Impact Journalism Day 2016

In War-torn Iraq, a Photojournalist Teaches Children to Tell Their Own Stories

'Until now, the story is almost always told by us, by a foreigner. I would like to see the story told by those that lived the story.'


On her first day on the photography course organized by Reza at the Kawergosk refugee camp, Maya Rostam (12 at the time) took a picture of the sneakers she wore when her family walked from Syria to Iraq to escape the war.
Maya Rostam/Reza Visual Academy.

When Maya Rostam first asked her mother if she could join a new photography course in the Kawergosk refugee camp where they lived in Iraq, she received a resounding “No.”

“I said, ‘Look, you have school and other things you need to do,’” recalls Maya’s mom, Jamila Mohammed Amin.

The course Maya wanted to take was organized for schoolchildren at the refugee camp by the renowned French-Iranian photojournalist Reza Deghati (known professionally as Reza).

Eventually, she persuaded her mother and joined the project, called “Exile Voices.” Twelve at the time, Maya was one of the younger participants.

The classroom is a trailer on the edge of the sprawling camp outside Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Over 10,000 Syrian refugees live here, including 2,000 school-age children. Most arrived in 2013 but still reside in temporary shelters, in a sea of blue and white tarpaulin covering 400 square meters (4,300 square feet).

“Most of these people lost everything they had in a day,” says Reza.

The floor of the Rostam home is a slab of concrete. The walls are sheets of plastic, in some places reinforced with wood. Children play in the muddy streets outside.

Foreign journalists and photographers frequently cover Kawergosk along with dozens of other refugee camps across the region. “Until now, the story is almost always told by us, [by] a foreigner,” says Reza. “I would like to see the story told by those that lived the story.”

Capturing daily life

His goal is to train these young people to capture their own lives in ways a visitor never could. In 2013, he started the class in Kawergosk, donating cameras for 20 students. More wanted to join, but there wasn’t enough equipment or space.

Since then, the young photographers have trained their lenses on their daily routines: children bathing in a Styrofoam cooler; kids running on the rocky soil among rows of tents; refugees eating and studying by the light of small lanterns.

During her first day on the course, Maya took a picture of the sneakers she wore when her family walked from Syria to Iraq to escape the war. In the photo, taken early in the morning, the shoes are covered with frost after spending the night outside. She showed up late for the class because she had to wait to put them on. It was exactly the kind of powerful image Reza was looking for.

The inspiration for the project came long before the Syrian war even started. In 1983, Reza was in Pakistan, covering the influx of refugees fleeing Afghanistan. He started teaching young people in a camp to take photos and create their own narrative about living in exile. He says “the Afghans were telling a different story” from that of the media.

In the decades since, Reza has run similar programs across the globe – in Sudan, South Africa and now Iraq. He calls his nonprofit organization Reza Visual Academy. So far, he has provided most of the funding, and says the most difficult part is finding the support to continue.

In 2012, a student who had trained at his photography school in Kabul became the first Afghan to win a Pulitzer Prize (for Breaking News Photography): Massoud Hossaini is a role model for many of the students here, including 12-year-old Nalin Bashar. “I liked photos from the beginning,” she says. “My dream is to be a big journalist.”

Bashar scrolls through her photos with Mohammad Qaddri, another Syrian refugee and former English teacher who works with the students in Reza’s absence. She shows him pictures of her friends and a recent family picnic.

“This is a nice photo,” says Qaddri, looking at a shot of the camp at sunset. “But here the sun should be on the other side.”

Some of the students’ photos made it all the way to Paris. From July to October 2015, they were plastered on walls on the banks of the River Seine, opposite the Musée d’Orsay, as part of an exhibition titled “Rve d’humanité” (“Dream of Humanity”). It was organized to highlight the work of UNHCR and sponsored by the HIPA photography foundation.

Camera to follow

Maya Rostam is now living in Europe. Last year, she and her father went to Germany, along with tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees. Her mother Amin is still in Kawergosk. She says Maya didn’t take her camera because she traveled with smugglers and feared it could be stolen on the way. Amin and her four other children hope to join them soon, and to bring it.

“The camera opened her eyes to the world,” says Amin. “She became willing to learn new things.”

All the kids participating in the program are now getting top marks in school, says Reza. Many have also enrolled in English classes in the camp.

His wish is that his students from different countries, backgrounds and experiences will eventually form their own international network or photo agency.

In the past year, he has started two more programs in refugee camps in northern Iraq, and would like to expand the project to Syrian camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Through this project we brought a smile,” says Reza. “These kids don’t feel like they are refugees anymore.”

This article first appeared on the Sparknews website.