The Syrian war has created an unprecedented refugee crisis with millions of Syrians displaced. More than 100,000 of them live on a stretch of land in northern Jordan at the Za’atari refugee camp, now the second largest refugee camp in the world. Located 12 kilometers from the Syrian border, the camp opened with just 100 families in July 2012.
Produced in 2014, the Za’atari project transformed a highly charged political space, the 120 meter concrete barbed wire security wall at the entrance to Jordan’s Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees into a massive photographic mural depicting these refugees on a monumental scale. The mural at the world’s second largest refugee camp was visible to both the subjects of the photographs and to the visitors, stakeholders and diplomats who decide their fate.
The project borrowed some of the visual language of photojournalism however by choice and political necessity, the process required explicit consent and collaboration. The security wall is a highly contested space with multiple parties claiming ownership. There was a real possibility of violence. Consent and respect for cultural and religious norms of representation was a primary consideration. The images also had to strike a particular truth: they had to negotiate the space between the grim reality of the camp and the projects’ s intent to use art as a form of inspiration and empowerment.
In addition to the wall mural, the photographers constructed a photo studio with a black backdrop and invited refugees to have their portraits made alone or with someone or something they loved. Providing this neutral space as opposed to photographing them against the background of the camp removed the stigma and narrative of refugee status from the portraits. The subjects chose how to pose and what expressions to offer; the photographers were at their service. Around 500 portrait prints were made on the scene and given to the subjects. The booth operated as a unique space in the camp where refugees had agency.
The Za’atari project was produced by board member Nina Berman and photographed by Nina, photographers Stanley Greene, Alixandra Fazzina and Andrea Bruce in collaboration with UNHCR and JEN (Japanese Emergency NGO) , It has since been recreated at the United Nations, at Photoville, and at the Hamburg Photography Triennale, as well as being published in the New Yorker and Vice.