Omar Imam on Syrian dreams

Photographer Omar Imam speaks about what it means to be a Syrian refugee six years into a conflict that has scattered Syrians across the world.

Above: Omar Imam. Photo by Omar Imam

Photographer Omar Imam left his native Damascus in 2012 and is now based in the Netherlands. In an interview with 90 Days, 90 Voices, Imam spoke about what it means to be a Syrian refugee six years into a conflict that has scattered Syrians across the world. His latest photo series, “Live, Love, Refugee,” moves past displacement statistics and instead focuses on the dreams, hopes, humor, and realities of the refugee experience.

Imam is the recipient of the Tim Hetherington Trust 2017 Visionary Award and a 2014 Magnum Foundation Arab Documentary Photography Program grantee. He was unable to attend his first exhibition in Chicago at the Catherine Edelman Gallery on July 14 due to visa restrictions on Syrians traveling to the U.S. In order to discuss “Live, Love, Refugee” with Borderless, Imam used the WhatsApp messaging application.

I wanted to discover myself as a Syrian, an artist and an activist through my photographs in “Live, Love, Refugee.” I already knew a lot about what is going on in Syria, however from talking to Syrians from different cities I learned that I actually knew very little. With each story, I found that I wanted more knowledge. The thing we don’t realize is that there are six million stories out in the world waiting to be told.

I didn’t come to this project with a political message, though I have my own political views. I tried to move away from politics, instead focusing on the human side of this conflict. People divide in conflict: those who are armed and the unarmed. My work challenges the media’s representation of the latter who I believe bear the weight of the Syrian conflict.

“She brings home the food now. Our testicles are in danger.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

I wanted to reimagine the image of the refugee. This trope has an almost timeless representation in photographs. It’s a certain type of imagery that has worked for the last 100 years, not just now. To me Syrian refugees in the Mediterranean look just like the refugees 20 or 30 years ago, and those refugees looked like refugees from WWI. Maybe we need a break to rethink our portrayal of the image of what a refugee is.

I think journalists can rethink the whole process of their assignments, and spend more time with the communities they cover. I noticed they would spend one day in the camp in the north of Lebanon, and after three days they are visiting four or five different camps, and spending about 20 or 30 minutes with each person. I spent nine or ten months talking to people and I just came out with 11 photos. This is how I work, and I’m not asking journalists to do that too, but maybe they can try to be more human in their point of view.

“In Lebanese society we are outsiders. We were not able to have the same privacy in Syria.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

If you want to understand more about the life of others, you can. Sometimes for logistics it’s discouraging — it’s so cold and muddy in camps, and you smell illness everywhere. You don’t speak their language. Sometimes you go with your camera with no translator, so there is no real relationship with the character, just they are there and you are there. I don’t want to be hard on journalists. But there are ways to humanize the image of refugee away from just being a victim.

Refugees are literal victims. The challenge for me was how not to show them as victims in photographs. As an artist, victimizing refugees is the easy thing to do. My photographs deal with victims but I show them with dignity, and focus on their attitude of survival. I noticed in the camp that no matter how bad it got, many of the refugees didn’t lose their sense of humor. I guess for Syrians, a sense of humor is how we have survived all of this.

“I wish to become a dragon and burn the scarves and everything in that tent.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

I moved to Lebanon in November 2013 to a house that I rented myself. I wasn’t familiar with life in camps, and this is how the whole idea came of “Live, Love, Refugee” came about. When I went to the camps I noticed that if any NGO came that day, they would just count the number of people for blanket or food distribution, but never really talk to them. Even if they talked, the refugees saw the aid workers, or even a Syrian like myself, as outsiders. Anyone living outside the camp is an outsider. So the camp began to represent untold stories to me.

“The gap between me and my memories from Syria becomes bigger. I’m afraid of the blank.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

In general I was welcomed, but the challenge was how to introduce conceptual documentary work. For them, anyone with a camera is CNN or Al Jazeera. So there is this very stereotyped relationship with the media. Whenever refugees in the camp would see a journalist or a camerman, they would immediately start to describe how bad their lives were and that they don’t get enough money from UNHCR. It’s a way to survive the conditions they live in. Oftentimes people really do need money for a surgery or extra food or blankets. But I wanted to help them move beyond victimization [and into] telling their own dreams. I was patient and I described what conceptual photography was, I told them I will listen to their story, and together we will make it into a good visual project.

It was difficult because in Syria we have different cultures. Most of the refugees in the camps came from the countryside where they had less access to art, so it was hard to convince them to join this project, yet at the same time life in the camp made them more open to new ideas. Most of them had already suffered the consequences of the war, so they didn’t mind trying something different — an earthquake had already happened in their life.

When I started with the process, for most it was joyful, playful, even therapeutic. For some they liked it, but for others they couldn’t break the stereotypical image of what a camera triggered in their brain about the media. It’s funny that audiences all over the world are used to this tragic image of refugees — the old woman in the cold or the boy in the mud. I’m not saying those images are not true, but it’s just one layer of their lives when you have many other layers. It’s funny that not only the audience, but the refugees themselves bought into this image of what a refugee should look like in front of a camera.

