Different lives, same love: teaching the young photojournalists of Jordan

What happens when you put a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist in a room with 30 teenagers who love photography? They bond and they learn.
Three young women in black headscarves sit at a table, each is inspecting the back of a Canon camera, either by holding it and looking at the display or looking through the viewfinder. To the right, stood behind the table, another girl holds up a mobile phone, as though taking a picture or filming. They are in some kind of classroom, with drawings, colourful cutouts and cartoons stuck to the wall behind them.
Marina Domokurova HEADSHOT

Written by Marina Domokurova

Corporate & Marketing Communications, Canon Middle East

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you love photography – either taking pictures or looking at other peoples. And you’ll almost certainly know that you’re in good company. But when does love become passion and how does passion become a way of life? Especially if you might think that the odds are stacked against you? Canon Ambassador Muhammed Muheisen knows. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, he is famous for his powerful, beautiful – and often heartbreaking – images.

A Jordanian national, growing up in Jerusalem during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muhammed knows what it means to dream big, to have ambition. To want more. “I wanted to travel the world,” he recalls. “And show the world what is happening around it.” And so, he did. In the process, he and his camera bore witness to horror, tragedy, devastation… and humanity. It is this humanity that led him to spend 15 years documenting the global refugee crisis and set up the now famous Everyday Refugees Foundation and Instagram account, where his images of the daily lives of refugees remind us that we have far more in common than that which divides us.

With this in mind, Muhammed wasn’t just the obvious person to bring Canon’s Young People Programme to Jordan, he was the perfect one. He used his connections with organisations in the region to seek out young people with a passion for photography, who have the same drive and ambition as he had as a child. “I was recommended students and asked them for motivation letters. I went through each one, word by word, visualising the person behind them.” In the end, he selected 30 young people: a mixture of Jordanian nationals and youngsters from Zaatari and Azraq camps, which were built for refugees from the war in Syria and are now home to over 100,000 displaced people and their children.

"I love photography and I dream to become a professional photographer. I often get bullied because of my skin color."

The letters showed Muhammed something special – young people who, like him, wanted more. Boys and girls with a view of the world that they wanted to share and the ambition and drive to try and achieve it. “A child said, ‘if Muhammed Muheisen made it, maybe I can make it’. And this is why this programme means a lot to me. I didn’t have better circumstances than these kids. There wasn’t much opportunity in the region where I grew up.” You might assume that through the Young People Programme, Muhammed simply puts Canon cameras in the hands of these 12–18-year-olds and teaches them how to use them, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a technical aspect to be taught, but in his eyes, simply knowing how to use a camera does not make you a photographer. “Your talent and passion make you rise up,” he explains. “But we began the programme by introducing these children to the ethics and creditability of photography. What it means to be a photographer and carry a camera. How to approach, how to seek permissions and then use this magical tool to make a difference.”

The teens and pre-teens can be a very sensitive age, particularly when you bring an equal number of boys and girls together in what is, Muhammed acknowledges, “a male dominated society”. Factor in the refugee status of half of the young people and you might expect some understandable awkwardness among the group. There was nothing of the sort. Within 45 minutes, the students had bonded, despite having never met before, their markedly different life experiences, backgrounds and ages (the youngest student is 12, the oldest 18). Muhammed watched them in amazement as they came together, entirely naturally, in their shared love.

Muhammed Muheisen, wearing white trousers and a blue polo shirt, stands in a classroom, in front of a whiteboard and beside a flip chart. He gestures with both hands outstretched in front of him to a table of students.

Before they even came close to a camera, Muhammed took his students through the ethics of photography – those critical fundamentals that make a professional.

Muhammed was immediately struck by how thoughtful and informed his students were, so when he began to introduce the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a jumping off point for their personal projects, he had no difficulty in steering them to stories that mattered to them at a personal level. Issues of equality, climate action, gender balance, poverty, sustainable cities, they all quickly resonated with them, with some very surprising results. “I’m a National Geographic photojournalist, so I am aware of many topics, but I was amazed,” he admits. “One of my students is covering farming on water – how we can plant on water. This is something I couldn’t imagine from a 16-year-old girl living in a refugee camp.”

