Friday, February 29, 2008-- BEIRUT: On the outskirts of Beirut, narrow alleyways cut through the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. A maze of electricity cables connect one concrete block and another. Sewage pours continuously through a small gray construction, filling the street with nauseating stench. Not a pretty sight, unless you have a camera, and skill.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that familiar idea motivated the Lebanese non-governmental organization (NGO) Zakira to bring the art of photography to the children here.
It's another way of looking at a world of enormous piles of rubbish, where gunmen and fratricidal wars are common, and where a permanent state of lawlessness reigns. A group of Lebanese photojournalists now gives these children the opportunity to forget their surroundings through the world of photography.
Zakira founder Ramzi Haidar, a photographer for Agence France Press, looked at violence while on assignment in Iraq through the eyes of Iraqi children who had no creative outlet to express their curiosity, emotions or frustrations. His experience in the war-torn country inspired him to make a difference in his native Lebanon.
"On Haidar's return to Lebanon, he decided to bring the art of photography to Lebanon's most marginalised community - the children in Palestinian refugee camps," said Rima Abu Chakra from Zakira.
Through "Lahza" (glimpse), its first project, the NGO seeks to identify young Palestinians with talent, and help them develop their skill. "Around 500 children from all Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon have acquired basic photography skills through this program," says Abu Chakra. "Most of these kids, who live in unimaginably harsh conditions, have been asked to portray life in the camps as they see it."
The NGO provides children from ages seven to 12 with disposable cameras and basic guidance. "We learned to use the camera, focus and pick our subject. It was very exciting," says Hiba, 10, from the Shatila camp.
"Photographers Oussama Ayoub and Bilal Jawish came to the Dbayyeh camp [situated north of Beirut in a mainly Christian area] and trained the children," said Mayssa Basho, a volunteer at the Committee for Development and Support (CDS), a non-profit organisation at the Dbayyeh camp.
Thirty-five children were selected in the Dbayyeh camp to join the program. They were first asked to draw paintings, to determine their likes and dislikes, and what appealed to them before they were given a camera.
"The pictures were unusual for a Palestinian camp, they depicted scenes inspired by nature, the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese flag," said Basho. "This is partly because kids from the Dbayyeh camp identify with the Lebanese, and are very well integrated, unlike in other camps."
Robert, a bright 12-year-old in Dbayyeh, is hugely enthusiastic. "I took pictures of the camp's Christmas tree and our community in church. I chose to show the artistic and beautiful side of people and objects," he said with astounding maturity.
But his pictures do not show just the bright side. "My favorite picture is one of a broken sewage pipe," he added.
The pictures taken in the various camps around Lebanon have highlighted differences in living conditions from one camp to another. "For instance, photographs taken by children in urban camps, such as Shatila or Ain al-Hilweh, differed to a great extent from ones taken in Dbayyeh or Rashidiyeh, which are both rural camps," said Abu Chakra. "While children in the Dbayyeh camp portrayed scenes of nature, others from Ain al-Helweh either portrayed militiamen in the street, or family members, who were photographed indoors. The simple explanation is that many Ain al-Halweh children are not allowed to roam freely around the camp for fear of shootouts."
Hiba, from Shatila, focused on the grim aspect of life. "Most of my work shows the mountains of garbage spread around the camp. It is a very ugly sight that everyone should see," she says, her eyes void of any expression.