More often than not, journalists have the responsibility of revealing uncomfortable truths. With the countless tragedies taking place around the world, a journalist is usually at the forefront ensuring the story gets told. The job is equally challenging, if not more, for a photojournalist, whose job is to capture within images the hardships faced by many and sear those images into the memories of the public.
This was the difficult task facing Munich-based photographer and photojournalist Erol Gurian as he started working on his latest personal project, one that he has continued working on over the last two and a half years.
As a seasoned photojournalist, one of my latest projects brought me to Beirut, Lebanon in 2015. I was researching among the sizable Armenian community there for an exhibition about the Armenian diaspora. Sadly, one hundred years after the Armenian genocide, another Exodus of Biblical dimensions unfolded while I was there: Syrians fled their country in massive numbers and found shelter with their neighbor Lebanon.
The situation on the ground gripped Erol and forced him to contact an NGO called Beyond Association in Lebanon, an organization with a primary focus of schooling refugee children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where more than 700,000 currently reside. After getting in touch with them, Erol understood what the focus for his project would be: the most vulnerable refugees in Bekaa, the Syrian migrant youth, the lost generation that doesn’t receive proper schooling as they work to fend for their families. Erol hoped that his work in the area would not only raise awareness of the plight of the children from the international community but that this awareness would also lead to action, especially on the education front. He knew this would be no easy task.
Travelling in the Bekaa can be dangerous: many regions are controlled by armed Hezbollah troops and some of the camps are known to be controlled by ISIS. So it is important to move with locals who know the area very well.
The success of Erol’s project hinged on building a reliable network of locals to help him navigate the unchartered territory in Lebanon. There was a myriad of concerns plaguing his travels and his safety was only one of them.
Before I even started to unpack my cameras, it was necessary to get in touch with people in the area who know the situation, the culture of the refugee population and who had a certain standing within that population. Only with their help was I able to gain the trust of my subjects and to photograph them.
Whether it was assistance with translating, scouting or simply driving him around, Erol had to rely on the help of locals to get by from one day to the next, so that he could tell the story of the children and the women with his camera.
Residing in various informal settlements, some close to a village called Saadnayel, women and children would wake up early in the morning to be packed into trucks like sardines.
They’d be taken to the potato fields of the valley where mostly women and young girls labored under the scalding sun to support their families.
For these refugees, any semblance of a normal upbringing is thanks to the work of NGOs like the Beyond Association, where makeshift classrooms nestled inside tents host co-ed classes for young boys and girls where they would learn to read and write. After witnessing the dire state of affairs on the ground, Erol himself started two initiatives to help in any way he could, one focusing on media literacy and the other on handicrafts. The refugees needed all the help they could get and the photographer simply couldn’t stay idle.
As of now, Erol has made five visits to Lebanon to build on his personal project, Bekaa Blues. It’s currently available online on Adobe Spark as a photo essay while he continues to compile different narratives and images, and the reactions to his images have been wholeheartedly positive.
The photo essay has led to presentations, gigs as a journalism trainer, and a membership with BMW’s Responsible Leadership Forum. The forum organizes social and ecological projects, mostly to aid communities in distress around the world. While Erol keeps busy with these endeavors, he’s also looking to complete the last few chapters of Bekaa Blues.
I would like to reach a state of completion for the project this year or the next and then continue to think about an exhibition or a photographic book. On the other hand, there’s a good chance Bekaa Blues will be with me for a longer time and become a real long-term project. As we speak, the political situation in Syria doesn’t look promising, as far as a return of the refugees is concerned.
The situation in Lebanon hasn’t gotten any better. With each passing day, travel to Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. becomes more difficult and dangerous. There are approximately 2 million refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon and the local population is becoming increasingly anxious and fearful of their presence. Erol is in contact with a local fixer to help navigate the rough waters, but this solution isn’t cheap.
Working on a personal project with a limited budget means Erol has only so many days before he has to stop asking for favors. He is currently seeking outside funding to continue the project, and we certainly hope that there are others fighting for this cause that are willing to help.