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Before he started taking photographs at a refugee camp in Lebanon, 37-year-old Omar Imam was a refugee himself. He fled his hometown of Damascus, Syria in 2012 after being kidnapped and tortured. That experience lends Imam a perspective that photojournalists and artists documenting the humanitarian crisis often lack.
Instead of portraying refugees as one-dimensionally tragic, Imam’s surreal black-and-white scenes, featuring men dressed as magicians and wrenches tied to balloons, dramatize their subjects’ inner lives. “I wanted to disrupt the viewer’s expectations of images of refugees,” Imam told Hyperallergic. “I want to replace numbers, reports, and statistics with hallucinations, fears, and dreams.”
Called Live, Love, Refugee, the series has more in common with the works of Diane Arbus or Luis Buñuel than with the harrowing images that dominate mass media coverage of the crisis.
After fleeing Syria, Imam volunteered as an aid worker at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bakaa Valley. There, “the relationship between NGOs and refugees was all about numbers and logistics,” Imam told Hyperallergic. “The [aid workers] wanted to know how many people lived in the tents so they could give them enough blankets, for example, but never asked about the mental and psychological issues.” Images of refugees in the mass media, he found, did not convey the nuance and idiosyncrasy of their experiences. “So I decided to go back to the camps with my camera and the will to do a lot of listening,” he said.
Imam spent weeks in a Lebanese camp near the Syrian border, talking to people about their stories, hopes, and fears. Instead of taking documentary-style photographs, he staged theatrical compositions inspired by the subjects’ stories. With the subjects’ help, he developed characters and concepts, locations, and props. Captioned with quotes from their subjects — “I wish to become a dragon and burn the scarves and everything in that tent;” “our testicles are in danger” — the image function as striking visual metaphors. In one image, a woman with agoraphobia stands in a cardboard box with an umbrella in a desert; in another, Imam poses in soccer jerseys with a group from the camp, calling themselves “one team.” He describes the collaborative project as “a process of catharsis.”
Since the refugee crisis began, there’s been no shortage of art pieces about it. Even if well-intentioned, too many of these pieces are tastelessly executed: Take Ai Weiwei’s photograph of himself posing as a dead Syrian toddler, for example, or the luxury coffee table modeled after the destroyed city of Aleppo, or the “Inflatable Refugee” designed by a Belgian art collective that’s currently floating around the world. While claiming to “raise awareness” of the crisis, artists often appear opportunistic, exploiting suffering for the sake of social relevance and personal gain. The aforementioned works often caricature and trivialize refugees’ experiences, perpetuating notions of powerless, pitiful victims, and cartoonish symbols of suffering instead of individual people. Imam’s photographs do the opposite.
“My photographs [seek to] challenge projections of victimization, offering entry into the expressive interior from which our humanity stems,” Imam says. By dramatizing their subjects’ interior worlds, filled with fantasy and humor, they depict refugees as three-dimensional humans who happened to have been displaced by war, something that’s rare in the current landscape of “refugee art.”
That doesn’t mean Imam is picky about how artists, photojournalists, and humanitarians offer their support — if an inflatable refugee gets a Venice Biennale-goer to donate time or money to an aid organization, does it matter if it’s tacky? “As a Syrian artist and activist, I’d like to encourage more and more people to talk about the Syrian crisis, because that bring a lot of attention to our case,” he says. “For example, I don’t like how fake the visits of Hollywood celebrities to refugee camps are, but their followers are millions, so it’s helpful to have them in camps. For me, it’s a real problem to communicate just with intellectuals around the world. We need everyone to save the rest.”