There are currently over 79,000 people living in the Zaatari refugee camp, just north of Jordan. Out of this population, about 58 percent are children, according to the World Health Organization. Many of them have lost family members and people close to them since the start of the Syrian civil war in the spring of 2011. This has caused families to flee to nearby refugee camps, such as Zaatari, and, among other hardships, forced children to drop out of school.
Brendan Bannon, a photojournalist from Buffalo, NY, traveled to this camp to teach photography after he acquired a grant from the UN. In the span of four months, he taught four workshops, from fall 2014 to spring 2015. In total he had 48 students, ranging from ages 10 to 20, and would generally teach about 12 students at a time. “You’re dealing with kids who’ve been through an inordinate amount of suffering yet the hunger to learn is still there,” Bannon said.
When working with these children, the real challenge for Bannon wasn’t whether they would be open to learning; it was providing a safe and supportive environment and the opportunity to feel comfortable experimenting, honing their creativity, and sharing their discoveries with the group.
“There were kids in my class that carried around bullet casings and torn sheets of paper with 63 names written on them,” Bannon said. “Those were the names of the people they knew personally that had died in the war.”
When Bannon first started the workshop, which took place in a steaming hot metal caravan, it took the children some time to warm up to him. He had placed a kilo of date palms on the table during their first session and said, “For the next couple of weeks this room is going to be our home together and you’re going to come to class every day, you’ll sit down, and you’re welcome to what’s here.” The first day only a few dates were taken. By the second day each student took about one or two dates. Finally, by the third day, the container was empty. Bannon, who was happy to see they had helped themselves to the fruit, held up the container and said, “You guys are finally home,” which was followed by applause from his students.
Once the students became more open to the workshop, they were given cameras, specifically Fujifilm X-T1s, which were theirs to keep for the duration of the workshop. This amplified their eagerness to learn and explore. They were also encouraged to support and mentor each other, despite their age differences.
“In some cases you might have a 12-year-old kid working with a 16-year-old—the younger kid is writing down the answers [to an interview questionnaire] while the older kid is providing text to supplement the photograph,” Bannon said. “Older students would mentor younger students and help them define ways to talk about their pictures.”
While the workshops focused a lot on photography, the students also learned how to bring context to their photographs through writing. Once their photographs were printed, they would glue their favorites into their personal journals and write about them to provide background and meaning. Before reaching this step, however, the children had to complete an entire process of learning and completing assignments by shooting on their own.
A typical day in one of Bannon’s workshops would begin around 8:30 a.m., where he would meet with the children and spend six hours together with breaks for lunch and snacks. The students’ photographs, which they took the night before, were projected onto a screen for the whole class to observe. They would then tell their individual stories behind the images, followed by a discussion with their peers. Finally, the class would select the shots that they believed should be developed into four-by-six prints.
But Bannon wasn’t the only one supervising the children during the workshop, as he had help from two course assistants and a few translators.
Mohammad Khalf, 27, who served as one of Bannon’s course assistants for two workshops, had been living in Zaatari since March 2013, a year after his brother was killed in Damascus. “Mohammad was super astute and really interested and engaged,” Bannon said. “He was ready to continue teaching and made a good teacher of himself very early in the process, and helped out a lot throughout the workshop.”
Before Khalf came to the camp, he had photographed sporting events in Syria using a camera phone or a friend’s Nikon, and as a football player, he was drawn to sports photography.
After training with Bannon, he later began teaching his own photography classes in the camp. He now works as a center coordinator teaching photography to 16 young students. Khalf focuses on techniques such as light sensitivity, shutter speed, and aperture, while some of his own sports photography has been featured on The New York Times’ website. “[Bannon] was able to change my life for the better,” he said.
Though Khalf says his life has improved since he found photography, it’s not to say he hasn’t run into a few struggles, such as limited access to professional equipment, spotty internet in the camp, and a lack of computers for editing and retouching. “I dream one day to have a good camera in order to transfer the suffering of the Syrian people,” Khalf said.
