“Syria was more beautiful in the past than now,” a 16-year-old refugee told photographer Alex John Beck. “I wish I could return to Aleppo. To walk in the streets.”
Last year, Beck embarked on a project to document the Syrian refugee crisis, traveling to camps in Lebanon and Jordan. But instead of using his own camera to tell the story, he found that the refugees’ own phones were much more powerful tools to communicate what was happening.
Beck’s resulting series, Syrian Refugees in Lebanon & Jordan, consists of portraits of the people he interviewed juxtaposed with shots of their phones displaying photographs of their fondest memories–and handwritten captions about what they miss most about their lives before being displaced. While some people kept a handful of photos on their phones, others received images from family members only to delete them immediately since authorities searched their phones regularly, hunting for images that could be used to incriminate them. Their phones were often their only connection to their past.
“Smart phones are relatively new devices, and in the developed world they are the source of a lot of consternation: I definitely look at mine too much, and if I leave the house without it I feel some ridiculous anxiety,” Beck says. “But when we sat down with the Syrians to talk, they would often interrupt the conversation to show us pictures and videos on their phones, and it became quickly obvious that they had a similar but fundamentally more positive association with their phone. By focusing on the phones and their handwriting, I also think that I can step back from the project, and make it much more about them and their interpretation of their experiences.”
The Syrian refugee crisis has been such a visible human rights tragedy due in part to the availability of technology, like camera phones, and the distribution networks that social media enables. Today, we’re able to see personal images of social upheaval, instead of just those of professional photojournalists. Artistic responses have been overwhelmingly creative, helping to bring more eyes to the situation. But while some have used elaborate tools to grab our attention, the simplicity of Beck’s approach draws out empathy.
“I hope it explains the experience of Syrian refugees in a more relatable way,” he says of focusing on camera phones and memory. “And to see the actual individuals caught up in the larger political issues.”
See Beck’s series in the slide show above.