A Beirut-based NGO is training children in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps to take photographs of camp life in the belief that the exercise is cathartic for the children, will benefit the camps financially and lead some of the trainees to work professionally as photographers.
The idea of getting children to photograph camp life struck Ramzi Haidar after a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, and led him to start the Zakira project.
"Kids are kids, they are the same everywhere,” he said. “They have the same needs, regardless of whether they are Iraqi, Palestinian, Lebanese or something else. And, if they go through war or other difficult experiences, they need to express what they have seen."
Haidar believes suffering in the Palestinian camps is on a par with what he had seen in Iraq where children had to put up with things no child should, and without any creative or intellectual outlets to deal with them. "I started thinking about how to work with photography in order to express such experiences,” he told IRIN.
Through Zakira, hundreds of children now have the chance to do this through photography. The NGO has carried out two projects so far: `Lahza’, which means “glimpse” or “moment” in Arabic, and the sequel, ‘After Lahza’.
During `Lahza’, Zakira organized workshops in all of Lebanon’s Palestinian camps; 500 children were taught basic photography skills, given disposable cameras and asked to photograph camp life.
A selection of the pictures taken, capturing everything from the distinctive narrow alleys and grey concrete houses in the camps to family and friends, were published. The income generated, which goes back to the Palestinian community, has so far helped pay for a football field and the floor and mirrors of a `Debke’ (folk dance) studio in Lebanon’s largest camp, Ein el-Helweh.
The ‘After Lahza’ project uses photography as a means of expression and to bring people together. More than 250 teenagers - Lebanese and Palestinians – have gained advanced photography skills at three-month workshops in Beirut, Tripoli, Saida, Sur and Baalbek.
Zakira is also looking ahead: “What we hope to do next is to set up photo studios in Beirut, Tripoli, Saida, Sur and Baalbek's camps,” said one of the founders, Rima Abushakra. “Many of the teenagers who we worked with during After Lahza are high school dropouts. They discovered that they have a talent for photography and now want to develop it and gain income from it.
"This is great, because in the camps, just like everywhere, there is a market for photographers," she added. "People need photos for their ID cards, and when they get married and want wedding pictures."
The workshops are an opportunity to improve photography skills, and build new relationships. The skills learnt also represent an economic opportunity in the camps: As a stateless community, the refugees have a tough time accessing education and employment.
"We saw many things in the youth we trained: Talent, determination, a quest for self-expression," Abushakra said. "Many of them are now enthusiastic about working with photography.”
One trainee has had several of her pictures published in a Lebanese newspaper, and another has been assigned as an events photographer in his camp. The project has held exhibitions in Dublin, Athens, Washington and Paris.
Palestinians make up nearly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population of about 4.2 million, but live on the margins of society, according to observers. Despite having lived here since 1948, most still live in camps and face poverty, discrimination and social exclusion.
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