In Bannon’s workshops, he focused on teaching the elements of the art form he thought would be most useful to his students, such as the aesthetics of the image, expression, problem solving, interpersonal skills, and the imaginative possibilities of photography. He didn’t bog the kids down with the technical aspects because he didn’t want to lose any of them, especially if he didn’t manage to explain it well.
“Beyond clicking the shutter it takes a lot of courage to walk out into a sometimes hostile or challenging environment, and approach people who are not used to being photographed, and certainly not used to being photographed in the squalor of a refugee camp,” Bannon said.
After giving the children the assignments, one of the things that surprised Bannon most was how seriously they responded to his challenges. For example, one of the assignments, the one that ran in the The New York Times with Khalf’s photos, was to photograph sports within the camp. While some of them photographed traditional sports, others cleverly made up sports, such as young people in the camp climbing fences.
“Almost every picture that comes through is a revelation to me,” Bannon said. “There are specific photographers and specific photographs that shook me fundamentally when I saw them, and continue to astonish me a year and a half later.”
One of those photographers is Hani al Moulia, who now lives in Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. Al Moulia, who left Syria at 19 years old in 2012, is now studying ESL at the University of Regina. He moved to Regina in June 2015 with his family in order to return to how his life was before the war.
As a student Bannon taught in a Lebanon refugee camp, al Moulia went on to present his photos at the 2015 Canadian Journalists for Free Expression gala in Toronto. His images were displayed alongside the work of established photographers who have won World Press Photo awards. “I was so proud of myself to be standing beside Brandon and talking about my work,” al Moulia said. “My first experience talking about my pictures as photographer was an unforgettable experience.”
All of the leading broadcasters and journalists in Canada attend this particular gala. These are people who have experience covering stories about life in refugee camps, and al Moulia was able to enlighten them with his work and story, and had everyone reaching for their handkerchiefs.
“When you can surprise people who’ve been there and seen and told these stories themselves, you’ve done the maximum of what photographs and writing can do,” Bannon said. “I really believe that the work these kids offer has the potential to humanize—and that is really the biggest service photography can do, especially for people who are so often dehumanized.”
“When I got there I noticed that a massive amount of journalists had gone through Zaatari in the two years of the civil war, but I didn’t see any stories from the people living there themselves.”
One of the things Bannon promises the kids in his workshops is that if they trust him with their vision and voice, he will make sure their work is seen. Besides what’s been featured in The New York Times and the Toronto exhibit, their work has also been showcased at photo festivals in Sweden and the City Honors School in Buffalo, NY last spring. This event gave junior and high school students the opportunity to work with the pictures and text the refugee children created, exposing them to the struggles faced by children just like them.
Bannon plans to return to the Syrian refugee camps in 2017 to teach more workshops. His organization, The Most Important Picture, is also offering a downloadable annotation of the refugee kids’ photos to be used by teachers for school-based exhibitions and lessons.
Bannon wasn’t the only one who ran workshops in these camps in recent years. Laura Doggett, a media artist and educator, also taught workshops in the Zaatari refugee camp in 2014, where she instructed groups solely made up of girls. She also went on to continue her work in the city of Irbid a year later.
Her work in the camps began after she received the Felsman Fellowship from Duke University, where she studied documentary arts and graduated in 2013. This specific fellowship allowed a documentary and public policy graduate to go together to teach in a region where vulnerable children live. The donor of this fellowship sent them to Zaatari because she wanted to know more about Syrian girls and their access to education, which is extremely limited.
“When I got there I noticed that a massive amount of journalists had gone through Zaatari in the two years of the civil war, but I didn’t see any stories from the people living there themselves,” Doggett said. “They didn’t have the tools to tell their own stories—a lot of the stories were really pretty tragic, pretty black and white.”
Initially, it took Doggett a couple months to get paired with the children for the workshop in Zaatari due to “bureaucratic stuff,” she said. Once she was in the camp, though, she had three months left of her fellowship and 17 girls to teach. She was granted only one hour, twice a week with these girls. In that time, Doggett focused on building her students’ creative thinking skills and doing movement and metaphorical exercises with them to help them become more exploratory.
