disposable cameras are letting kids in refugee camps tell their own stories

The images are a heartbreaking look at the poverty, boredom and normality that forms their lives.

by Wendy Syfret
16 June 2016, 3:15am

The images we're shown of children in refugee camps are understandably bleak: these are kids living between worlds, unclaimed and unprotected by nations. Earlier this year Australian aid organisation Act for Peace set out to give Syrian children in Jordanian camps the autonomy to show their own experience. 

Aware of how asking the children to directly account their experiences could re-traumatise them, they came up with the idea of giving them basic disposable cameras. It was a way to offer them a form of self-expression without speaking.

The kid's photos are at once unremarkable and heartbreaking. Given free rein, they capture the things around them, their friends, their family, their games and their lives. They deliver an intimacy that's usually lost on newscasts. Despite the extreme circumstances these children are in, their lives are still full of familiar images. They play, hang out, feel bored, laugh and make do. i-D spoke to Karen McGrath from the group about the project and what it revealed.

This feels like a pretty complex project, were there issues getting these cameras to the children?
We gave them the cameras during a program run by our local partner in Jordan called a Child's Forum. The forums are held each week and allow kids to come together in the community centre to learn and play. During one session we ran a short photography workshop and the kids each took a camera for the week. The biggest challenge was ensuring they knew how to use them. We showed them the basics of photography and how to tell a story. Most of them got it straight away. Before the war they lived happy lives and many were quite like Australian kids, they easily picked up the cameras and instinctively knew how to use it. The kids jumped at the opportunity.

I bet, did you have any expectations of what they'd choose to photograph?
To be honest we were really unsure. We gave them very open instructions to allow them to express themselves as authentically as possible. All we said was, teach us about your life. We had seen the camp ourselves, how it looked, but wanted to learn about how they saw their own lives.

While the shots display a lot of struggle, it's clearly not a focus of the images. Were you surprised by what they photographed?
I wasn't so much surprised as impressed. We'd met them in their homes or at the child's forum in class but to see into their world was very insightful. It was beautiful to see their expressions of friendship, family and home in such a simple way.

Can you tell me a bit more about that day-to-day existence? Those in between moments often aren't shown in the media.
It is very monotonous. Since most of them don't attend school and their parents and family members are unable to work legally in Jordan families live each day the same. They wake up, eat when food is available and just talk amongst themselves. The children described their favourite time of day being when they could just go out and play with their friends — this really came out in the photos.

You do get the feeling boredom is the most oppressive element. 
Despite the trauma these children have gone through, they're still kids. Their favourite things were to play sport, run around and laugh together. The photos really expressed their playfulness and the friendship between them all. I think it is a powerful reminder of the normal everyday kids involved in this conflict and makes us see them as kids we might know rather than a statistic or a news report.

Act for Peace supports Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan through their fundraising campaign the Ration Challenge.


Text Wendy Syfret
Images via Act for Peace

Refugee Camps
act for peace
aid organisations
disposable camera