I've had this website up for a while, but I've neglected to address some of the most important photos that I've taken. In the spring of 2016 I was lucky enough to travel to Lebanon to visit Syrian refugees living in refugee camps. I went with my dad, grandparents, and an organization called Heart for Lebanon. The experience was thrilling and heartbreaking, and the people that I met were completely different than I expected. The news constantly shares photos of injured refugees, people crying and being portrayed as helpless victims of a malicious war. The people that I met were victims, yes, but they were anything but helpless. These people were strong and resilient. Despite their tragic circumstances, these refugees were still carrying on with their lives, raising children, and making plans for a better future. I focused my photography on what I wanted to share about them. I tried to capture their personalities and humanize them to show a new side to the refugee story. My photos are about the refugees, but in this post I want to explain how my experiences directly affected me and my opinions on different cultures, prejudice, and how our beliefs are shaped. My personal beliefs affected the lens that my photos took on, and this is my story of how those beliefs changed to become what you see in my photos.
If you're interested in reading about refugee stories, my article in The Tam News shares the stories of the refugees I met.
I've traveled a lot in the past, mostly throughout Europe, but Lebanon was like nothing I'd seen before. I've found many similarities between American and European cultures, and have always felt comfortable and safe in my travels. I wasn't expecting to feel much different in Lebanon.
When I first arrived in Beirut, Lebanon's capital, I knew immediately that it was nothing like Europe. For one, I'd never been in a place without a majority white population. I pride myself in being accepting of diversity, and in America I know many people of different ethnicities and cultures, but despite these differences I have always felt connected to them through our shared American culture. In Lebanon I felt completely unfamiliar with the people I encountered, and from the beginning I felt uncomfortable not seeing any faces that looked like mine. By that I mean that I didn't see any white people, and I'd never felt so out of place. I didn't take any photos that first day.
I felt ashamed by my feelings. I didn't just feel uncomfortable- I felt threatened. Eyes turned as I walked through the city and I felt that others were acting hostile towards me because I stood out as one of the only white faces. In return I felt hostile towards them. I never considered that my perception might be skewed by my own prejudices, because I had never admitted to myself that I had prejudice.
My hometown, Mill Valley, is very liberal, and it's easy to get caught up in pretending that cultural differences don't matter. We are supposed to see everyone as equal, and sometimes that means ignoring significant differences between people. We claim that we are not racist, that we don't have prejudices, and that we are accepting of everyone, but it's not often that we put these beliefs to the test. In retrospect I realize that the hostile eyes I felt were a projection of my own fear, and not based in any real actions of others.
I wanted to find things that justified my fear, and it's true that we see what we want to see. There are many people in America who want to believe that people from Arab countries are bad. They have already preconceived notions about people they don't understand and only pay attention to stories of terrorist acts and radical Islam. As a liberal I often feel righteous and believe that I am better than people who are less tolerant. I think that it is incredibly ignorant to believe that entire demographics or religions are malicious, and yet I cannot say that I am not capable of feeling the same irrational hatred. Because of my liberal background I feel a moral obligation to be accepting of other cultures, but those morals don't make me better than those who are hateful. I blindly accepted the morals of my community, the same way that others blindly accept the prejudices of their own communities. It is just as ignorant of me to be righteous about my morals without understanding why I believe them. It has become a goal of mine to acknowledge my prejudices, not ignore them, because it is my responsibility to understand and challenge those prejudices. Cultural differences do affect the way that I feel about people, and if I don't try to understand them then I risk letting misunderstandings turn into prejudices that shape my world view.
After my second day in Lebanon I began to realize that I had no reason to feel threatened or afraid. That second day, I was taken out of a city of strange faces and talked directly with local Lebanese people and Syrian refugees.
At first I was warry of these new people, but they told me their stories and I began to understand them and their experiences. My guides from Heart for Lebanon shared their pasts with me, and I gathered new knowledge of their people's history. I learned about the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which left many Lebanese with hatred towards the Syrian people. Their experiences with Syria had shaped their views on the refugees, much as 9/11 shaped America's views of Arab nations. Even in countries with similar religions and ethnicities there was prejudice towards people who had nothing to do with their government's actions.
I could have read all of the news articles in the world about the refugee crisis and I still would never have been able to humanize the refugees the way that personal interaction allowed me to do. As Kurt Vonnegut said about World War II in Slaughter House 5: "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters."
Those forces- history, politics, and media- dehumanize innocent victims. These victims are, in fact, characters and individuals that cannot be judged based on forces out of their control. Hearing those individuals tell their stories brought new meaning to everything I thought I'd known about them.
