Two years ago, after her husband was arrested and killed by soldiers near Damascus, a young Syrian named Fatima fled her country with her two young children. She was 17, pregnant, and leaving the only home she’d ever known.
Now living in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp–along with over 120,000 other refugees, crammed into tents and trailers–she’s discovered a new way to express her grief for everything she’s lost. As a student in one of a series of workshops led by photojournalist Brendan Bannon, Fatima spent two weeks learning the basics of photography. Now she’s beginning to teach the craft to others.
Photography has given her a way to share her experience at the camp. “I started thinking about the meaning of life before I even held a camera, because I see the suffering in my life and other refugees’ lives every day a million times,” she says. “But the camera has become a friend that I discovered recently. We talk to each other silently, we agreed that together we would tell the world about what’s inside us.”
Along with another former workshop participant, a 20-year-old refugee named Hany who now lives in a tented city in Lebanon, Fatima recently won a small Aftermath grant to cover the cost of basic photography equipment.
Bannon, impressed with their work during his class, helped them get the grant. “These guys are in kind of a perilous situation,” he says. “Both of them seemed buoyed by photography, and it was something that I wanted to see them have an opportunity to continue.”
Hany, a poet and student who used to live in the city of Homs, is interested in documenting the life of other young Syrians in the camps. “He’s looking at people in their late teens and twenties who planned for a life that’s very different than the life they’re leading in exile,” Bannon says. “How you go from what you thought was going to be a future of study and engagement to a present moment where you’re shoveling snow off of a tent in a refugee camp, because you want your little brother to be able to sleep through the night.”
“Photography has become part of my life,” Hany says. “My view differs greatly whenever I look at something specific. So it has come to mean a lot. With every strange moment I wish that the camera is close to me. My vision of things has changed a lot–more details become important.”
Fatima hopes to work on a project about the experience of fellow war widows and the war wounded, and wants to teach a workshop similar to the class she took from Bannon.
“Her inquiry echoes her experience,” Bannon says. “She wants to look at other people’s experience in part I think to figure out how to go through this herself. She also understands that photography is a powerful way of telling people what you’ve been through. When you’ve been through hell, you want people to know that you’ve been through it.”
Bannon is seeking funding to teach more photography workshops at refugee camps in the area.