By Toni Oyry
(The film Shooting Hope follows a project that uses photography to bring Palestinian and Lebanese teenagers together.
In this article, filmmaker Toni Oyry describes how the teenage residents of impoverished Palestinian refugee camps and their Lebanese peers are learning to see the bigger picture of their neighbouring communities through the lens of a camera)
Pictures of Baghdad flash across a computer screen in a small office in Beirut.
‘Every picture you take stays in your memory, pictures are never forgotten,’ said Ramzi Haidar, an award-winning Lebanese photo-journalist.
This was the start of our journey into the lives of Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers living in the coastal city of Saida in south Lebanon.
The two months we spent following Haidar took us from an office buzzing with volunteer photographers, journalists and artists, to the ancient souks of Saida and the narrow alleyways of Ain al-Helweh, the largest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
The pictures Haidar was showing us told the story of Iraqi orphans abandoned after social institutions collapsed in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion.
Having seen these children lured into the dark world of glue sniffing, drugs and abuse, Haidar wanted to show them that there was still hope.
The idea of using photography training as a method to open their eyes to the surrounding world was born.
‘The security situation kept getting worse very quickly and I had to take the decision not to return to Baghdad. It was too difficult to be there … but the idea stayed with me,’ Haidar told us.
In 2006, he was able to bring the idea to life in his own country.
It began with 500 children living in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps being given disposable cameras and trained in basic photography.
The result was a photography book called Lahza and several international exhibitions of the pictures.
Walls of prejudice
In 2009, the idea was taken to another level when Haidar’s non-profit organisation, Zakira, began a nationwide training programme with the aim of bringing Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers together.
There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, but an invisible wall of prejudice often separates those who live inside the camps and the Lebanese communities that exist just beyond the army-guarded entry points.
Haidar’s project aims to break down those walls and to initiate a process of dialogue between the neighbouring populations.
The year-long programme included all of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and their surrounding Lebanese communities. In total, Zakira trained more than 200 Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers in advanced photography.
We decided to follow their work in Saida.
Ain al-Helweh is often viewed as a breeding ground for militants and a hideout for criminals, but it was the warm hospitality of its residents that greeted us.
Once you pass the Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance to the camp, you cannot help but feel that you have entered another era – images of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, cover the walls.
The camp is known for its weapons and turbulent history, but we were interested in the hundreds of children in brightly coloured school uniforms who poured into its alleyways in the afternoons, the teenagers who gathered on street corners wearing the latest fashions and the youngsters working to help support their families in the camp’s many garages and workshops.
These third generation Palestinians in Lebanon are as energetic and hopeful as any teenagers – the dream many of them share is simply to break away from the poverty of the camp.
But, declining living conditions, political instability and unemployment in and outside the camp have deepened the mutual distrust between the camp’s Palestinian occupants and the wider Lebanese population.
The history between the Lebanese and Palestinian populations of Saida is complex and can be traced back to 1948 when the first Palestinian refugees set their tents up there.
Over the years, PLO fighters have roamed the streets, Lebanese militants have attacked and besieged the camp, both communities have endured heavy Israeli bombardments and there have been several assassinations.
Instability and violence continues to haunt the city.
But, life in Saida is much as you would imagine it to be on the coast of the Mediterranean – fishermen fill the port with their small boats, while the cafes that line the corniche are filled with people smoking water pipes and drinking coffee.
The teenagers were given cameras so that they could reveal, through their photography, how they see their lives as they navigate the violent religious, ethnic and political divisions that scar the country.
For many of the Lebanese teenagers participating in the photography project, it was the first time they had communicated with their Palestinian peers and the first time they had witnessed the living conditions inside the camp.
While the Lebanese government, the UN and several political and social organisations are working on the slow process of establishing dialogue between the decision-makers in the two communities, the need to improve conditions inside the camps, to provide adequate social services and employment opportunities is urgent.
Those involved in the project hope that the friendships established through it may in time turn into solidarity between the two communities and that that solidarity may be utilised to improve the prospects of those living inside the camps.
By learning how to observe a situation through the lens of a camera, the teenagers are in fact learning how to see the wider picture of their lives and those of their neighbours.
This increases the likelihood of them working together for a better future.
That better future may take the form of improved living conditions on both sides of the camp walls or it may mean building careers as professional photographers and journalists. But all of those who have participated in the project have been equipped with the skills to become messengers for their communities and to shape their own futures.”
(Quelle: Al Jazeera.)