When I arrived at the first camp, my photography was vague and without many focuses. I was trying to capture my experiences, but I didn't understand my subjects enough to know what images I was looking for. Without a purpose, photography is meaningless, and so slowly I began to find a purpose for my art. I began to recognize characteristics that I wanted to capture, and my photography took on a new focus. Instead of aiming my lens at a crowd, I felt closer to the people that I was around, and was able to focus on their solemness and their happiness, their resilience, and their strength which was so profound to me.
In a refugee camp in the Bekka Valley I met a grandmother who'd lost her son in Syria. She was forced to bury him in a road median because it was too unsafe to go to a cemetery. She'd also lost her grandson, and even though her words had to be translated, I heard her, saw her face, and recognized human emotions that I could never have understood by reading about her. Although it was difficult for her, she wanted to share her story with me and make me feel welcome in her home. I was offered coffee and tea and treated as a guest and as a friend.
I became more visually interested in my surroundings as I became more comfortable in them. People on the streets of Beirut no longer felt threatening to me because they reminded me of those that I'd found to be friendly and welcoming. I am no longer ashamed of how I'd felt before, because it is not shameful to be afraid of the unfamiliar. It is human to feel threatened by things that we don't understand, but I have found that those fears can be assuaged by becoming familiar with them. If I had not conversed with the Syrian and Lebanese people, I might not have gotten over my fears, and because of that I wouldn't have made the realizations that I'm currently writing about. Nor would I have been able to capture in my photography the things that I found so incredible about those people.
During the trip we visited schools created by Heart for Lebanon for Syrian children. In their short lifetimes these children had experienced more tragedy and trauma than I had ever imagined, and yet they had dedicated themselves to their education for the hope of a better future. I was shocked by how eager they were to learn because I realized that they valued their education much differently than the students at my school did. In my community education is mandatory and is often viewed by students as a burden. They must complete high school to get into college, and must complete college to get a good job, but the quality of learning during these steps is often undervalued.
For the Syrian refugees, education is not mandatory. They are living in tents with unemployed parents and many young children are sent to labor in agriculture to support their families. Education is a lower priority than the need for food, water, and shelter. Those who were lucky enough to attend schools were grateful and treated their education as a privilege. They understood that learning was an opportunity that many of their peers didn't get. Education gave them the chance to have better lives with stable jobs, instead of the unreliable agricultural labor that barely supported their families. School also served the purpose of creating a sense of community and as a distraction. The refugees are displaced; they don't have a home, so school was a place where they could find purpose and a sense of belonging. I do value my education, but I found myself wishing that I had felt as passionate and loving about school as the Syrian children did.
It's a strange thing to be jealous of people who have so much less than you. Who am I to wish that my school had their sense of community? Who am I to wish that I could have realized the incredible value of my education as they had? My education has offered me endless opportunities in my life, and it is absurd to be envious of those who have gone through tragedies that I would never wish on myself. I didn't want circumstances like theirs, and I didn't want my passion for school to come from tragic experiences. Instead I was realizing my own guilt that I took so many things for granted.
My photographs from the Heart for Lebanon schools are of the two sides that I saw of these children. One is their understanding of tragedy, and the other is of their incredible enthusiasm to learn.
After visiting the schools I was more focused on children in my photography. Their parents were the ones struggling and living the life of refugees, and they felt the oppression of their circumstances. But the children were growing up under those circumstances, knowing little else, and their optimism had not been diminished. The refugee children were embodiments of the incredible adaptability of humans, which is the hope that continues the refugees' will to make lives for themselves.
My trip to Lebanon has had a huge impact on how I view my own life. I have become much more conscious of how I view other people, and I don't ignore differences between us anymore. I seek out diversity, because I know that it will teach me more about the world and about my place in it. I have changed the way that I think about my privilege, and not just in relation to the refugees. In my community, I've become more aware of how people's circumstances have made their lives different from mine. I have a friend whose education means being able to take care of his family in the future because they don't have the same financial stability that mine does. I have friends who experience racism and prejudice because of their race or religion, and they have been forced to be conscious of their actions in ways that I never needed to. Becoming aware of the experiences that have shaped my peers' lives has allowed me to understand how and why their values and motivations are different than mine.
I don't think that it's right to say that I am tolerant of other cultures anymore. Tolerance simply implies not taking issue with others. Alone it cannot not eradicate those issues, it just silences them. I am not tolerant; I am conscious and I am aware of differences. I am passionate about uncovering the causes of those differences for a greater understanding of the world. The more that I learn the more empathetic I become. Empathy is the emotion creates peace and unity. We are not all equal in our experiences, but we can be united by understanding our differences if we make the effort to do so.
My photography from Lebanon is about my journey to understand people, and I would not be the same person that I am today without that.