Lahza: Camp life seen through children's eyes

Palestinians in Lebanon have been relegated to a sub-story in the larger Lebanese narrative. An innovative photography project, Lahza, seeks to change that by putting disposable cameras in the hands of children living in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
diana hassan alarid03(2).jpg
Six-year old Diana Hassan Al-Arid, who took this picture in the Rashidiyeh camp, lied about her age to be in the project. © Zakira

BEIRUT, June 11, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lahza is the Arabic word for glimpse. It is an appropriate title for a photographic project that documents moments of life in the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout Lebanon.

In this case, the glimpses are seen through the eyes of 500 Palestinian children ages 7 to 12 who were asked to take disposable point-and-shoot cameras out into the field.

The project was the brainchild of veteran Agence France Press war photographer Ramzi Haidar.

"I had this idea when I was in Baghdad, after the American invasion," he told MENASSAT.

"Many children were left homeless as the U.S. occupation wore on. Those who didn't go to school had nothing to do, and they used to gather around the spots where we journalists were hanging out. I thought: Why don't we teach these kids something they could use to earn their living?"

A book and an exhibition

After several stints in Iraq, Haidar returned to his native Lebanon and launched the non-governmental organization Zakira in 2007.

"We couldn't implement our ideas in Iraq for security reasons, and so I figured that the [Palestinian refugee] camps [in Lebanon] would be a good place to start," he said, given that the Palestinian camps were Lebanon's most marginalized communities.

Last Saturday, eighteen months after training the first group of Palestinian children in the basics of photography, Zakira was able to showcase the results with an exhibition and a book launch at the Medina theater in Hamra.

Razan Hussein Bagdani (9)

Razan Hussein Bagdani stands in front of her photo at the Lahza exhibition. © Zakira

9-year old Razan Hussein Bagdani snapped one of 141 photographs chosen from the nearly 14,000 that Zakira received during the course of the project.

"I photographed my brother, and a kid playing with a (remote controlled) car, someone pointing and a girl eating," she told MENASSAT at the exhibition opening.

"The kids weren't playing because they can't play football in the camp," she said, referring to conditions in the Chatila refugee camp, site of one of the most infamous massacres of the bloody 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

The pictures extend into all areas of camp life, from family portraits over shots of friends playing to pictures of gun-totting young fighters.

Manal Mostafa Diab (7)

Manal Mostafa Diab's picture of the beach at the Rachidiyeh camp. © Zakira

There were also stark reminders of camp life like the image taken by 7-year old Manal Mostafa Diab depicting waves crashing on the beach against the backdrop of a graveyard, the whole thing seen through a window frame from inside an abandoned house.

Diab's picture was taken in the southernmost Palestinian refugee camp Rashidiyeh, 8 km. south of Tyre. The camp is near the beach and is the closest Palestinian camp to what was historic Palestine.

'What the children did really changed me'

As one photojournalist covering the exhibition opening told MENASSAT, "Look how technically perfect the photograph is… the way she purposefully chose the way it was framed. And with only a disposable camera."

Indeed, technically speaking, the photographs challenge even the most trained eyes.

"I have often told some of the photographers who volunteered to help train the children: 'You should go and learn from these kids. Get away from cliché photojournalism. Stick with your innocence instead of going for what will sell.' And some of these trainers work with some of the big local newspapers," Haidar told MENASSAT.

Beyond the technical considerations of the photography are the clear social implications of the work, particularly in Lebanon where countless versions of Lebanese history blame Palestinians for starting the civil war.

"As someone who is from Lebanon and who is used to seeing all the associations of bloodshed and death associated with the civil war and with the on-going conflict in Palestine, what the children did really changed me," said Hanan Dirani, a third-year drama student at the Lebanese University who volunteered to help with the exhibition opening.

"What the children did was reject the narratives of this sadness – not just here but reject the sadness of Iraq and Palestine – mainly through a childlike perspective," she told MENASSAT.

Still, she added, "I don't think this will change how other Lebanese see the Palestinians. Maybe a few, but that's it."

10-year old Ahmad Bilal el-Haj Hassan's picture of Mar Elias Street in West Beirut. © Zakira

Zakira founder Haidar says that such projects simply allow for another form of communication between the Lebanese and the Palestinian societies, which he says is going through a "cold phase" at the moment.

For the Lebanese, there is the stigma attached to the 3-month battle between the Lebanese army and the Sunni Islamist group Fatah Al-Islam, which was holed up in the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared in the summer of 2007.

Segments of the Lebanese society blame Palestinians for allowing Fatah al-Islam into their camp. More than 400 people died in the 105-day siege of the camp, including 168 army soldiers.

Asked whether the project was giving the children false hope that they might be able to do something professionally when Lebanese law restricts Palestinians from holding over 70 jobs in Lebanon, Haidar told MENASSAT, "We will continue with what we can do, but not me nor anyone can solve the problems of an entire community."

"At least we have been able to give them a moment, whether it is five minutes or a day or a month, and we will follow up with these children as more projects come our way. We gave them dreams and this is the best thing the deprived can get," Haidar said.

Diana Hassan Al-Arid (6)

Diana Hassan Al-Arid's picture of a horse in the Rashidiyeh camp. © Zakira

According to Haidar, the inspiration went both ways for all of the volunteers in the project. He told the story of a 6-year old girl, Diana Hassan Al-Arid, who lied about her age in order to participate in the project.

"The picture Diana took of the horse in Rashidiyeh... I said, if for no other reason I will continue with this project so I can exhibit this photograph."

According to Zakira organizers, all the proceeds from the Lahza exhibition will be used as seed money for future media literacy projects.

► Click here for the full interview with Ramzi Haidar: 'These pictures were inside the kids before they took them'

(The Lahza exhibition can be seen at the Medina theater in Hamra Street, Beirut, until June 14.)