Inside These Walls

When photographer and Columbia Journalism professor Nina Berman saw an aerial photograph of a sprawling Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, she hatched an idea for an innovative journalism project. Last December, she and her colleagues from the NOOR photo collective spent a week photographing some of its 100,000 residents—and plastering the camp's prison-like walls with their images. 

Journalists covering war and conflict often question whether their work has impact given that violence, destruction and displacement continue.

Visual journalists especially are finding new ways to engage audiences beyond conventional media outlets, such as print publications or websites. In doing so they blur boundaries of art, advocacy and reporting. This is what my colleagues and I from the Noor photography collective had in mind last December when we visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

Syria’s civil war has created nearly 12 million refugees, 2. 7 million of whom are externally displaced with another 9 million on the run inside the country. Every day people are fleeing for their lives, and UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency) and various NGOS are faced with trying to supply relief. But this growing crisis tends to get lost amid daily news coverage of deadly attacks and the consequent political chess game that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still winning. 

Nina Berman / NOOR: A view of the Zaatari refugee camp, where approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees are living in a sprawling tent village in the desert.

The purpose of our trip was to highlight this refugee crisis. But instead of distributing our images in the traditional media, we decided we would hang our photography inside the camp to help those living there to feel acknowledged as survivors. Two of the NOOR photographers had covered the war inside Syria and we all had experience documenting refugees.

This idea first came to me in late October 2013. I saw a press photograph taken from the sky above the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. Thousands of uniformed tents and caravans sprawled across the desert, giving the camp the look of a large military base. Human presence was dwarfed by the vastness of the sprawl. But though invisible to my eye, there were more than 100,000 Syrians refugees somewhere in that picture, making Zaatari the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world after Dadaab in Kenya. A new camp close by is opening to handle the overflow.

In the winter, the conditions in Zaatari are windy and bitter cold. In the summer, the heat is relentless and the camp has no trees and little shade. The Jordanians forbid building permanent structures, still wanting to see Zaatari as a camp providing emergency relief, but everywhere people are putting down roots, from the shops along the main market street, to the gardens, and the so- called “villas,” which are multiple caravans combined into one. Not one person I spoke to in Jordan believes that Zaatari will ever close, or that the refugees will be heading back to Syria any time soon. Rather, the thinking is that Zaatari will morph into some form of city attached to the greater Marfraq district in northern Jordan.

After a 90-minute drive from Amman, we arrived to the massive facility, rising up from the desert covering two square miles and just eight miles south of the Syria border. Concrete and barbed wire security walls surrounded the entrance like a detention camp. The main security wall—more than 120 meters long runs along the perimeter of the entrance to the camp—is the first thing visitors and new refugees see when they arrive at Zaatari.

For my Noor colleagues—Alixandra Fazzina, Stanley Greene and Andrea Bruce—and I, the project presented particular challenges. For one, the subjects of our pictures were also the audience. So, while we didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of camp life—it would be insulting and dishonest—we also didn’t want to exhibit images so grim that it would make the Syrians living there feel even more depressed. We decided to rely on guidance and input from the refugees we met, as well as our own intuition and discussions.

UNHCR and JEN, a Japanese NGO working at the camp, provided funding and support with translators. They never exercised any editorial control. They simply reminded us to be especially considerate of cultural norms and respectful of people’s fears and concerns. If we had printed a large photograph of an unveiled woman, for example, we could have sparked a riot.

Nina Berman / NOOR: Unveiling the six-foot high photos.

We spent a week making pictures of people we met. From thousands of images of refugees, we chose just under 100. We blew up the photos to three meters wide and printer them in Amman, then installed them using water and glue on the security wall along the camp’s entrance, main road wall and inside the base camp which houses administrative operations. Delegations from donor countries are often brought into Zaatari in buses and don’t engage refugees directly. Now they are confronted with images that are literally larger than life of the people inside those walls. The refugees themselves, who walk amid the camp walls, see a visual narrative that affirms their epic survival, rather than a blank grey concrete barricade.

As the photographs went up in mid-March 2014, we encountered some push back from Jordanian authorities who oversee the camp. Sometimes the objections seemed arbitrary–a screaming newborn baby was deemed offensive or shocking (it was never quite clear), and had to come down. Another image of two builders stacking bricks was challenged because it’s illegal to bring bricks into the camp. Yet the bricks were being used to build an authorized washroom at a football field. After some back and forth, we settled on a solution; we would write in Arabic a caption at the bottom of the photograph explaining that the bricks were for an authorized washroom.

Another photograph showed a jumble of hands reaching out for bread during the morning food distributions. The picture made people look poor, I was told. But they are poor, I stated. In the end the picture survived.

Nina Berman / NOOR: Residents of Zaatari are planting roots at the camp, expecting the makeshift facility will be their home for the foreseeable future.

From what I witnessed—horns honking; thumbs up signs; a woman kissing me; another in her wheel chair racing to the wall, delighted to see her image six feet high—people like the photo wall. One boy wanted to know when his picture would go up. I hadn’t accounted for the possibility that some people could also feel excluded.

There was a second element to the project, something we called photo booth. Andrea Bruce and I set up a portrait studio in a tent normally used for meetings. We hung a soft black backdrop, created a little sitting area, and used natural light. We encouraged people to bring something they cherished, or someone they loved. Mothers and fathers came with their children, best friends arrived together, school kids ran from class, one boy brought a blanket, another man brought a shisha. The studio was hugely popular. In fact, one day we were so mobbed by customers we had to temporarily shut down. We made hundreds of portraits for people and the prints became coveted items.

A photo booth like this would go over well in any refugee camp, where people often arrive with just the clothes on their back. They had to sacrifice almost all personal belongings, writings, artwork, family photos, and so they have little physical evidence of their lives before the war. We hoped these portraits would make people feel more normal and grounded. It was important that we set up a special studio, rather than photograph them in front of their caravans or UNHCR tents. The idea was to remove the stigma and narrative of “refugee” from their portrait. In the pictures they decide how to pose, and how to look and what expression to communicate. We were completely at their service and loved it.

Photos from the NOOR Zaatari project will be exhibited in September at Photoville, an outdoor art festival at the Brooklyn waterfront.

Nina Berman / NOOR: Residents of Zaatari walk by the wall of photos.