Palestinian lives via homemade cameras

BEIRUT: Lying in hospital, 17-year-old Leila can’t see a future for herself. After her father died, her mother lapsed into depression. Then Wissam, the grandson of her neighbor in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Shemali, seduced her. When she realized she was pregnant, she attempted suicide by jumping of the roof of her mother’s house. Now, the whole camp is talking about Leila and her uncle plans to have her institutionalized.

Leila’s story is fictional, but the authors – 12 young refugees aged between 12 and 15 who live in Burj al-Shemali – based their narrative on the realities of life in the camp.

The story, and the 60 black-and-white photographs that accompany it, is the fruit of a project carried out in the camp last summer by UNRWA and the Abaad Resource Center for Gender Equality.

Some 180 photographs will be exhibited Thursday at Sanayeh Gardens, where Abaad and UNRWA will be handing out copies of three booklets. Each contains 60 black-and-white photos, accompanied by a fictional story penned by the young participants, who will be reading their narratives aloud.

Photographer Dalia Khamissy conducted eight days of training with the young photographers over a period of four weeks. She taught them how to make and operate a pinhole camera, before sending them out to roam the narrow alleyways of the camp in search of images to use in a project focusing on discrimination and gender-based violence.

“The pinhole camera works using light and carbon fiber paper,” explains Roula El-Masri, gender equality program manager at Abaad. “They built their own cameras using cardboard boxes. "They coloured the inside of the box in black and made a big hole in it, which they covered with thick black tape. They made a small hole with a pin in the tape that would allow the light to enter for almost 15 seconds in order to take the photograph."

“It’s a do-it-yourself camera,” Abaad’s information and communication manager Mohammad Cheblak adds. “Anyone can do it by recycling a box or a tin. It doesn’t require any electronics ... It was used to show the participants that they can create a fully functioning device out of things they find at home. "The only thing they need is a processing lab and the right photo sensitive support." 

The organizers set up a darkroom in the camps’ Women’s Program Center, run by UNRWA, where Khamissy conducted her training sessions.

“On the first day of training,” Cheblak says, “concepts of gender equality, gender roles and discrimination were discussed with participants, who narrated real-life examples of how men and women in their surroundings are brought up to meet socially constructed gender roles and values. Then, the participants were taught the basics of photography.”

Khamissy helped the participants develop the photos, and gave them tips and feedback.

“The cameras were used to capture moments reflecting different aspects of participants’ lives in the camp,” Cheblak explains. “The photographs were thus used as a platform for youth to express the perceived dynamics of gender relations and gender inequalities existing in their community.”

The resulting photographs don’t capture incidents of domestic violence. On the contrary, most focus not on the people dwelling in the camp – many of whom prefer not to be photographed – but on its architecture.

Several shots capture the graveyard, an open field peppered with scrub bushes and headstones. Others are taken from rooftops and provide views over the ramshackle buildings. Many were shot in the narrow alleyways between houses, where strong shadows cut through the sunlight, forming abstract patterns on the walls and ground.

When human figures are photographed, they are captured at a distance, often with their backs to the viewer. Thanks to the homemade cameras, many of the photographs are slightly blurred, and some are printed in negative, giving the project an artistic, ghostly feel.

The circular hole through which the light passes to make the image creates curved shadows around the edges of the photographs, directing the viewer’s gaze to the center of the composition. At times, light has leaked into the edge of the frame in rays like sunbeams, imbuing the pictures with a dreamy, old-fashioned quality.

Masri explains that the project aims not only to draw attention to issues of discrimination, gender-based violence and women’s rights, but to raise awareness about the lives of Burj al-Shemali’s children.

“This is one of the Palestinian camps that is actually not being given full attention compared to others in Lebanon,” she says, “in terms of activism or visibility. The youth in the camp need more attention – it’s different from those in Burj al-Barajneh or Shatila.”

“Shadows of Alleys” will run at the Sanayeh Gardens, Beirut Aug. 28 from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. For more information, please call 01-283-820.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 26, 2014, on page 16.




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