For displaced youth living in refugee camps, photography can be an important means of self-expression, a way to share their daily struggles and joy with a global audience. In this post, Lens on Life co-founder Sam Powers describes his experiences teaching photography skills to refugee youth and launching a photography school in the Za’atari refugee camp.
Jack and I first traveled to the Za’atari Refugee Camp in 2017 after receiving a grant from the Catalyst Foundation to teach a photography workshop to thirty youth, ages 14 to 25, who had escaped the ongoing Syrian Civil War. We donated digital cameras and laptops, shared our technical knowledge of photography, and encouraged participants to embrace the medium as a means of self-expression. The harrowing tales of war and fleeing Syria left an enduring impact on us. We were touched by the student’s work, which captured the reality of life in the camp and displayed common feelings of joy, despair, and hope. In particular, the work highlighted that, while many are labeled "refugees," they are as much a part of the human experience as those who lie outside the concrete barriers of the camp.
After our first trip, Jack and I returned to the U.S. with hundreds of photos from our students and set up an exhibit in New York City to showcase the work produced during what came to be known as Operation Za’atari (#opzaatari). Our goal was simple: to raise enough money to support a fully-functioning photography school in the camp alongside our partner, Questscope. We are eternally grateful for the team at Questscope, who welcomed us with open arms and without whom this project would be impossible.
We returned to Za’atari in November 2018 after reaching our initial fundraising goal. We brought more equipment and two volunteers to help guide our second photography course. We set plans in motion to open a full-time photography school in cooperation with Questscope and interviewed prospective teachers, discussed building logistics, and planned our curriculum. In addition, new and returning students learned the principles of photography under the watchful eye of volunteer Michelle Heimerman, a professional photographer and contributing photo editor at publications such as Saveur and Bon Appétit.
During our time in the camp, we met Mohamad Khalf, a 29-year-old refugee from Damascus, Syria. Mohamad worked at a film processing lab in Syria before he fled to Za’atari four years ago and has trained in photography ever since. Mohamad has joined the Lens on Life Project team and is leading the new school that hosts weekly courses in introductory and advanced photography. It is hard to describe the emotions that we felt when we gave Mohamad the news that he would be leading his very own school. The excitement of leading a school was overwhelming for Mohamad at first, but was eventually followed by unbounded enthusiasm.
As we process the emotions from our most recent trip, Jack and I look forward to watching future students use photography as a means of self-expression and income generation. In 2019, the second body of work produced by youth in the camp will be shown in New York to raise funds for the school's continued operation, where the first full academic year course opened for enrollment this January. As the war in Syria continues to unfold with new complexities, the fate of those in camps like Za’atari remains precarious. While we pray for an end to the conflict, it is our hope that Lens on Life Project will continue to serve the youth in Za’atari, and allow them to express themselves and enter a global community of artists to continue their journey.
To read more about Lens on Life’s work in Za’atari, please visit their website here.