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Reframing Refugees

A Syrian refugee fruit farmer in Mafraq, Jordan.

Hello, hello. I’m currently writing from Amman, Jordan, where I’m based for a 4-month project on the Syrian refugee crisis. To that end, I wanted to share some thoughts on what it means to photograph in this context.

It’s integral that we, as producers and inevitable spectators and consumers of media, understand that images reflect choices. Every photograph is the cumulative effect of a variety of decisions- where to be, who to interact with and how, what moment to capture as opposed to others. And on a perhaps more fundamental level, we need to remember that images depict isolated moments and have a propensity towards reductionism, especially when we fail to look at photographs critically. 

The former is especially poignant in looking at documentary photography. Outlook and intention behind the lens have a tremendous effect on the subject at hand, and being ‘truthful’ with imagery often means conflicting with stereotypical ideas on people and place. Portraying the normal, the content, the everyday and seemingly mundane is equally as important as portraying the devastating and the difficult- if not more so. Behind every conflict (and quite honestly, behind everything) are people, whose nuances and banalities are important and worth thinking about.  

It’s one thing to discuss this in broad, abstract terms and it’s another to actually internalize and apply this to what is seen, and what effect that has. I think a lot of the lapse between horrifying or misconstrued media coverage and concerted action derives from a lack of empathy- a resistance to think deeply about what it could mean to experience conflict (or anything else) ourselves. I also think we, as photographers and media producers, have to be very careful in publishing war images/atrocity footage without a "readers’ manual". These images don't have an immediate utility on their own, beyond shocking people, which doesn't translate to action or real comprehension of the humanity of the people at hand. The images are useful if paired with careful narrative and if they're being shown to people who are told and know to think critically about the content they're seeing, which is rarely the reality. 

In terms of my work here in Jordan, the vast majority of the coverage of the refugee crisis thus far has functioned to evoke pity, or shock. The images are startling in their severity, and frequently in their apparent dearth of humanity. Frankly, they’re tough and often impossible to reconcile with ideas of what life can possibly entail. These images are important, and they speak to a substantial part of the crisis’ narrative; they do a beautiful job of capturing the frustration and desperation that's quite central to what's happening, from the Middle East (where the crisis is actually concentrated) to Western Europe. 

This pity and shock, while perhaps valid to a certain extent, doesn’t allude to the full story. There is no singular refugee experience, nor is the ‘refugee’ identity possible to boil down to one set of criterion and experiences. These people are insanely brave, resilient and creative under incredible circumstances, and placing that at the forefront (while frankly demanding empathy and explicitly referencing that these people are humans) should take priority. 

I'll be sharing more from Petra, Wadi Rum and other explorations throughout the country in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on Instagram or Facebook for more regular updates, and don't hesitate to reach out via my Contact page for further information.