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NOOR's Installation at the Zaatari Refugee Camp

Four photographers are attempting to recuperate the memories of refugees and give them permanence.

by NOOR
Mar 26 2014, 1:47pm

Photo by Nina Berman/NOOR

Four photographers from the distinguished Amsterdam-based photojournalism collective NOOR spent New Years in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Located 18 miles from the Syrian border, the camp opened with just 100 families in July 2012. It now hosts around 120,000 residents, making it the second-largest refugee camp in the world. VICE's Robert King documented life in this camp last fall, just 72 hours after the sarin gas attack in Damascus forced even more Syrians out of their homes. One of the many challenges that residents of Zaatari face is the lack of any physical evidence of memory. In most cases refugees arrive at Zaatari with just the clothes on their back, leaving behind photographs of family and loved ones. Now, these photographers are attempting to recuperate those memories and give them permanence. 

Between Christmas and the fifth of January, Nina Berman, Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina, and Stanley Greene—supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Japan Emergency NGOs (JEN)—turned a large tent into a photo booth where refugees could come and have their portraits made. Refugees were asked to bring an object they cherished or, if they didn’t have anything, to bring a person they loved. A boy came wrapped in his blanket. A man brought his shisha pipe. A mother posed with her five children. In all, about 300 portraits were printed on the spot and given to people to keep.  

Photo by Andrea Bruce/NOOR

These four photographers also documented daily lives in the camp.  The resulting images and some from the photo booth have now been made into large outdoor prints that will be hung on the 330 yards of barbed-wire T-walls that surround the entrance to the camp. The aim is to provide refugees inside Zaatari with a way to reflect on their own situation, as well as draw attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Photo by Nina Berman/NOOR

Photo by Nina Berman/NOOR

Below are some of the photographs selected to be printed out and pasted to the wall, accompanied by each photographer's personal reflection on his or her experience at Zaatari.

Words and Photos by Alixandra Fazzina/NOOR:

Watching from under the hoops of a sage-green dress, six-year-old Noor waits at a beautician’s parlor in Zaatari for her aunt, as she gets ready on her wedding day. Knowing that it may be years before their communities can return home to a settled life in Syrian, many of the refugees in Jordan are making new lives for themselves, getting married and having children despite the hardships.

Wearing warm matching outfits donated by a charity, four-day-old triplets Shereen, Nasreen, and Noor lie lined-up on their mother Zainab’s knee in the family’s rented caravan. Escaping conflict in their village of Jazim Namar in rural Syria seven months ago, Zainab and her children have found refuge along with thousands of other families in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp.

“It is a miracle to have three babies born here in Zaatari," Zainab says. "If the triplets had been born in Syria, then they would be dead; there are no doctors these days, or even milk. The doors and windows of our house are long gone, and the shelling has destroyed most of the walls. Here we are cold—we don’t have enough blankets or a heater—but the overall picture is much better than we thought."

After delivering what has been her third multiple pregnancy, Zainab is already trying to deal with the practicalities of raising the three small girls in a camp: “I went to the market to buy a wheelbarrow so that I can at least be independent and move the babies around, but the price is beyond our means. I’ll only be able to go out now with the help of my friends and neighbors."

In a circle of young women, five-year-old Saja dances to music amplified by a mobile phone during celebrations for a Syrian marriage in Zaatari. Although the girls get to let their hair down briefly, just a few songs are played prior to the union of the bride and groom. The weddings in Zaatari are kept low-key during this time of war out of respect for lost loved ones.

For me, Zaatari was also hopefully a beginning. Cameras are viewed with great suspicion by the Syrian refugees, who fear being identified by the regime or being used by the media inappropriately; they see photography as a tool that can bring disrespect and do not take it for granted. I never walked with my camera, perhaps something that spending five years in culturally sensitive Pakistan has taught me. I worked quietly, making friends along the way, and for a brief time shared intimate moments with the very resilient people I met.

