Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Seeing Children: A Photographer's View from the Arab World

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Seeing Children: A Photographer's View from the Arab World

Article excerpt

In this testimonial essay, the author introduces some of the children he has encountered while covering events in the Arab World for over twenty-seven years. It is a personal account with illustrations from Palestine, Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Looking beyond stereotypical images, and behind the scenes, the author creates a dialogue of text and photographs on the role and insights children have on current events he has witnessed. For the photographer, capturing images of children's daily life often provided a larger context for a story he was conveying. Photos and their narratives are shared as personal mementoes from his extended "family" album.


In the West, the image of the Arab World is primarily viewed through television and print media. In the US, most people do not even have passports. Many who do travel abroad would never consider going to the Middle East, because they perceive it all as a dangerous place. Inevitably, news focuses on conflicts and tragedies and that is the image which remains of the region. But in the case of the Arab World, there seems to be little space in western media for anything else. The common use of the adjective 'Islamic' to describe extremists, insurgents, fanatics, and suicide bombers does little to promote an accurate picture of Islamic societies in the minds of western audiences. Published images of children from the region often depict the wretched, the poor, refugees, child combatants, and laborers but rarely ordinary moments of daily life.

All of us as editors, photographers, and consumers have a role in confronting the proliferation of stereotypical images. Because despite the emergence of touted new media outlets for photography, such as satellite stations, internet sites, blogs, etc. the same kinds of images seem to dominate just as they did the 'old media.' I believe that the understanding of a news story is more acute when the audience sees an element of the living conditions and daily life situations the subjects face.

As I searched for images to accompany this essay, I had no trouble finding a large number of images of children. That is not so surprising since most of the countries I work in often have fifty percent or more of the population under the age of eighteen. Many of the photographs of children were taken as a sidebar to a news story I might be shooting for a magazine or a newspaper. Some I took for myself. Others were taken in the context of a specific story about children. But few of them had been widely published. When choosing pictures for an exhibit or publication, where I am in control of the editing process, I try to look for images that will question, rather than reinforce, stereotypes.

Taking photographs of kids anywhere can be difficult, and the Arab World is no exception. When shooting on the streets, inevitably, groups of children will gather when they see a photographer. Soon they all want to have their pictures taken. If you are carrying professional cameras and lenses, they might ask you if you are with CNN. A photographer can only hope to get more than a posed picture in situations like this, as children would all be jumping and pushing to be closer to the camera. Sometimes an adult figure steps in and brings the riot down. Many photographers will try to flee or yell at them. Those strategies rarely work. I try to find the leader among them, and often he will take you under his 'protection,' disperse the rest, and become your guide. Children have led me around Israeli checkpoints in Palestine, shown me the address I was looking for in Egypt, saved me from a mob in Sudan, and brought me to tears in Iraq. I try to get close to my subjects and, whenever possible, I avoid using telephoto lenses. Being able to speak Arabic helps immensely.


In Palestine, children are one of the main protagonists in a sad, violent story that plays out in Gaza and the West Bank. They protest and throw stones at the Israeli army, and in return receive tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets, or live ammunition. …

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