• May 11, 2017
Stranded in a refugee camp, this Syrian photographer is educating Young Artists

“Self-expression and creative problem-solving are important to children and youth anywhere in the world. For refugees who have endured the trauma of war … it is even more essential.”
— Photographer Brendan Bannon

In the middle of the Jordanian desert, at a camp that houses tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, Syrian photographer Mohamad Khalif teaches the art of food photography.

He shares a photograph of the setup: eight students and Khalif gather around a table that overflows with chopped vegetables, tomatoes and flowers. A single fan on the wall pushes against the heat of the camp, which can reach above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.

This is one portrait of artistic expression in Zaatari refugee camp, where approximately 80,000 Syrians live, having fled the devastating five-year war there that has killed more than 400,000 people.

Mohamad Khalif, far left, teaches food photography in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Khalif

Khalif, aged 25, photographs life in Zaatari while teaching photography workshops to other refugees. In his work, daily expressions of ritual and joy — a line of men praying, children playing — are juxtaposed with barbed wire and the ashes of burned structures. All of this, he said, forms a part of the Syrian story.

“The picture is a letter to the world,” he said in a Facebook message. “The world should know what [makes] people Syrian.”

Khalif arrived in Zaatari in March 2013, almost a year after his brother was killed in Damascus by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Khalif.

Once at Zaatari, Khalif met Brendan Bannon, an American photographer who teaches workshops in the camp with a grant from the UN.

Khalif loved photography for years and had shot sporting events in Syria using a camera phone or a friend’s Nikon when he could borrow it. But during the fall of 2014, he took those skills further by training with Bannon and working as a course assistant in two of the workshops that Bannon taught.
“It was great to see the way that [Khalif] supported the students in every way imaginable,” Bannon said. “He would meet the youngest and walk them through the camp to class to be sure they were there safe and on time. He took notes on everything that happened, all of the discussions and lessons were recorded in his notebook for future use.”
After Bannon’s workshops ended, Khalf began teaching on his own. In November of 2014, his photographs of sports in Zaatari were featured on The New York Times’ website.