AIN AL-HILWEH: With its reputation for radicalism, lawlessness, weapons caches and the hatching of plans, Ain al-Hilweh - the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, located on the edge of Sidon like a wormhole into a tangled, micro-urban maze - is known for a lot of things. Art exhibitions certainly aren't among them, yet on Saturday evening a community center tucked deep into the camp hosted a promising show of photographs by 10 local teenagers.
The title of the exhibition, "Sweet Eye," is a play on words - the name Ain al-Hilweh translates from Arabic to English as "sweet spring," though the word for the water source is the same as the one for "eye." The show marked the culmination of a five-day workshop held last month and led by Ziad Antar, an artist who has, for several years now, championed the notion of bringing art out of its elite pockets and into the streets and urban spaces beyond Beirut.
"The idea is to create here," says Antar, pointing two index fingers toward the ground. "Always taking and making art in the street because it belongs in the street. For this," he adds, gesturing around the room where about 40 photographs are hanging on the walls, "we said whatever we do, it should be done here.
"The exhibition itself took one day to put up - very fast and very homemade. We did the aluminum frames here, at a shop in the area," he says, tapping the corner of one and then pulling it off the wall to show the craftsmanship on its backside. "And look, it isn't even aluminum for frames, it's aluminum for shelves." He grins, proud of his team's ingenuity.
To run the workshop, the Hariri Foundation teamed up with the Association for Young Palestinian Refugees, a local NGO that hosts regular summer camps and, during the academic year, fills in the gaps of young people's education by providing them with a place to study and do their homework after school.
Antar began the workshop with a heavy dose of pedagogy. He invited the critic and curator Rasha Salti to write a text on the history of photography for the 10 students to read, consider and learn. He showed a collection of videos by older artists who draw heavily on photographs and archival images in their work, to give the students a sense of the avenues photography can open.
Then each student had to learn the ins and outs of using a manual Canon or Nikon camera - aperture, shutter speed and the stuff of film rather than digital ease or expediency.
Antar gave his students a series of assignments - make a portrait, photograph a fan, take a picture from your balcony toward the sea every day at 9 a.m. Their "homework" is on display for "Sweet Eye," alongside six pictures by Antar and a terrific series by Ramzi Hachicho, a graphic designer from Sidon who has been taking photographs for about three years now. Hachicho's 11 images each frame a jar of pickles with the cool, dead-on documentary approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher warmed up by the vibrant colors of, say, labneh balls soaked to a sharp tang in olive oil with lemon juice and thyme.
One of Antar's images is a still life with cigarette packs - Marlboro Reds, Royals, a retro carton of Uniteds - all arranged in a bowl at a home opened to receive condolence calls.
A second group of photographs features colorful, patterned, preciously folded and twisted fabrics. Antar asked five of his female students to arrange their headscarves on a white sheet in a shape of their choosing. Then he photographed each piece of fabric like a pensive artifact. But what really drives the creativity of the exhibition is the ways in which Antar's students interpreted his assignments. The fan photographs - by Mahmoud Breish, Amal Jomaa, Rana Jardali, Jana Jardali and Hanan Saadeh - are beautifully abstract and, on an evening of faltering power supply and almost impossibly damp heat and still air, quite mischievous in their intimation of ventilation.
Equally accomplished and moving are the portraits - a young girl with her head back and arms splayed, a grandmother posed with grapes and figs and a set of triptychs that turn a failure to focus into an aesthetic asset. One such triptych boldly translates the assignment into three images that catch the reflection of the young photographer's flash against a spare, shiny white wall.
"We rarely see with our eyes," writes Rasha Salti in a text that accompanied the exhibition. "We usually see with our culture, our political affiliation, our beliefs, our heart, our virtues and our vices. We see with the lens of ideology more often than our eyes.
"Photography is not only about making a reproduction of how the world unravels in front of our eyes, in front of the lens in front of our eyes, it is not only about re-creating a subject, recording a moment, making a document or telling a story, it is also about re-creating ourselves, no longer seeing as we do, no longer being as we are."
The point of "Sweet Eye," Antar explains, was not to indoctrinate a generation of future photographers but rather to lay out the critical tools for young people - too often spoken for while left unseen - to see their lives differently, humorously, affectionately and, perhaps most importantly, completely by and for themselves.