BEIRUT: A decade working in photojournalism around the world taught Jekaterina Saveljeva two things: Not enough photojournalism is done by locals, nor are there enough women working in the industry. To address this, she set up femLENS, an organization that provides workshops and educational support to women interested in documentary photography. “There should be local people within the community who should be trained and able to tell the story from their perspective,” she told The Daily Star.
FemLENS’ focus on women is a result of Saveljeva’s “reaction to working in foreign journalism for ten years, and noticing the minority of women in the industry.”
According to World Press Photo’s 2016 State of News Photography report, just 15 percent of photojournalists are women.
Saveljeva has run photography workshops with femLENS in council housing estates in Dublin, Ireland, and for women with physical disabilities in Poland. Her most recent workshop took her to the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
“Many of the women who work in photojournalism have a master’s degree and a family that will support them,” she said. Working in Shatila gave her the opportunity to offer her services to women who would never otherwise have the chance to learn about the field.
Local NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh, which runs a number of community centers in Lebanon and Turkey, offered to host the workshops.
The recruitment process revealed some of the difficulties associated with running cultural workshops for women in a camp like Shatila. Many were too busy with work or family commitments to attend all four sessions, each of four hours, which ran over two weeks in October.
Some also faced pressures from within their family not to attend.
Saveljeva recalled receiving an angry phone call from a male relative of a woman who attended the first session, in which Saveljeva had photographed the attendees and shared the results in their private WhatsApp group.
The man had seen the photos and confronted Saveljeva over the phone; the woman did not return.
“We even invited their brothers to the workshop [to] see what we’re working on,” said Maria Hassan, coordinator of Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s art and culture center.
“This is how the community goes. Some of the people are really strict; some are trying to be more open.”
For the two women who completed the course, it was a liberating experience. “I’m a bit shy by nature,” said Faten Anbar, 30, a Palestinian-Lebanese woman who has lived in Shatila for over 20 years.
“When we first walked into the [workshop], we were worried ... with more sessions, the fear and worry went away, and we were confident enough to go down the street and capture our own photographs.”
“You need guts to take photos, especially here in Shatila,” said Halima al-Haj Ali, 30, who has been in the camp for five years having fled Syria as a refugee. She said she first became interested in photography by taking photos of her family.
“If I take photos in the street, people say, ‘what are you doing?’ Now I have the courage to face that.”
The workshops took the women out onto the crowded streets of Shatila, which gave the women plenty of inspiration. “We took photos of the narrow streets, the electric cables, details of my life,” Haj Ali said.
They also learned technical skills, and the ability to think as a photographer. “Now whenever I’m walking in the streets, I look around and instantly get an idea of what would look nice in a photo. I developed a photographic vision,” Anbar said.
The many years the women have spent living in Shatila gave them a cultural sensitivity unmatched by foreign photographers. “Not everything is acceptable to photograph,” Anbar said. “It’s not enough to be brave, sometimes people don’t give permission and you have to stop.”
Haj Ali echoed the sentiment. “Locals just know how to behave here and approach other locals better than foreigners,” she said.
“If someone new shows up around the block taking photos, of course, they will be asked what they’re doing and be met with suspicion.”
She also noted that developments in cell phone technology have helped her to blend in. “If there are important shots I want to take, I can pretend I’m talking on WhatsApp and take photos without people noticing. With a camera, they will definitely ask me what I’m up to.”
Having had such a positive reaction from her students, Saveljeva is looking to the future. She aims to produce a magazine showcasing their photography, which she plans to publish next year.
The workshop also helped her to identify each of the women’s particular skills, which she hopes to help develop; Haj Ali is a natural street photographer, whereas Anbar is a talented art photographer who likes to accompany her images with words.
“You start to see the voice of each photographer,” Saveljeva said.
Both women hope to take their skills further. “It’s better to be able to do this as a job, but I also don’t mind doing it as a hobby,” Anbar said. “If one of my friends asked me to do a photo shoot for them, I’d be happy to know I’m able to do it.”
Haj Ali has set her sights on following Saveljeva into a career in photography. “After the workshop, even though there are things I still don’t know, I can take better photos,” she said. “I would certainly like to be a photographer if an opportunity presented itself. It’s more than a hobby.” – Additional reporting by Gasia Trtrian