'These photos were inside the kids before they took them'

AFP photographer Ramzi talks to MENASSAT about Lahza, a photography project which lets Palestinian children in Lebanon tell the story of their daily lives in the camps through pictures.
Ramzi Haidar - founder of Zakira REAL
Ramzi Haidar, founder of Zakira, at the opening of the exhibit Lahza. © Lina Sahab

MENASSAT: Did you get the idea from someone else – Wendy Ewald did a similar project with the children of migrant laborers in the United States?

«Not at all. I had this idea when I was in Baghdad, after the American-led invasion – after it fell to the Americans. 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 would use to earn their living?

«Before the invasion, there was a limited cadre of photographers. I thought we could implement our ideas in Iraq, but 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.

«I thought about this plan in 2003 and we decided to put it to work around 2006. Even though we have volunteer photographers helping out – this project is not based on photographers, on the contrary. It is founded by a group of people who liked the idea and wanted to provide their services in Lebanon and in the Palestinian camps.

«This project is not only a camera and a photo. It needs an administration, planning, etcetera.»

MENASSAT: How does this exhibit affect Lebanese society?

«First, we should say that the Lebanese and Palestinian societies are interlaced, even if they are currently facing some tough times. There is constant communication. However, this communication is going through a cold phase.

«I mean, I think that the Lebanese have embraced our project, or maybe it's better to say that no one rejected it. And it is a testament that most of those working on the project are Lebanese, not Palestinian.

«But of course, there have been so many within the camps that were integral to the project's success, like the General Association for Palestinian Women who provided us with the place to work and the centers where we have been meeting with the children.»

MENASSAT: How did this affect the kids? Is it realistic to expect, with the restrictions of the society, that some of them will be able to do some of the things they want to do now? Are you giving them hope or false hope?

«Let's talk about ourselves, not the Lebanese society as a whole. At least these kids became our friends and we are theirs. They accept us and we accept them.

«It is true we are not giving them everything, their fathers can't even do that, neither can the society. But at least we give them "Lahza" (a glimpse) in the hope that we would meet them again in the future, especially since we have other projects and we won't stop our relation with the kids. We will continue with what we can do, but not me nor anyone can solve the problem of a whole 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.

«Let them dream, let them be happy for a moment.»

(He pulls 9 year old Ali from the Chatila camp close to him.)

«Ali, did you ever come to this place before – or to Hamra (West Beirut)?»

Ali: «No, this is the first time.»

«There are many examples like Ali. Palestinian refugee camps like Chatila and Burj al-Barajneh are only few hundred meters away from one another, some kids in Chatila don't know the other camp, and vice versa.

«This does not even speak to the fact that some kids never leave their camps which are often located in cities like Beirut.

«Some kids from al-Rashidiyeh camp came to the exposition yesterday. They asked me if Chatila camp was far from here. This is problem in my opinion; it is a problem of the society and the whole population, and also the NGOs.

«There are many NGOs taking care of children and funding projects in the Palestinian (refugee) camps in Lebanon. But I wish they didn't give funding; it would be better if they didn't. No one gave us any money, yet we went through with this project.

«It is better if the NGOs don't give them money because they often don't do anything with it. I have heard countless stories from the children and the Palestinian run-associations in the camps in which they say that no one does anything for them.

«Money is being spent on bogus projects. In one and a half years, we worked on this project: 500 kids, 500 cameras, 13,500 photos were taken and all this without the help of anyone, except for the General Association for Palestinian Women, logistically speaking.

«Money ruins everything.»

MENASSAT: How did this project change you?

«It changed me in many aspects. First, it taught me patience. I learned to love kids even more. I mean, I have 3 kids of my own. But I didn't feel as close to them as I do now, maybe because we live under different circumstances.

«I never felt that kids keep things inside of them in the ways that they do. They are so bright. I think these photos were inside the kids before they took them. They were in their memories and they expressed them with the camera.»

(The Lahza exhibit will run until June 14 at the Medina theater on Hamra Street in Beirut. A book of the children's pictures is available at the show.)

► Lahza: Camp life seen through children's eyes
Posted on 06/11/2008 - 19:16
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