Photo credit: UNHCR/B.Ahmed
Photography preserves pieces of our lived experience and allows us a window into the unknown. It is one of the most powerful mediums for connecting humanity, both through shared experiences and the emotional connection that visual representations can evoke. In that light, photography can be an excellent opportunity for individuals to reclaim control over their lives and share their stories with a global community.
UNHCR and National Geographic, in partnership with Internews, have each run photography workshops in conflict regions for youth to explore through photography themselves, the world, and their place within the world. UNHCR held workshops at the Za’atari refugee settlement in Jordan, whereas National Geographic and Internews worked with twenty communications students at the University of Juba in South Sudan, each program with the goal of inspiring expression via visual storytelling.
After reading accounts of the photographers involved in the project, amateur and professional, there appears to be two main results: first, providing an opportunity for the youth to express their past and recreate memories; and second, instilling the confidence to reclaim power over their lives and understanding the influence they can have within the global community.
Bathoul Ahmed, author of “Picture This,” explained how most of us living in a digital-centric world tend to take photography for granted but emphasized how important pictures can be to people who have lost everything. Many of the photographs students took either recreated past memories or captured their family members, highlighting the high value placed on family and home. Jean Luc Dushime, a multimedia trainer with Internews who worked at the camp in Juba claimed, “A country without photography has holes in its history. You can’t see what happened.” Consequently, the aspects of history that are shared tend to have a singular nature to them. Thus, photography not only fills in the holes of history, but also allows for a multifaceted story that offers otherwise unseen perspectives.
One student in Juba explained that by using different angles and perspectives she documented a version of the city that her friends didn’t recognize. Imagine the potential effects of photography on peacebuilding, accomplished not by altering a state or community’s history but by allowing multiple sides of a story to come to light. It would certainly allow for a more nuanced understanding of the situation, a better-informed global community, and, arguably, more creative and sustainable post-conflict transformation.
Israa, a Syrian student at the workshop at Za’atari, claimed that the classes have extended beyond the mere act of shooting photographs. “This course gives you the curiosity to go out, seek and explore. It makes you think creatively and look beyond the obvious.” Another student, Fatima, echoed this sentiment saying that “the most important thing this course has taught [her] is courage, courage to put [herself] out there and approach people.” Ultimately, these workshops have not only taught students the art and influence of visual storytelling but also helped nurture confident young leaders. Perhaps inadvertently, these workshops are creating tomorrow’s peacebuilders – and that is something to celebrate.