MANSOURIEH: Fourteen-year-old Ochinka proffers a postcard of an old woman fishing at the Beirut seafront. With her stockinged feet set in a wide stance, the old woman leans her shoulder toward the sea, steadying her submerged pole against the waves.“I was 11 when I took the picture,” Ochinka said of the somber image, captured in sharp focus.
Ochinka, along with many other pupils at the Dar al-Awad orphanage in Mansourieh, learned the fundamentals of photography at an on-site photo club led by American social worker Kahlil Pfaff.
“You know they’re at risk, very vulnerable,” Pfaff said of his students, who come from broken or deeply impoverished homes. “Some of them have been sexually abused in their homes or in their communities. Some of them have just experienced trauma. How can we give them a voice that goes beyond them talking?”
To address this, Pfaff started the photo club several years ago.
“They take pictures of what’s important to them,” Pfaff explained. “It’s a way to give these kids a chance to express themselves and tell a story.”
The class has evolved from humble beginnings three years ago.
“We had kind of a ragtag collection of cameras,” Pfaff recalled of the first year. “Sometimes, we were having to tape them shut to keep the battery in.”
While a drawer full of semifunctional donated cameras and mismatched memory cards attests to the early challenges, students now have a handful of newish Fuji and Olympus models.
Pfaff, who took photography classes in college, has encouraged children to go beyond the basics of point and shoot.
Abboud, who will be 10 years old next month, eagerly explains the “rule of thirds,” a principle of photo composition. Using his fingers as horizon lines, he explains how he captures scenes of life at the orphanage.
The class, Pfaff says, “has given them [students] the ability to properly compose a photograph, to know how to use the camera without just hitting auto.”
But creativity is not the only skill cultivated at photo club.
While the club isn’t expressly a therapeutic exercise, Pfaff says students learn transferrable lessons through their participation.
“We start off every club meeting going over the rules of photo club. And then we continue to instill that in the child,” Pfaff explained.
“If someone doesn’t want their pictures taken, you don’t take their picture. ... We teach kids about respecting people’s boundaries.”
At the end of the year, club members go on a field trip. On a previous trip to the corniche, the rule of thirds was far from the only lesson learned during the day.
“The first time we went to the corniche, we probably had one of our more diverse groups,” Pfaff explained. “We had Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Sudanese kids. We had Ochinka, who is from the Ivory Coast.”
Suspicious passers-by launched racist abuse at the group demanding to know why “foreigners” were photographing Beirut, particularly at a time of heightened security.
“The kids responded well,” Pfaff said. “It was a life lesson.”
The children’s photos, which the orphanage sometimes uses in promotional materials, have given them a sense of pride.
Pfaff posts his student’s photos across social media and uses Web analytics to see who has viewed them.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to say, ‘You guys have gotten 200 hits over the last week or two and they’re looking at your pictures,’” Pfaff said. “We can boost confidence in these kids.”