Written by Lucy Eagleson on April 03 2016

Upon Reflection: A visual retrospective on our journey through the lens of young Syrian refugee women

Back on home turf

In a quiet moment at our gallery space, I scrolled through the iPads we used to teach photo editing during our Cameras Across Cultures (CXC) workshop in the Emirati-Jordanian Refugee Camp. For security reasons, the time had come to delete photos and videos created by ten young Syrian women during our workshop. I had to pause as I said goodbye to frames that represented places and spaces that spoke louder than words ever could. I reflected on this unparalleled imagery - a vantage point I had truly never seen before. In such situations as that of the Syrian Crisis, we often see stories from the perspective of photojournalists, documentary filmmakers, and other outside media outlets. Rarely, do we have have the opportunity to peer through a side window into a world like this - through the eyes of the individuals directly affected by war, displacement, and disconnection.

Practice makes perfect

The young women from the camp entered our class with next to no photography experience. As educators, we had to navigate and be conscientious of cultural sensitivities associated with photography, especially portrait photography. Through our learning journey - from vantage points, to elements of design, to framing, composition, and beyond - the young women initially found comfort in photographing our staff. At first, I was worried that by creating images of us, the “outsiders,” we would interrupt their growth and connection to the concepts being taught. However, we discovered that when we turned the tables and put cameras in the hands of these young women, we not only put the power in their hands, but by doing so - we were able to see ourselves in a new light.

Photo by Afra’a: Skylar Economy, Outside the Lens Program Assistant

Photo by Safa: Bryn Silverman, Outside the Lens Media Educator

Photo by Baria’a: Lucy Eagleson, Outside the Lens Program Manager

Photography, a truly universal language

Despite the fact that we spoke limited Arabic, and the young women spoke little English - we forged a connection by sharing our experience through the lens. As we built a rapport with one another, the young women began to visualize their world in a new way. Surrounded by high fences, barbed wire, and an atmosphere permeated by an air of eerie stillness - the young women found beauty in what others may consider breakdown. What they saw as daily reality quickly transformed into a playground for a new reality, an imaginative place blossoming with a seed of hope. They began to unfold their stories to us visually, by exploring through their lens and turning their cameras toward the simple artifacts of their world. By doing so they crafted a new, boundless vision - transcending the physical barriers surrounding the camp.

Photo by Mnour

Photo by Afra’a

Photo by Rana

Photo by Diana

Photo by Sheyma’a

“How can I tell my whole story with just one frame?”

Baria’a sat alone, pensive in the corner. I noted her demeanor as she wrote her “Here I Am” poem. I found the translator, and quietly approached her to see how her writing process was coming along.

She stared at me with a certain quiet intensity. In a rush of Arabic, she asked how she could ever tell her whole story with just one image. She went on to explain that in her poem, she was expressing so much more than that which could ever be conveyed in one capture of time.

I paused to respond, because I was without words.

Her point resonated with me. An image can say so much, yet so little all at the same time. I explained that when we bring images to our words, and words to our images - we can express much more than that which meets the eye. It is as if one can only add to the other, but never subtract from the other.

Photo by Baria’a

Bringing it all together

This experience was a powerful set of moments.

This group of individuals have seen more in their young lives than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. As we spent time with these young women, I couldn’t help but wonder what this all meant.

The only sense I could conjure of all this is that although we can carefully arrange our lives in such a way for our expectations to likely occur, they are not guaranteed to occur. Regardless of circumstances however, we are guaranteed a story. Through every victory and failure, gain and loss, each of us is composing a narrative.

Those narratives deserve to be told. For, what is a story if it is hidden from the world?

Within this powerful set of moments, we were crafting stories, preparing to unleash them unto whosoever chooses to read them. And so we did. Unbound. Uninhibited.

Meet Safa’a. One story that was told during this journey.

Photo by Safa’a

Here I Am 
By Safa’a 

I am from Syria the symbol of heroism, the land of generosity and goodness

I am from Daraa and the smell of its soil when it rains

I am from my house’s door and the smell of Jasmine filling the neighborhood

I am from a family gathered on love and affinity

I am from my room and the smell of roses that wake us up in the early morning

From the voice of our neighborhood’s children and the vegetable seller, I miss you

From north and south I hear a voice calling us

From Syria where when it comes to education we are the best and in personality we are the most beautiful and in fights our souls are for you (Syria)

I am from my children that I am proud of

I am from the smell of the sweets and the tasty food

From the canals in the street, I can hear the sound of the water ripple

I am from a family dream of settling down and being safe

From Kibbeh, Kabseh and Yabraq, we grew up

I, who since I left my beloved ones, I dream of seeing them again

To see more work from the CXC Jordan program, join us at the Outside the Lens Media Lab + Gallery on Friday, May 6th between 6:00-8:00pm. We will be opening our show Where the Clouds Collide, an immersive storytelling experience showcasing the photography and poetry of these young Syrian women. 



Apr 05 2016 15:53:58

Well done. Thank you for giving them the tools to express their feelings in such a creative way.

Bear Carlson (of Photo Pal):

Mar 29 2017 23:59:18

Beautiful photos and poems. We are very excited to showcase some of them at our photo exhibit The Art of Immigration which will be hung in Norlin Library on the University of Colorado campus during the Conference on World Affairs April 10-14. The exhibit will feature photos by Photo Pal students, Outside the Lens collaborations, and photos of Chin refugees and immigrants to the US by Prof. Stephen Rubin of Penn State University.

Leave a Comment