I have waited way too long to share this post with you and I am not really sure why. Part of it was the hectic days that followed my trip to Lebanon, an almost immediate departure on our trip to Nicaragua, followed by hurricane Irma and then the post-hurricane mayhem at work in the ED. But in the end it all boils down to the fact that I’ve avoided sitting my butt down and actually writing what I’ve been wanting to write and sharing the images I’ve been wanting to share. Blame it on my laziness! However, in the end, since I do love sharing my photographic stories, I just couldn’t put this off any longer.
To start off, arriving at the refugee camps felt quite surreal to me. The particular site we visited was literally right outside the Syrian border. I just couldn’t believe how close we’ve gotten to the place that’s been frequenting the media in the recent years – and not in a positive way. But as with almost every encounter on this trip, the proximity of Syria turned out not to be a terrifying experience at all. As a matter of fact, we stopped for a latte at a completely modern Starbucks café just couple of miles from the border. A group of young, stylish twenty something year olds were sitting at the outside table, sipping espressos and sharing cigarettes. For a moment I felt I was in the US and not in the Middle East next to a war torn country.
The camps looked exactly like I had imaged them to look – small groups of tarp tents clustered together alongside a dirt road. It was incredibly hot and dusty on the way there and I felt very grateful for the AC in my friend’s car. Almost as soon as we got out of the vehicle, we got surrounded by a large group of children. Everyone seemed excited to see us. We first met with the camp’s chief to asses the biggest needs of this particular camp. We had a translator with us, but I just couldn’t focus on the conversation. Feeling slightly overwhelmed and yet incredibly excited at being there, I kept running possible images in my head, images that I couldn’t wait to start making. It’s just the way I am when photographing in a new and exciting place: I can barely focus on anything else. Fortunately soon enough I was able to just start shooting.
In addition to my Nikon DSLR, I have also brought two Fuji Instax cameras to the camps with me, because I wanted to leave something tangible with the people who let me photograph them; sort of a thank you token in a form of a Polaroid snapshot. As I started to make my first “regular” photographs inside the main tent, Monia took out the Instax. And of course that’s when all the mayhem started! The kids LOVED the Instax camera! Everyone tried to get in front of it. I brought a lot of film with me, but we were going through it faster than expected. At some point we had to put it away I my backpack to take a break from the swarms of children fighting each other to get in front of the Instax lens. It was madness! A good madness, as I may say, but madness regardless. Thankfully, despite the preoccupation with the Instax camera, I had no trouble finding subjects for my “regular” photographs. I wanted to focus on capturing portraits and that is precisely what I did.
I was very lucky, because the light inside the tents was absolutely beautiful. The diffuse open shade underneath partial covering is perfect for capturing portraits. I did not need any special speed lights, diffusers or fill ins. This natural diffused light produced catch lights in the eyes and added a wonderful warm glow to all the faces. I tried to take as many portraits as possible inside these makeshift homes.
We also photographed outside the tents, but the light was a bit too direct and too harsh for my personal taste. I could see the potential of the photographs taken at a different time of the day. I imagined the setting sun behind the mountains, the backlight dirt roads glowing in the distance…I will have to come back to capture such images at another time.
The few hours we spent at the camps were incredibly emotionally and physically exhausting to me. I focused mostly on photography, because my main reason for being there was to bring back images for an upcoming fundraiser. A fundraiser that will ultimately help the people that welcomed me and my camera into their lives, however briefly. To be completely honest though, I wish I had more time to spend with the Syrian people. I’ll be the first to admit that you cannot create a meaningful body of work by spending minimal amount of time with the subjects you are photographing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take what I can and make the absolute best of it – regardless of time, circumstances or any constraints. But I do wish I could have talked to the people more, not just to photograph them. I wish I could hear their story as it comes from their heart. To learn more about their dreams and hopes for the future…Conversations like these take time and patience.
As I looked into the faces of the smiling children, I hoped for a better future for them regardless of where they may end up. So much of what happens to us in life is a result of the circumstances we were born into. A girl born in a remote Syrian village or a refugee camp may never have the same opportunities as a girl born in a European city, for example. And children displaced by war are much less likely to get proper education and more likely to be recruited into extremist groups, whose empty promises for a better life are not far in between. In this way, the refugee crisis affects all of us in one way or another, regardless of how far we may live from the camps and the people who occupy them.
I have no regrets regarding my trip to Lebanon. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to travel there again. I would love to return to the camps and to explore the entire country more, especially the city of Beirut. Before I had agreed to go there, I knew absolutely nothing about the place. All I knew was its location in the Middle East and the stories I’ve created in my head about how dangerous it is. And judging by the conversations I’ve had with family and friends, I was not the only one who felt this way. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience is to never, ever judge a place before I do my research on it and actually decide to visit it. I used to consider myself a pretty well rounded and open traveler, but now I know that I still have a lot of places to visit before I can consider myself as such.
And what about you guys? What has been the most challenging trip or encounter you have experienced that has completely changed your outlook on the place or event?
Let me know in the comments or message me – I’d love to hear your story…