“I would have them get out and climb up on stuff and get under stuff, teaching them about point-of-view. Really, we were just trying to get them to be adventurous so when they’re not in the workshop—which is when they’d be doing all of their production—they would feel comfortable experimenting with different things,” Doggett said. “It was about building the group to where they had the space to share things and try things that were wild…”
The group of girls Doggett taught in Irbid, however, participated in a six-week workshop on documentary video. They were considerably shyer than the girls in Zaatari, who were all friends prior to their workshop. Most of the girls in Irbid had moved to the city from Daraa, a rural and more traditional area in Syria. Several of them left school before the war began; it’s common for girls to cease education in eighth grade to help their mothers take care of the family and get ready for marriage.
“[The girls in Irbid] had just been staying home, taking care of their siblings and not really leaving the apartment,” Doggett said. “When they came in they were so nervous, so the movement exercises were really helpful to get them loosened up and laughing.”
For both workshops, Doggett didn’t explicitly give the girls assignments because she wanted them to see exactly how they were drawn to photograph and film. From there, she saw their visual language develop, as they showed up to class with full memory cards. Doggett says each girl had her own style and she would point out their individual skills and stylistic techniques to encourage them to follow their inner voice and creative instincts.
“Khaldiya, one of the girls in the camp, had this certain way she moved with the camera. She would bring us somewhere and kind of turn us around corners and lead us through folds and reveal something,” Doggett said.
For each class Doggett would also single out a particular girl as the “Artist of the Day,” which featured that student’s work and gave the group a chance to discuss what they liked about her photos or videos.
At the end of the workshop in Zaatari, Doggett had a photo exhibit and video screening of the girls’ work where they invited their families and friends. In Irbid, they did a similar video screening at the center where the workshops were held. Later on, the girls from Zaatari had their work shown at an exhibition in a public park with a gallery space in Amman, although it took a few months to set this up. At first the girls weren’t allowed out of the refugee camp, but after a few months of consulting with Jordan Intelligence, they were granted day passes to visit the exhibit.
“We made a really fun day for them and the girls were super nervous,” Doggett said. “When the doors opened they were all clustered in a little hive in the corner, opposite to where their work was. I was like ‘OK you guys don’t have to talk to anybody, but just move your eyes over to the other corner where people are looking at your work.’”
“People say all the time, ‘The girls in Syria must have it so much worse than the girls you’re working with in New York…”
After a while, the girls began introducing themselves and talking about their work to strangers. One of Doggett’s favorite moments was when she heard Rehab, a girl she describes as “excruciatingly shy,” begin talking to a stranger about the photos she took of her grandfather. The young girl explained how she wanted to take a photo of her grandfather up close and that he enjoyed being photographed.
Some of the girls from the workshops, such as Khaldiya, have had their films shown in festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, and other places the girls are not allowed to go. Doggett is still in the process of trying to figure out a way to grant them access to these events. Since she hasn’t managed to get Visas for them, she continues to do the next best thing: sending them photos and videos of the screenings. Over the years, she has grown close with the girls, and regularly stays in touch through WhatsApp.
Doggett’s latest endeavor is running photo and video workshops for young girls at the Next Generation Center in the Bronx through the Lewis Hine Documentary Fellows Program. At the moment, Doggett is creating a film with a girl named Etta, who is currently transitioning herself out of foster care.
“People say all the time, ‘The girls in Syria must have it so much worse than the girls you’re working with in New York,’ but not really. They just have a different set of problems.’ To have a parent abandon you, the issues that arise out of that are so intense and a matter of trust,” Doggett said. While several of the girls she worked with in Syria have lost family members in the war, she adds that most, if not all, are with a loving family unit of some sort.
“People used to ask me, ‘What are they like?’ Well, those alien beings you’re talking about are really typical teenage girls,” said Doggett. “They like having fun, they giggle when boys go by, they talk about them, and they’re super curious about the world. They’re human beings. There are so many similarities. Teenage girls are teenage girls wherever you go.”
See more images captured during these workshops below.
This article was originally published in “The Humanity Issue” of Resource Magazine. Visit our online shop, Barnes & Noble or your local photo studio to pick up a copy.