Words and Photos by Stanley Greene/NOOR:

This man had been waiting more than a week to enter the camp with his wife and children but was being held up in a bureaucratic limbo because his wife is Saudi Arabian.  Only Syrians can enter as refugees to Jordan, so this family was sent to a special holding area near the new arrival center until they could negotiate safe passage to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of non-Syrians, including Palestinians who had been living in Syria, are in legal limbo and stuck inside Syria, as countries are not accepting “double” refugees.

There has always been an idea that we as photographers are prepared to give something back, to take us away from our own self-interests. And that is not always easy, because sometimes we spend our time showing the downside of things. We become cynical and lose our faith in the human race. But there are these moments when we rediscover the human condition. The time spent on this project gave us back that feeling for a moment—in the bright eyes of smiling children, in the laughter when the joke was on you, as you fumbled with your camera, busy trying to distill the scene. This is what I will keep with me—maybe not the missed picture, but the memory of the image. NOOR is about shining the light in the darkest corners of the world, and at the end of the day, that is what NOOR means: light. Sometimes we luck out and shine it on ourselves.

Words and Photos by Andrea Bruce/NOOR:

Children sleep on floor mats in Zaatari's new-arrivals area. On New Year's Day, 2014, when this photo was taken, about 80 new arrivals came into the camp for safe refuge. The group that evening said two families had frozen to death trying to make it out of Syria to the Jordanian border.

When we first approached this project and the idea of a photo booth, I was a little worried. Here we are, just photographers. We can tell the story of Syrian refugees and give them photos. But it doesn't directly help the loss of a home, a loved one, the complete dismantling of life as they knew it. How would these photographs be received?

What we discovered was magical. With a studio-like black backdrop, we visually took them away from the camp. These simple portraits allowed people to be people, gave them a slice of normalcy and a chance to be seen as something beyond refugees. The photos, which we printed and gave to each person who wanted a portrait, I believe rejuvenated a sense of pride that is necessary for everyday survival, especially in this seemingly never-ending war.

Words and Photos by Nina Berman/NOOR:

Young boys at the bread-distribution center in the early morning hours at the  Zaatari refugee camp. Every day, half a million pieces of pita bread are given to the 100,000 refugees at the camp, with distributions beginning at 6 AM.

Hussein, 33, formerly a taxi driver and student in Ghouta, Syria, was wounded as he fled with his wife and children to escape the bombing. He arrived at Zaatari camp in October 2013. He described himself as politically neutral, and he was mistakenly arrested after a protest early in the uprising. He was then tortured for two months, before his brother paid to bail him out. "Death is better than being caught by these people," Hussein said. He told me they hung him by his hands and left him there for hours. They placed his tongue on a car exhaust pipe and turned it on. They would iron his skin. His captors would ask him why he was protesting, why he wanted to topple the regime, but he wasn't even at the protest. He remembers his release was in March—a peaceful day, his neice's wedding. They saw the planes, and he left the celebration to get his wife. People in the wedding party were killed; he was injured and spent four days in the hospital, and when he got out they fled. He described villages completely empty of people. As they were making their way to Jordan, he said the planes were trying to bomb them. "Most of the people are just waiting for death," he tells me.

I saw a photo of Zaatari taken from the sky. It looked like a prison camp—immense, depersonalized. Then I looked at pictures of the security wall, grim and crushing. I thought maybe photography could brighten the landscape and help people feel acknowledged as survivors, as individuals. I’ve been inspired by other photographers who are using the medium outside traditional spaces, like JR.

Most photojournalists prefer to work without asking people they photograph for permission. They feel it disrupts their process or can taint the authenticity of their images. We had to get permission from refugees, and I loved that whole conversation in which we would explain the project and watch people mull it over. Most people liked the idea, and getting these permissions made our connection more solid. Of course, not everyone agreed. There was one man pitching a tent with several others. He was clearly a star—so charismatic,  amazingly upbeat, friendly, and full of life. I took loads of pictures and then told him the purpose and asked his consent. He flashed a huge smile and laughed and said, “Absolutely not!”  So I went on taking pictures, and he didn’t mind, but I’ll never show them.