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"It's not just about wounded, dead, destruction": when subjects become the storytellers

A hidden pool in the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp, Lebanon, 2019, captured by a participant in the Canon-ICRC project Unfiltered at the camp. © Ahmed el Sabeh

The heart of photography is storytelling, but all too often we see only the viewpoints of outside observers. This situation was the motivation for a Canon collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Unfiltered, a project which gives people in conflict-affected areas the tools and training to tell their own stories through the medium of photography.

"Our corporate philosophy guides our effort to support the society in which we live and work, and to use our tools, equipment and knowledge to develop the skills and the passion of the younger generations," said Yuichi Ishizuka, President and CEO of Canon Europe, Middle East and Africa, as he introduced a panel discussing the project at the Visa pour l'Image 2019 festival of photojournalism.

Yuichi Ishizuka, President and CEO of Canon Europe, Middle East and Africa, introduces the panel discussion about the project at the festival of photojournalism Visa pour l'Image 2019.
Yuichi Ishizuka, President and CEO of Canon Europe, Middle East and Africa, introduced the panel discussion at Visa pour l'Image 2019 festival of photojournalism.
A panel sit on a stage in discussion, beneath a picture of girls in hijabs holding Canon cameras.
At Visa pour l'Image 2019, Canon and the ICRC hosted a panel discussion about their collaborative project Unfiltered, which provides photography training to young people in conflict-affected places. Speaking were (left-right) Emma Hope, Fabrizio Carboni, Anush Babajanyan, Patrick Baz, Ayda El-Ghoul , Daniel Obeid, Daniel's translator, and Kathryn Cook-Pellegrin.

The panel, chaired by Head of Photography at the ICRC Kathryn Cook-Pellegrin, explored the importance and challenges of the outreach project Unfiltered, which sent professional photographers to mentor vulnerable young people living in places including the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon and the Al-Rajaa school for girls in Ramadi, Iraq.

Patrick Baz, a photographer and founder of the Beirut Center of Photography, mentored the young people in Lebanon, and described the challenges of photographing in the refugee camp – one of the most densely populated in the world and rife with crime. He told the audience at Visa that most subjects were uncomfortable having their photos taken, and some were suspicious of the photographers and even aggressive towards them. Despite these challenges, the young photographers persevered in order to tell the story of daily lives there.

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Daniel Obeid, a participant in the programme who lives in Ein El-Helweh refugee camp, Lebanon, said: "It was very important for me and the group to take photos of Ein El-Helweh because we wanted to show the real life of the people there. It's difficult for other people to show how we really live, because if a photographer comes from outside Ein El-Helweh they will look at things differently. We wanted to show Ein El-Helweh from our own perspective."

The participants also left Ein El-Helweh to take some of their photographs – the first time that some of them had ever been outside of the camp, providing confidence and new skills, as well as producing authentic insights.

"It was really important to show people affected by this instability as actors," said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC Regional Director for Near and Middle East, reflecting on the humanitarian side of the project. "Very often pictures are taken, reports are made by people from the outside and sometimes we project a passive image of people living in situations of conflict and violence – but they have a life. They have happy moments and sad moments, and it's not just about wounded, dead, destruction."

Photos in the Unfiltered exhibition at Visa pour l'Image 2019.
The photographs taken by the project's participants were displayed on the Canon stand at Visa pour l'Image 2019.
A project participant's image, showing a man sitting in semi-darkness watching television, to illustrate the boredom experienced within the camp.
“Boredom is a common point most of the young generation has here in the camp,” commented one of the project's participants, Ahmed el Sabeh, illustrated by his image from inside the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp, Lebanon, 2019 © Ahmed el Sabeh
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The future of Unfiltered

Asked what's next for the Unfiltered project, Ayda El-Ghoul, Head of the ICRC office in Ein El-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, said: "One of our focuses is around community resilience. And this project with Canon is really about giving tools to members of the community to play a role within the community." She explained how the photographers in Ein El-Helweh are now training younger people in their community, gaining confidence as they transfer their knowledge and skills.
A child playing in an alleyway during summer where it can be dangerous with low-hanging electrical wires. Photographed by a refugee living in the camp in Lebanon.
“Kids play in the alleys during summer. If someone’s pouring water [from above] or if wires are too low, kids could be electrocuted and die,” documented Fatima el Mosleh from her home in the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp, Lebanon, 2019. © Fatima el Mosleh
Photographer Daniel Obeid speaking to the panel.
Daniel Obeid talked about his experiences of being a participant in the Unfiltered project, and about his hopes for the future.

For Daniel and the other photographers living in Ein El-Helweh, the next step is to get their images out to a wider audience. To do this, he and his group want to start an Instagram account.

"Of course the process is really important, giving access to equipment and good quality training and trainers," said Emma Hope, EMEA Sustainability Manager at Canon Europe, "but when the output is what is being talked about, when it's the young person's story that's getting the attention, that is success. Canon is just the enabler in all of that."

Find all the Canon-related stories on our Visa pour l'Image event page.

Autor Ella Taylor & Cecilie Harris


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