Each photograph began with hours learning their stories and asking them if they are fine talking about a specific idea. If yes, I would go home and brain storm as an artist how to make this visually with props, then I would contact them through WhatsApp to say for example, “This is the concept: you will be a dragon.” Most of the time they were OK with it, [but] if not I needed to develop it more. Then I would go back into the camp to shoot. They enjoyed the shoot the most. The characters and their neighbors participated in the art directing and staging of these photographs. It felt a bit like theater.

Amina. “I was afraid when it’s calm. They check who passed away and who is injured…I felt safe when I listen to music.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

A favorite subject was Amina. I have two photos of her: one between two tents wearing headphones that says, “I was afraid when it’s calm. They check who passed away and who is injured… I felt safer when I listen to music.” In another, we imitated a restaurant with a waiter next to Amina holding a plate of grass. She shared a lot with me — a lot of crimes happened in Yarmouk. She had lost around 70 kilos from starvation.

Sometimes we would sit together and she would share her stories with me. Physically she had regained weight but her bones had become very soft from hunger. If she carried a 4 kilo bag of potatoes, they would sometimes bend with the weight. I remember asking her if any of the fighters had died of hunger in her area. No, she told me, none had. They are faster and better equipped to survive all of this chaos than civilians, yet civilians like Amina bear the heaviest burdens of war.

“There was only grass, but I couldn’t pass it through my throat. Yet I forced myself to swallow in front of the children so they would accept it as food.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee”.

My favorite photo is the couple in the snow with the flying screwdrivers. The man is in a wheelchair next to his wife. Working with this family was the most defining experience for me during the project. They suffered the most out of the others. They lost their son and their 4 year old daughter. The wife alone had lost her three brothers and her mother during the war, and the husband was pushed from the 4th floor of a building in Lebanon. For me, they carried a lot of pain — too much pain.

“For a moment I felt like we are talking to a car technician not a doctor. We are refugees but still human.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

But the terrifying part was that they told me their story there were no tears and no anger, just very plain expression on their faces. They were the first couple who went beyond pain to a space of not feeling anymore. Especially the wife — she smiled when she described what had happened to them. In the beginning, I didn’t know how to deal with it. My assistant and I would ride home in silence just from experiencing too much the days we spoke with them.

Imagine that this was just one story in one tent in one small camp in one small village in Lebanon. If you listened to every story of the six million Syrians who are displaced, what would you find? What could we learn from their stories?

“In Lebanon I found myself in narrow places. I start feeling anxious when I am in an open space.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

At the same time doing this work, I had to protect myself while listening to their traumas because I needed to hear their stories. I wouldn’t stop any character from telling anything they wanted. As an artist, It’s about respecting them and their experiences, which includes the painful and the beautiful. In the end, I became like a surgeon, opening a body while watching a football game.

“But at least before we divorced he was useful to keep the harassers away from my daughters and me.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

Even for myself, I don’t like to be the victim. Being tortured influenced my career. First, it created more concepts in my mind. You could say it enriched my imagination. The militia that tortured me was so creative in how bad they could be, and I do admire them for that. It influenced me in how you can show yourself and how many layers and ideas that you can put in one composition, in one photo. It was funny what happened to me in a cynical way, when I think about how strange it is to be kidnapped. But no, I don’t advise other artists to go through torture to expand their art.

“Through this project, I was able to rediscover my story through their stories. I’m a Syrian refugee myself, and we are making one team.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

On a personal level through my own experience, it helped me understand other’s experiences, and to believe other’s stories no matter how strange they look. I found that as humans we train ourselves to protect our own beliefs — we think, this is so strange, that it couldn’t have happened.

That’s what happened to me in the first few years, Syrians or friends would have a defensive attitude when I would share my kidnapping and torture story with them.

“My wife is blind…I tell her the stories of her favorite TV series, and sometimes change the script to create a better atmosphere for her.” By Omar Imam, “Live, Love, Refugee.”

I would say, what proof do you need? I’m just telling my stories. As I continued telling my stories, I became more open. It gave me an advantage in a sense when refugees would share their stories with me, too. Sometimes they would look at me and say, “You are Syrian but you came from a good neighborhood in Damascus. You are an artist. You might not understand us. You might not understand how it felt to be tortured in jails.” I would tell them, “Maybe I haven’t suffered the same as you,” and I would share part of my story with them. Afterwards, they would tell me, “We know you feel what we feel.”

Omar Imam

I do believe that there is this similarity in the refugee experience and torture: If you are not tortured yourself, you will be a missing a certain feeling when a survivor tells their story. You can never really understand what it feels to be tortured, or to be a refugee unless you live that experience.

For me, I don’t have any feeling toward those that tortured me. I don’t love them, or hate them. I never looked for justice in my case because I was pretty sure there would be no justice in this case, like many others. Many people promised me justice, but I never got it.

I just wanted to leave that place. I told myself to not think of them on a personal perspective because revenge would damage my brain. They damaged me on a physical level, but I kept my soul clean from wanting revenge. I can understand what happened: I don’t approve, I don’t like it but when you look to this experience when you are out of Syria with many years between you and this experience, it’s just a logical consequence of conflict.

Learn more about Omar Imam’s “Live, Love, Refugee” part of Catherine Edelman Gallery’s show, “Targeted” in Chicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.