Life in a Refugee Camp As Seen Through the Eyes of Young Refugees

Ali Morad, 11 years old, self-portrait using a mirror. All images herein copyrighted by the respective photographers and Reza Visual Academy.

The astonishing number of people fleeing war in the past half-decade has caused increased editorial attention toward the complex circumstances and dire conditions of refugees, and much of this coverage presents them in terms of how they impact destination countries. However, Reza, an internationally acclaimed photographer, has placed cameras and photography training in the hands of young refugees, who produce astonishing images that let us understand displacement through their eyes, and at the same time, help them cope with being outcast by war.


Amar Abdulah, 11 years old, photographs young refugees of the Kawergosk.

While visiting the Kawergosk Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, Reza realized that photography and media creation could provide a cathartic experience and creative outlet for those living in dangerous or unstable circumstances due to war. Thus he created Reza Visual Academy inspiring refugees and conflict victims to make their own images that help them endure while bringing understanding to the world as to what refugee life is like through their personal narratives. The images you see here are part of a five year project, Exile Voices.

Reza with students participating in the Exile Voices project.

It takes no small amount of courage to be willing to aim a camera inward and embarking on autobiographical photojournalism, especially in a refugee environment where quality of life is desperately compromised and joy is scarce. Yet according to Reza, there is substantial willingness for young people to learn photography and document their lives:

Refugees, like every other people suffering injustice, want to tell their stories — to express themselves. When they find out that photography is one of the best tools and mediums to tell their own stories, then immediately, there is great enthusiasm — they want to learn about it, they want to use it, because they all believe the situation they’re living in is unjust. And they believe in humanity, and they believe that if they show their situation to other people, then humanity will react.

Creative gratification and publication of their images is not the only upside to participation in the Academy. Participants perform better in school, often, if not always, being at the top of their classes. Additionally, the young people experience pride that extends to the community, because by portraying themselves confronting challenging circumstances, the challenges of their families and refugee community are represented too. This made me wondered how families of the student photographers responded to their children bringing cameras into their homes and public places. Would this be too indiscreet, and would the refugee community prefer that their lives, for better or worse, be kept private and not editorialized and published globally on social media — which it has? But Reza suggests that the families’ responses are quite the opposite, and while there may be apprehension at the onset of a child’s participation in the program, they ultimately adjust and support their childrens’ creative efforts:

I have not seen any refugees that discourage or resist participation. They’re all come with big enthusiasm and bring their youth to participate. Sometimes, in the beginning, they do not want photography in their tent or of family life. But little by little, they adjust and permit this kind of work. It is not a project that creates some kind of opposition — it is all mostly welcome.

Solav Qasem, 11 years old, a little boy clutching a doll.

The program improves the participants’ morale as well, because being in exile robs individuals of personal agency that most of us take for granted — being mobile, seeking education, work, and cultural opportunities — and by becoming accomplished photographers, the students not only learn techniques and creative expression, they also can be part of the solution by being informants to the world on humanitarian issues.

And photographers will understand the phenomena experienced by the Academy students, that beauty can be found in the everyday surroundings when a engaging in the act of seeing with a camera. Ordinary acts — playing, eating, bathing, a kiss — move from the ordinary to the extraordinary when caught at the right moment, and when presented through the talent of these aspiring photojournalists maintaining life in a temporary camp environment. Reza sees it this way:

They became much more aware that their photography could bring change, could cause imitation, so they are more and more motivated in daily life by beauty of the nature around them, but also showing daily life — everything happening in the camps through their photography.

The children who participate in the Academy often hear from outsiders that their images are featured in social media and news venues globally. Being restricted to refugee camps, they cannot witness our responses nor are they certain of our empathy. Even so, without seeing our reactions firsthand, these refugee student photographers continue to make photos of their unusual and difficult lives, and in doing so, we see how their ordinary moments are transformed into compelling statements of survival and hope for the future.


All images and quotes courtesy of Reza and Reza Visual Academy
National Geographic
Family Life Project


Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.

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