Photography by Jewish, Palestinian youth helps change the artists and viewers

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


     Photography, we're learning, can help us feel less separated and more connected -- move us to end wars and preserve life on Earth.

     KIDS WITH CAMERAS -- -- is an example founded in 2002 by photographer Zana Briski.
     She photographed -- and taught photography to -- children in Calcutta's red-light district.
     You may remember a resultant, Academy Award-winning film: "Born into Brothels."

     Photography ignites children's imaginations and builds self-esteem, Briski learned.
     Briski then encouraged New York photojournalist Jason Eskenazi  ( ) to take to Jerusalem the power of art to transform lives, for both the young artists and the viewers.

     Eskenazi said "yes."
     He created BEYOND THE WALL: The Jerusalem Project -- .
     He planned and coordinated a delicate and sensitive program that brought together Arab and Jewish children over a period of 6 months.

     Twelve girls and boys were chosen from each side.
     Both Palestinian and Jewish youth photographed the Old City, bringing their individualized perspective to both cultural beauty and strife.

     At the project's close, the youth discussed their work together.
      "They were fascinated to see the life of their counterparts," Eskenazi said.
     Eskenzai believes that these kinds of experiences can affect not only the children but their larger communities.
     This 2008 year, Jason ( ) will continue taking the photograph exhibition around the U.S. and hopefully to Jerusalem for the children and their communities.

    WATCH and HEAR Jason Eskenazi interview by 12-year-old Emma for New York's Meet Me At The       

    San Francisco is the next stop for BEYOND THE WALL: Kids with Cameras, Jerusalem, February thru April, 2008, at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California Street.

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Published in the San Francisco Chronicle -- Sunday, February 10, 2008

