Dawton-image of girl

The photographers who found beauty in the Zaatari refugee camp

About the event

Contrasting Arabia juxtaposes Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s photographs of 1940s Arabia with contemporary images by Anthony Dawton and Jim McFarlane

Zaatari is a refugee camp in Jordan, created to host Syrians fleeing the violence of the civil war. Now with the dubious honour of being the largest refugee camp in the world, it has a population of about a quarter of a million and is evolving into a permanent settlement.

In 2013 Anthony Dawton and Jim McFarlane entered the camp to photograph it for Save the Children. Oxford Saïd’s curator Lizzie Collins asked them about the experience and what they were aiming to achieve.

How did you come to work on this project?

Jim: It was through a contact that Anthony had, who was interested in Syrian refugees. It was an issue that wasn’t being covered much by the press at that time, and she wanted to give it more attention and let the rest of the world know.

Anthony:  Yes, it was an Egyptian patron. She had seen our previous work [in Gaza] and wanted to do something about what was going on in the Zaatari camp. So we had funding, and then Save the Children managed the logistics of getting us into the camp. We were out there for about eight or nine days. You need to get in and out as quickly as possible because you are absorbing resources – they have to give you a guide; they have to give you a car; they have to get you in and out of the camp each day and have to feed you –so you don’t want to hang around.

How did it feel to be in the privileged position of being able to go in and out of the camp?

Anthony: It makes you more aware of the difference of their lives to ours, and how fortunate we are to go and see the kind of life they lead. None of them knows how long they are going to be there for and quite a few that we photographed had been there for over a year and a half.  

With that privilege comes a responsibility to go out and tell the story as much as we can. It may sound odd but when we were there we couldn’t wait to get in each morning. For all the heat, the dust and the so called hardship –nothing like them of course – we didn’t want to go home. We found that in Gaza and we found that in Zaatari: it is strangely uplifting work.

How did you choose your subjects?

Anthony: We would walk sector by sector and we would search out what we thought would be interesting. Often that didn’t work because people didn’t want to be photographed. But then we would come across somebody who had something to say and did want to be photographed. But we didn’t meet people again and that bothered us; it bothers us that these people won’t see the pictures either.

Jim: A lot of them didn’t want to be photographed because they were frightened that the images would get back to Syria in some way, and they would be linked to their families, and their families would be put in danger. They were very frightened people, and that is why you will see in a number of the pictures that people have their hands covering their faces.  

What distinguishes your work from photojournalism? What makes it art?

Anthony: I hope it is because we try to make art. We try to reference our work to photographers that have come before us that are important. In particular, we owe a lot to the Farm Security Administration photographs of the depression era in the USA, and photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. The FSA project established photography as both useful and historical legacy, and many or all of the pictures are iconic and reflective of injustice.

So our photographs need to stand for something beyond being specifically refugees in the Zaatari camp; they need to stand for something that has gone wrong globally and within mankind – they need to be able to stand alone.

I think the big difference between press photography and our photography is that press photography is telling you a story and telling you something that is trying to convince you of that particular political line, whereas we try not to tell a lot with our pictures. We like to encourage people when they see our photos to ask questions: why are these people here? What is this situation? Why does it look as if that person feels a particular way? So it is a much softer approach.

You have very distinctive individual styles. What differentiates them?

Jim: Technically they are different because I use flash. The reason I do that is that it nicely lights the subject from the background very clearly. It is a tradition that I borrowed from press photography actually: back in the old days they used flash all the time because the reproduction and printing were very poor, and flash gave clarity.

So if you saw a press photograph that was black and white and had flash, it was believable. It was a documentation of a situation that actually happened so with that it had a kind of gravity. I use that to give my subjects a heightened effect.

Anthony: I use flash very rarely and certainly not in the way that Jim uses it. I have to say that I am quite jealous of the way that Jim uses flash. I think it is clear that his photos are harder, and I think that in some ways they are more truthful. When I look at these people I find mostly an inherent beauty, an inherent strength and I feel that I should be using all my camera skills and understanding of lighting to make them look as beautiful as I can in the circumstances.

I try to make my pictures very kind and I know that is in some ways a cop out. They probably sell better – we do need to sell pictures to raise money. But I sometimes think that beauty is not the right virtue to try to extract from these situations.

What are your thoughts about being exhibited alongside someone like Thesiger?

Anthony: One member of the audience pointed out to me the extraordinary contrast. I think the difference is that the Arabs in the Thesiger pictures are free. This is before their environments have been destroyed, before they have been pushed out, and before they have been forced to join the army to fight in the Iraqi wars. I do think there is an extraordinary freshness about the images – I don’t think the word is happiness but definitely a self-respect – and I think it contrasts with our work because it has all been taken away. Everything wonderful that they had there in the Middle East has simply been taken away by war and politics, and it is sobering.

It brings me back to the point that the images that we take are historical and they stand as witness to what has been. Once these photographs have been taken you cannot say that it wasn’t like that. You cannot say the marshes were never that beautiful, people were never like that.

You can never say that these people never lived and occupied land if there is photograph of them living on occupied land, and no one can say in 50 years’ time that there was never this tragedy. It is as good a reason as any to take a photo.

Contrasting Arabia was in the Link Gallery and Cloister Corridor at Saïd Business School until the end of December 2018. 40% of the proceeds from sales went to Save the Children.