Nonetheless, expanding your world view is as much a part of the vocation of a photojournalist as anything else. To this end, he set about “enriching their knowledge” because sitting in a classroom will only teach you so much. The students were taken on three field trips with their cameras. The first was to an animal sanctuary, Al Ma'wa for Nature and Wildlife in Jerash, where they were introduced to the concept of animal welfare. For many of the students, however, the subsequent trips were much closer to home. “We went to Zataari refugee camp, twelve miles from the Syrian border. And Azraq refugee camp,” says Muhammed, taking up the story. “And I was amazed that these children also opened their eyes and hearts to other things than the usual stories to cover in these camps. One student, Maha, decided to work on a story about bicycles. Bicycles are for transportation, for fun, and can be a way to make a living. But they can also be about taking action ­– less cars mean less pollution to the environment.” For Maha, however, taking her camera out in her home environment wasn’t easy and Muhammed worked with her to help her overcome her fears.

Around forty people, adults and young people, stand gathered in a group for a photo. A large number of the youngsters are proudly holding certificates. In the centre are several adults, dressed in office attire.

The students proudly display their graduation certificates, but for Muhammed, the work does not end here. He plans to continue working with some of the students, who will have the golden opportunity of being mentored by a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist.

When Maha struggled with anxiety around working with her camera, it was not an unfounded fear, and one that Muhammed – even as a celebrated photojournalist – is very familiar with. “Whenever I’m working on an assignment, I have always to take a deep breath, do my homework, do some research on the environment. So, it was very important for Maha to go out of her comfort zone, to go out and talk to people. Not as a refugee, but as a storyteller, as a photographer.” Throughout the programme, this sense of individual identity has a new layer added to it – one of ‘photographer’. “Behind the word ‘refugee’ there are people,” stresses Muhammed. “So, she [Maha] had to go out and meet people and introduce herself as a photographer doing a project for the Canon Young People Programme.” And with this new addition to Maha’s identity comes empowerment and the knowledge that she can change lives. “Because it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter your colour or your gender. When you carry a camera, you’re a visual storyteller.”

The students had a month to create a body of work before they could receive their certification from Muhammed and the Canon YPP team. It seems like an unfathomably short amount of time, especially when you know that these students are also at school every day. But this is all part of the photojournalist’s education: commitment and the ability to meet deadlines, understanding the ethics of photography and knowing how to be responsible in your practice. Making sure you have the appropriate consents, asking permissions and explaining what you are doing to everyone involved. At the same time, they must take their camera out into the world to seek and tell stories of importance. “I always say the best way to capture a picture is to make the invisible, visible,” says Muhammed. “These children did this. They talked about the last things I would think of in a refugee camp – bicycles, farming, how to have a better future from recycling.”

Three young women in headscarves stand in the desert. Two are crouching, one is stood. They are all holding cameras up to their faces and taking photographs.

Learning everywhere: Muhammed Muheisen not only instructed his students in the classroom but took them on educational visits in order to understand the responsibility of being out in the world, telling stories with a camera.

And still, they are so young. And as such have the brilliant and indefinable qualities of teenagers – that paradoxical combination of confidence and anxiety, curiosity and introspection, boldness and timidity. From the twelve-year-old who was fearless enough to tell a Pulitzer Prize winner that his exposure was wrong, to the three carefree young women with cameras, confidently walking around the refugee camp they call their home – you’d never know that they had fled a war. They don’t yet know it, but these small moments are meaningful. Consequential. And while this first month of the Canon Young People Programme is over and the students proudly attended an award ceremony to their certificates, the work is far from over. In the next months they will be building on these first hopeful steps towards the life they see for themselves, and Muhammed fully intends to be there for the students, as a mentor and role model. “This programme has already made a difference in the life of these students, and they believe they’re going to be the future talents around the world. But they have also already made an impact in the photography community by sharing these important stories with the world. Difference everywhere has already been made.”

The Canon Young People Programme in Jordan was delivered in partnership with the Everyday Refugees Foundation (under the patronage of Jordan’s Minister of Culture Ms. Haifa Najjar) and in a collaboration with Princess Alia Foundation and Jordan Tourism Board. Learn more about how Canon supports and empowers young people.

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