like 20 people get off and all of them lift up their cameras. I mean, I felt like we going to the zoo with everybody taking pictures." After that, Matar teamed up with NGO efforts and took her time meeting people one on one and getting to know them. At this point, she has established long-term relationships with the families she has photographed. Whenever she returns to Lebanon with her family of six, they bring three bags for themselves and nine bags of donations for the people she knows in the camps. She visits; she comes back, she makes sure her subjects have copies of her prints.

The camps are also crawling with earnest NGO efforts. While the majority of them focus on the provision of basic services, the number of NGO-affiliated participatory photography projects has mushroomed in recent years. Some of the more successful examples include Save the Children's Eye to Eye project, which ran until 2003 and focused on child labour issues, and Lens on Lebanon, a multifaceted grassroots documentary initiative that was established in response to the Israeli bombardment and siege of Lebanon during the summer of 2006. Lens on Lebanon runs workshops with Iraqis as well as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and mounts regular exhibitions and screening sessions in Beirut. (Matar is one of many photographers in the Lens on Lebanon network.)

Meanwhile, the newly formed Zakira Image Festival Association recently mounted a high-profile exhibition (at Masrah al Madina in Beirut) and published a coffee-table book on sale in Abu Dhabi (entitled Lahza by Amers Editions) based on a premise of "500 cameras for 500 children". Zakira (which means "memory" in Arabic) is an NGO that promotes photography as an art form, a professional skill and "a means of honest reporting" in Lebanon, according to its mission statement. The brainchild of the photographer Ramzi Haidar, the Lahza project involved workshops in all 12 of Lebanon's refugee camps, and the book features 141 images taken by children aged six to 12. It is a haunting tome, at times tender and at others tragic. It is also one of the few collections of images that truly brings home the impact of the fighting in the Nahr al Bared camp that raged through the summer of 2007. One of the most shocking images in the book is the 12-year-old Rasha Ali Abdallah's picture of a little girl in pink sweatpants seated on a set of concrete stairs, cheek in fist and eyes askance, with a tumble of wreckage towering behind her.

Haidar has filled the ranks of Zakira with a robust group of volunteers, including the architect Mona Hallak and the journalist Rima Abushakra. Together, they have sent the Lahza exhibition on tour. It went on view at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace in November, where in coincided with two concerts by the legendary musician and advocate on behalf of Palestine, Marcel Khalife. The Dubai gallery Cuadro has 15 images from the project in stock and on sale. The show is travelling to a gallery in Tunis and to Princeton University in New Jersey. Abushakra says efforts are underway to take the exhibition to New York and Washington DC, as well as to Ramallah and Jerusalem. (The last two stops are difficult, she admits, "because none of us can go there so it's a bit of a problem". Technically, Lebanese citizens are barred from travelling to Israel. As a result, they cannot access the Palestinian territories.) All proceeds from the sale of books and prints go back into Lahza and a second project, slated to begin in February, called Ma Ba3d al Lahza (which means "after Lahza").

While Lahza gave disposable cameras to relatively young children, Ma Ba3d al Lahza seeks to engage youngsters aged 14 to 18, and the cameras will not be throwaways this time around. The emphasis is on professional training, and the five scheduled workshops are also geared not only to Palestinians but to low-income Lebanese as well. "We're trying to break that apartheid in Lebanon," says Abushakra, in reference to the stark divisions between the country's Lebanese and Palestinian residents. "Poverty is poverty, and lack of skills is lack of skills, no matter which community you belong to. Ma Ba3d al Lahza addresses the isolation between the two communities."

Abushakra says the Zakira project did not encounter the same hesitancy or scepticism as Eid-Sabbagh, but she notes that while Lahza involved meeting with groups of kids five or six times in total, Ma Ba3d al Lahza is set to include three solid months of training, with sessions twice a week. The idea is to develop photography skills that young people could use to secure potential sources of income.

With Lahza, she says: "We went in and asked them to draw first. Then we brought out the cameras. We also worked with a local non-profit - the General Federation of Palestinian Women in Lebanon - so the project already had a local face. We didn't just get in and go. We also gave them the pictures. We sat with them and talked with them." They also realised the kids could use more. "We got a glimpse into their lives, but what did we give them? A hobby? This was the motivation for the next project. It's about developing skills and a means of self-expression. It's also a way of telling them: 'We're here, we're in touch, we didn't just disappear.'"

Likewise, after her experience in 2001, Eid-Sabbagh left Lebanon discouraged and disappointed. But she did come back, and she did try again. In 2005, she relocated to Lebanon more or less full-time. Instead of renting a fashionably dishevelled pied-à-terre in the cosmopolitan capital Beirut, she took up residence in Burj al Shemmali, a refugee camp established in 1956 and located just south of the port city of Tyre. Instead of doing roving, one-off workshops, she started laying down the infrastructure for a long-term, sustainable project based out of a single studio. Instead of giving disposable cameras to 100 children in six camps, she convinced Olympus to give her a dozen, fixed-lens, 35-millimetre cameras and handed them out to 10 teenagers living in Burj al Shemmali.

She also did a fair bit of self-reflection, devoting an entire course of study to the questions raised by the 2001 workshops. In her academic work for the Ecole Nationale Superieure Louis-Lumière in France, she analysed the participatory photography model - using projects in locations such as Kosovo, Kenya, Mali, Morocco and Gaza as case studies - and constructed an alternative, which she terms collaborative photography. Among other things, collaborative photography puts the entire process of producing and circulating images into the hands of the participants themselves.

Since 2005, Eid-Sabbagh's group of 10 teenagers has grown to 20. They don't take assignments but rather decide what they want to photograph and how. They review contact sheets (Eid-Sabbagh's only insistence is that they shoot with film - "On a contact sheet, you cannot lie," she says). They make prints they organise exhibitions. Putting together shows means that they curate their own work and determine whether or not it is culturally, politically or socially appropriate to show certain images outside of the immediate context in which they were taken. If necessary, they go to the people they have photographed and ask for their acquiescence. They give prints to their families, friends and neighbours.

"We're trying to do something close to the people," she says, "not take anything away from them."

Lahza is available for purchase online at @email:www.antoineonline.com @email:www.neelwafurat.com and @email:www.amazon.com

Prints are available for viewing and purchase at Cuadro Fine Arts at DIFC, Dubai, 04 425 0400, @email:info@cuadroart.com @email:www.cuadroart.com