How photographer Agnes Montanari is helping children deal with trauma

Photographer Agnes Montanari has been working with Syrian child refugees in Jordan in hopes of showing them that their lives don’t have to be defined by trauma.

Monanari spends months at a time teaching children how to use cameras to capture their surroundings, document their own personal narratives, and realize that their lives have meaning.

Her project, which is organized and funded by Save the Children in Jordan, has now grown into Korea.

ivoh talked with Montanari about her work, which aligns with our belief that the media can be a force for good and an agent of world benefit.

Here is our edited email exchange…

Tenore: How did the project come about, and why is it important to you?

Agnes Montanari

Montanari: The project started in February 2013. I had arrived in Jordan in August 2012, at the same time the Za’atari camp opened. After spending a few months getting to know the country and people, I contacted Save the Children in Jordan to propose teaching photography in the camp. The project was accepted.

I had taught photography before, not to refugees but to handicapped children (with World Vision in Georgia) and to children undergoing treatment for burns (with Doctors Without Borders in France).

It is important for me, as I think of photography as not only a means of communication but also as a way to restore the confidence that children have in themselves. It gives them a chance to move beyond the idea that they’re victims.

From a therapeutic point of view, photography allows them to replace images of trauma with other positive images they create themselves (we all remember things, events visually, in our mind). It is also easier to express yourself if you do not have to use words, which can be far more difficult than taking a photograph. Photos can seem external, even if they are very much an expression of who you are.

A photo taken by a child in Montanari’s class.

How long has the project been going on?

So far, there have been three sessions that have each been three months long. We are now starting the fourth session, which is also three months long.

How do you work with the children?

During the first session, we gave them disposable cameras. They got digital cameras when the second session started. I teach them the techniques of photography, but I insist on visual literacy (learning what a picture is, how to read a picture, objectivity vs. subjectivity). They learn how to make stories with pictures.

Every session is an opportunity for discussions. I always ask a lot of questions — Why? How? Where? What do you think? I believe the answers will come because of the contribution that each one of the children gives. And this is what happens most of the time. They are learning to express opinions, which is unusual for them, as they are never normally asked to do so.

What, if anything, surprised you about the children’s photos?

Their inner beauty. The fact that the children are taking pictures not only to show how they live but just because they think something is beautiful. Being able to see beauty, to feel beauty, is extremely important.

They also surprised me a lot by showing me things that I did not expect to find in a refugee camp —satellite dishes, fountains, pigeons they raise, full sets of make-up, wedding dresses…

“Saw this little boy,” a child photographer wrote. “Took this picture as for me it meant ‘stop violence against children.;”

What did you learn from the project, and what do you want others to take away from it?

It confirmed my belief that human beings have the ability to reorganize their lives around the values they have always believed in.

Photography is like a journey — a journey among people but first of all a journey within yourself. As a teacher, I learn with my students to look at things differently and not to take anything for granted.

Photography allows us to restore dignity. We all tend to talk about “refugees” as being a homogenous group of people. Through their pictures, the children showed me who they were, their personalities.

You’re also doing this type of work in Seoul, with the help of Save the Children in Korea. Say more about that.

We have paired the Za’atari children with children in Korea who are survivors of the ferry accident that happened in April 2014. Pictures, comments, and questions have been exchanged between the two groups.

I am presently in Seoul, where I am holding a week-long workshop for the Korean children. I am now organizing a joint exhibition with pictures from the children in Za’atari and in Seoul. The theme chosen by the children is “What do you value the most around you?”


Related: How Hipstamatic’s ‘Cause Beautiful’ is empowering youth through photography | Las Fotos Project teaches girls how to use photography as a means of storytelling & expression | Help-Portrait event shows impact of a single photo


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