A barefoot girl cleans an alleyway. Two youths diligently study in a stairwell. Boys sit at desks in a cramped, poorly lit and low-ceilinged classroom.
These are just some of the ways in which education is portrayed in “The View from the Ground,” the photo exhibition that opened Wednesday at the gallery space of Masrah al-Madina .
Given the grim subject matter of some of the images, it is perhaps surprising to learn that the European Union-funded exhibition is in part a celebration of that body’s financial contribution to improving educational and living conditions in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.
International bodies that spend millions on projects inevitably want to document their progress and celebrate their successful completion. PR firms and communications departments labor to attractively package successful outcomes and achievements.
This time, however, the EU and UNRWA decided to take a different approach to publicity, one that gives artistic license to just the beneficiaries of the EU aid.
To highlight this particular EU-funded rehabilitation work, the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees hired Zakira, a local NGO that specializes in training youths in photography.
Zakira, which has previously produced three exhibitions involving young Palestinian photographers, tapped the talent of 275 youths living in camps across the country, aged 12-20.
Of these, 250 worked on images pertaining to education, while a group of 25 focused on documenting a new EU-funded approach to shelter-rehabilitation in the camps.
To reflect these groupings, “The View from the Ground” is divided into two divergent parts.
Each photograph on the “education” side is untitled and simply tagged with the artist’s name and his or her camp of residence.
Without such prompting, however, one might be at a loss to identify the theme to be education. “Daily life” or indeed “child labor” might more readily come to mind as overarching titles for the collection.
One image shows two young boys, hiding perhaps, in a rundown and overgrown building. Alongside, women sit on the floor working with vine leaves. Elsewhere there is a playful close-up of kids on a jungle gym. Other images don’t show children at all, focusing rather on adults.
Then there are the pictures of children at work. A rotund boy wearing an apron carries a large coffee pot with the familiarity of a seasoned vendor. A slim youth crouches goggle-less as he works with a blow torch. A buck-toothed boy sells tomatoes and bananas in Ain al-Hilweh camp. A youth aids fishermen in Rashidieh. A girl goes about doing the laundry, while another youngster works in a bakery.
One particularly thought-provoking image on this theme contains no human figure at all.
Omara Shafaa from Ain al-Hilweh has taken a close-up shot of a workbench with assorted tools hanging above it. Some of the items – spanners, wrenches and so on – are missing, but a drawn outline of the absent tool indicates where it belongs. Intended or not, it is a strong symbolic nod to the positions young Palestinians believe they will come to occupy.
“We wanted to showcase the [projects’] impact through the eyes of the kids,” UNWRA public information officer Hoda Samra told The Daily Star at the exhibition opening, explaining that the portrayal of child labor in the images is perhaps an indication of what Palestinian youths feel education yields.
It’s also notable that the pictures in this series which depict children actually engaged at educational institutions or studying tend to have female subjects.
There are also very few images of kids at play. Rather than playfully mimicking the poses of movie stars and sports heroes, the subjects look uncharacteristically serious for their age.
In this regard, Ahmad al-Hadi’s (in this context incongruous) photo of a young boy in a perfectly pressed suit and tie is particularly striking. Is this a commentary on what a serious undertaking education is?
Meanwhile, Faiza Hamady Farouk from Taalabaya in the Bekaa Valley has captured the closest thing to contentment in the education side of the exhibition. A young girl raises her face to the sun, her eyes closed, her mouth curling but not fully smiling as she leans against a poorly plastered concrete wall. From her hand a small, plastic Palestinian flag hangs.
On the other side of the gallery, a different approach is taken. Here the exhibition’s aim is to highlight the EU’s shelter rehabilitation project, under which a self-help approach was taken to aid families in renovating dilapidated and overcrowded homes. In this, 25 youths were deployed to take both “before” and “after” images.
The exhibition comprises a selection of these before and after shots, displayed next to an explanation of where each structure is and what family it houses. The photographers are not accredited individually.
With the stark differences between the before and after images and the introductions to the families who have benefited from the rehabilitation, this side of the show is an unquestionably effective PR tool.
For some viewers, however, the best among this second set of images may well be the ones which capture other members of their team at work.
In these we see youth standing and crouching, focusing their cameras and lining up their shots. They are hard at work. Indeed, they are showcasing exactly what Samra claims to be one of the main points of this exhibition, “To let the whole world know Palestinian kids are full of talent.”
“The View from the Ground” is up at Masrah al-Madina in Hamra through Nov. 13.