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Matinee: Tasneem Alsultan Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

28 May 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 137th in our series of Saturday matinees today: An Interview with Documentary Photographer Tasneem Alsultan.

Earlier this month in a Horn piece, we mentioned James Estrin's piece on The Hidden Stories of Arab Women which mentioned Tasneem Alsultan's introduction to Rawiya, a collective of Arab women photographers. Estrin said Alsultan "had a thriving wedding photography business in Saudi Arabia and the gulf states" when a collection of photo essays by Rawiya members planted the seed in her that she could do more.

"They were strong women from the Middle East who each had a very different artistic method of telling their stories," she says of the photographs featured in She Who Tells a Story, the collection of photo essays she found browsing in a Dubai bookstore. The slide show accompanying Estrin's story includes images from several of those Rawiya photographers.

This isn't that story, though.

This story is about Syrian refugee children in Amman, Jordan. Amnesty International estimates there are 4.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Jordan hosts over 635,000 Syrian refugees, about 10 percent of its population.

As part of this project, Alsultan taught photography to three classes of children four to five years old and three more to teenagers.

The connection? Alsultan, herself from Saudia Arabia, conducted a Voices of the Children photography project in Amman. She describes the experience in this short clip.

Among the very first scenes in the clip are children greeting her as she comes into their classroom. That, in itself, is no small miracle. As Gordon Brown wrote in Without education, Syria's children will be a lost generation, "a third of boys and girls displaced from their home country have become laborers, often working illegally in unsafe conditions."

As part of this project, Alsultan taught photography to three classes of children four to five years old and three more to teenagers.

"Art is an amazing tool to convey our emotions," she says. It not only lets us show what we've been through but helps us cope with it.

But the kids didn't know that. At the beginning, they were skeptical. "They felt that there was no use," she says. But they didn't know much about the arts, she says. Their previous experience with the arts was limited to perhaps just painting.

What these children knew was the horror of war.

Their first photos, taken with smartphones, "were very dark," she says, referring to the mood. But then they would be attracted to something bright green. And growing. Which reminded them of the trees they had known at home. "They somehow found a new thread in the whole experience."

The "somehow" was the power of photography, of art, to transform lives. It helped the children feel safe and that they have a future, she said.

She uses the word "positivity" a lot in this piece. It's a real word, meaning the quality or state of being positive. It's what's missing in so much of the news from the Middle East. But it's in every scene of this clip.

In one scene near the end of the clip, a little girl takes a photo of a little boy in a hooded jacket posing in front of a wall and then runs over to show it to him. It's very brief but long enough to see there are smiles on both of their faces.

The sort of smiles we are used to seeing on children's faces.

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