Art meets activism: humanizing refugees with photos

BEIRUT: We are saturated with information, whether via conventional or social media. It’s a predicament that plagues NGOs and charity organizations which seek public attention for their projects. In recent months, such agencies have turned to artists for help to raise awareness about the dire circumstances facing the millions of Syrian refugees.

The UNHCR recently collaborated with U.S. fine art photographer Elena Dorfman to produce two photo series on refugees living in rehabilitated houses or informal tent settlements across Lebanon, in Jordan’s Zaatari camp and at the Domiz camp in Iraqi Kurdistan.

One series focuses on the living quarters of refugees forced to improvise housing for themselves. A second, entitled “Syria’s Lost Generation,” consists of portraits of teenagers, accompanied by short captions recounting their stories.

The Danish Refugee Council has turned to photography to raise awareness, commissioning French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui to produce a series of portraits taken in refugee gatherings across Lebanon. Entitled “Natreen” (We Wait), the photographs – along with captions detailing the stories of the subjects – will be exhibited at STATION, near Jisr al-Watti, Friday through Sunday.

Although both photographers work primarily as artists, these images have an agenda: to draw attention to a humanitarian crisis and elicit empathy. Artistically shot, they are different from the thousands of shots photojournalists have taken of Syrian refugees, but the motive behind the work blurs the borders of art and activism.

“My hope in photographing Syrian teens was to connect on a personal level with this refugee population,” Dorfman explains. “I believed that if I could make a connection, others outside of the conflict region could, too.”

Imad Aoun, the DRC communication manager who worked with Alaoui on her series, says the aim of the photographs is to forge a bond between the viewer and the photographed refugees.

“A lot of their stories are hidden behind the statistics and the numbers and the charts,” he says, “so we thought this would be a good opportunity to shed light on them as humans. ... People are very visual. If you don’t see something, it doesn’t exist. So we decided that photography would be a great way to engage with people ... They’re actually very similar to us.”

Alaoui’s series fits into her wider artistic practice. “I’ve been working on migration, refugees and cultural diversity for about six years now,” she explains. “I worked a lot with the UNHCR in Morocco doing photo projects with kids. ... So when I moved, here obviously I wanted to continue on the same subject.

“I try to work with NGOs to get in the field with people who are experienced, to get a better idea of what’s going on. I am more of an anthropologist than a journalist. I have to study and understand what’s what before I take out a camera.”

It usually takes her several months to get to know her subjects before she photographs them, Alaoui says, but for “Natreen,” she traveled with a DRC social worker, who already had a relationship with the subjects, and was able to shoot the whole series in 10 days.

What the refugees she spoke to across the country shared, she says, was a sense of their lives being on hold. “They want to go back but they’re just waiting,” Aoun says. “It’s something that characterizes their life right now, because they’re just in limbo. I think if you keep the title in mind and look at the photos you’ll find that there’s an element of waiting in each one of them.”

Most of Alaoui’s photographs capture the subject looking at the camera, another factor that distinguishes her work from photojournalistic images, which tend to more voyeuristic, fostering less of a personal connection between viewer and subject.

“I don’t want to show them vulnerable and miserable,” she says. “When someone looks at you, you just see a person that is just human and real, strong, beautiful. I don’t want to have a condescending approach.”

Dorfman’s photographs, by contrast, fall outside the scope of her personal practice, which often explores the interplay between reality and make believe.

“I suppose it would fall under activism,” she says of her UNHCR work. “That said, I approached these kids in the exact same way I would any other portrait series: with deep respect and interest in who they are and in the spaces they both physically and emotionally inhabit.”

“I chose to make a series of portraits about Syrian teens because [it] is often an age that falls between the cracks in times of distress,” she elaborates. “Adults are able to make their needs known and children have a variety of services available to them. Teenagers are caught in the middle with their own very specific set of issues.”

“They all wanted to be back on Syrian soil and back in school,” she adds. “They all wanted to walk down the streets that were familiar to them and go home to see their families. As Hani, [a teenager] originally from Homs, put it, ‘I miss drinking coffee with the birds. I miss seeing my brother’s smiles in the morning.’”

Both photographers have succeeded in creating a powerful documentary aesthetic with emotional resonance. As the war continues and the public becomes oversaturated with tales of hardship, the NGOs’ efforts resort to photography may prove the old adage that a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Leila Alaoui’s series “Natreen” opens at STATION, off Jisr al-Watti, Friday at 6 p.m. and will be on show until Dec. 1. For more information, please call 71-794-300. To see more of Elena Dorfman’s work, visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 29, 2013, on page 16.




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