Eskenazi turns kids into photographers

by Steven Winn

     Jason Eskenazi had never visited Israel until an old friend, Zana Briski, offered him a reason to go in 2004. Briski, the founder of an organization called Kids With Cameras, suggested that Eskenazi, an American photographer who has spent a lot of time working in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, conduct a workshop in Jerusalem. Twenty-four children - 12 Israelis and 12 Palestinians - would be issued cameras, taught how to use them and sent out into their world to record what they saw.
     Eskenazi spent six months with his fledgling shutterbugs in 2004, and went back to work with them again in 2005. The experience not only yielded some vivid and memorable images, currently on display at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (through April 30), but also raised issues about the nature and power of the medium when it's put to use by children. (A selection of the photographs can be found at .)
     "Photography is almost an innate ability," said Eskenazi, 47, by phone from his native Queens, N.Y. "It's like drawing or cave painting. People want to express themselves visually. I think it comes before language, and kids just do it naturally. You don't need an education to look for composition and symmetry."
     Eskenazi did teach the children basic photographic techniques and had to break down some pesky habits - "like shooting their friends smiling into the camera." Once that happened, the beginning photographers, who ranged in age from 8 to 13, went out to record Jerusalem's Old City. What they saw and shot constitutes a fluid record of life seen from the ground up, as revealing of the children themselves as of what they shot. Some of the photographs are slack, unstructured or preciously coy. But many others have an uncanny sophistication and resonance.
     Zvi, a 12-year-old Israeli, captured the Western Wall in full sunlight with bearded figures in brimmed hats deployed against it in dramatic silhouette. The ghost of Vermeer hums through the blurrily sensuous close-up of "Girl With Pearl Necklace," by an 11-year-old Palestinian named Fahti. In her haunting "Yellow Balloon," Tchiya, an 11-year-old Israeli, seems to hold time, movement and childhood itself magically suspended. Raneen, 12, caught the shadows of three children in a gracefully simple shot; two of the shadow children are holding hands. The photographer is Palestinian; her shot is universal.
     The images affirm what anyone who has looked at a fair number of photographs by children grasps: Young people often use a camera without the cultural filters and expectations that age and experience impose on adults.
     "Kids are much freer," as Eskenazi put it. "They're not afraid to go up and shoot anything that strikes them, whether it's a person on the street or something most adults would never notice because it doesn't look 'photographic.' "
     "Children as Photographers," a study of 180 subjects in various countries undertaken by a team of engineers and psychologists at the University of Birmingham in England, offers an intriguing developmental view. Seven-year-olds, the study found, tend to favor shots of their homes, toys and possessions. At 11, interest shifts to outdoor environments, often with people excluded. Fifteen-year-olds are most keenly interested in documenting their social world.
     Quotations from some of the children reflect a limber sensibility, whatever they happen to be shooting. One 11-year-old boy, comparing his peers' photos to those of adults, said, "We use our cameras like stupid, and they take proper photos." An 11-year-old girl put it this way: "I take photos from different angles and they just take it straight and it looks boring."
     "Our findings contradict the view of children as untutored and immature wasters of film," the study's authors assert. "Children's photographs are not just their 'view of the world,' but are also a construction of their identity in relation to their parents and their peers."
     Kids With Cameras enlarges that view to embrace the social, political and economic matrix. A mission statement describes the 6-year-old nonprofit as an organization that "teaches the art of photography to marginalized children in communities around the world. We use photography to capture the imaginations of children, to empower them, building confidence, self-esteem and hope."
     Briski's work came to international attention with "Born Into Brothels," a film she made with Ross Kauffman about the children of Calcutta prostitutes and the photographs they took of their neighborhoods. "Brothels" won the 2005 Academy Award for best documentary feature and has been seen around the world.
     Underlying the "Jerusalem Project" was the belief that photography can help transcend the boundaries that confront Jews and Palestinians of all ages. The path from idealism to reality required adjustments and negotiations. An initial plan to teach all the children together proved unworkable. Language was one problem: Most of the Israeli children spoke English, while almost none of the Palestinians did. But even if language hadn't been an issue, tensions and suspicions on either side made holding a joint workshop impossible.
     Instead, said Eskenazi, he taught the classes separately, using a lot of hand motions and mimed instruction with the Palestinians. His way of bridging the two groups was to show the children albums of each other's work. "At first they had some funny reactions," Eskenazi recalled. "There was an Arab girl, about 8, who would slap the Jewish album and say 'Bad photos.' A 10-year-old Jewish girl made a spitting sound when she saw the Arab photos."
     Gradually curiosity emerged and tamped down the hostilities. "They were fascinated to see the life of their counterparts," Eskenazi said.
     Eskenazi admitted that he was skeptical when Briski first suggested he go to Jerusalem. "I'm not a teacher. I'd never taught kids or adults. I wasn't so sure you could change things through photography." After seeing "Born Into Brothels," he said, "I saw the light."
     Eskenazi spent four months with his students in 2004 and another four months in '05. He loved what he did with the Israeli and Palestinian children in Jerusalem and hopes to create a book of their photographs. "I saw the transformation before my very eyes," he said. "I saw how they became very open and interested in each other's lives."
     He also knows how easy it is to overstate and oversimplify what really occurred among a group of children who were tenuously, provisionally united by photography. When the classes were over, two of the children did meet - Zvi, who is Jewish, and the Palestinian Raneen. "There was this wish to create a Life magazine moment," said Eskenazi. "ABC came and filmed it. It was good for about five minutes. What happened outside of the camera's frame was that one of the Arab kids was about to hit Zvi over the head."

Kids With Cameras: Beyond the Walls - The Jerusalem Project: The show continues through April 30 at the Katz Snyder Gallery, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., San Francisco. Free. (415) 292-1200, ,

  Photographer Jason Eskenazi (center) with 12-year-old students Raneen (left), who is Palestinian, and Zvi, an Israeli. Photo by Vontan Weitzman
  "Sister With Flowers," shot by a 12-year-old Palestinian girl named Raneen.