• August 13, 2014

David Gross Captures Artistic Expressions of Syrian Refugee Children

Becky Harlan

Seeing a young Syrian refugee portrayed in the style of a Rembrandt painting is a visual break from the conflict images we’re used to. For photographer David Gross, that’s the point. He uses a dramatic lighting technique called chiaroscuro to photograph the Syrian refugees he works with in the hopes that by casting these subjects in a new light, we might also begin to see them that way.

Picture of a formal portrait of a Syrian teenage girl at a school in Reyhanlı, Turkey
Ghaidaa, 15, from Aleppo, Syria, is a refugee student at the Free Syria school in Reyhanlı, Turkey.
Photographs by David Gross

“I have seen so many images of sad children shot in the verité journalistic style. We now know it is important to present distant people—“others”—as someone the viewer can connect with. I decided that shooting in a European style that in our culture stands for “dignified” was a good way to change contexts while keeping true to the subject, allowing for empathy, not sympathy,” Gross says.

Picture of a drawing by a 10-year-old Syrian refugee of a plane dropping a bomb on his house
Topic for this session: Draw your impression of life before, during, and after the war.
Drawing by a 10-year-old boy at the Free Syria School

So he and a small team—another photographer, an art therapist, an art educator, a social worker, and a consultant—photographed Syrian students at four schools in Turkey, but they didn’t stop at making portraits. The team also held art classes and art therapy sessions for the students. They wanted to get beyond the immediately visible, the “outside,” revealing the deeper impact that the Syrian civil war has had on these kids. “I realized drawing was a way to show the one thing that photographers can only imply: the psychology of our subjects,” he says. Gross doesn’t pair the artist with his or her drawing for privacy reasons, but for him it’s not so much about the specific pairings. The idea is to collectively show two sides of the children—their actual likeness as well as their inner life. And so the project “Inside-Outside” began.

Picture of a formal portrait of a Syrian boy at the Torches of Freedom school in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey
Mohammad, 10, from Idlib, Syria, is a refugee student at the Torches of Freedom Syrian school in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey.

One session at the Free Syria school in Reyhanlı, stands out in Gross’s mind:

“We began with quick pencil sketches of “bad things” and then moved to color, ending by painting over the bad things with good things. Each stage was fast, too fast to think about the drawing. There was one girl who could not get beyond the first step. She said she could not draw in color because the world was so terrible. Black was the only suitable color to use. But Khalid Eid, one of the instructors, patiently helped her draw a few lines of color, and by the end she filled her pages with bright colors. The act of drawing allowed her to express her feelings she could not speak—of sorrow, and then of hope. Her idea, that she could now draw in color, remains with me.”

Picture of a drawing of a mother crying over her children who are fallen, black clouds cover the sky
Topic for this session: Dealing with loss.
Drawing by a 13-year-old girl at the Free Syria School
Picture of a formal portrait of a young Syrian girl at the Friendship Syrian school in Gaziantep, Turkey
Syrian refugee (name withheld) at a the Friendship Syrian school in Gaziantep, Turkey.

And while the art classes themselves are important for the children, Gross knows that the results of those sessions can have a wider impact. Many of us have put up a child’s drawing on the fridge or in our office, and he hopes that showing us these children and their drawings will increase our empathy; it has certainly done so for him. “Being in the presence of a child who could draw her father’s murder from memory made me imagine that horror myself,” he says.

Picture of a drawing of a people in red and black
Topic for this session: “Bad things in two colors.'”
Drawing by an 11-year-old girl at the Torches of Freedom School
Picture of a formal portrait of a Syrian teenage girl at a school in Reyhanlı, Turkey
Sham, 16, from Homs, Syria, is a refugee student at the Free Syria school in Reyhanlı, Turkey.

No one knows what the future holds for Syria or its children, so Gross feels that helping these kids process their emotions now is especially important. “It wasn’t like going on vacation in a strange place where you expect to be misunderstood, to have a few struggles and then to return to your own bed. The people shared a sense of being cut off from their homes, of having important choices taken out of their hands.” Gross cited one study that had been done, the Bahçeşehir Study of Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey. One of its conclusions, he says, is “that the children, many of whom exhibit signs of trauma, have very few ways to express themselves.”

Picture of a drawing of a family standing in front of mountains, holding hands with each other.
Topic for this session: Draw the future you hope for.
Drawing by a student at the Free Syria school
Picture of a formal portrait of a Syrian boy at a school in Reyhanlı, Turkey
Abdullah, 18, from Hama, Syria, is a refugee student at a the Free Syria school in Reyhanlı, Turkey.

He recalls a specific class where the goal was to make space for that expression:

“We drew leaves, and I taught them to draw what they saw, not what they thought a leaf should be. Halfway through, I switched the rules. From then on they had to break every rule they could think of. Borders must be painted over, colors must not be “real,” and brushes must be turned upside down. It was hard to get some of them to play along, but at the end the little room in this cold basement school was transformed. The girls were laughing and posing, painting crazy shapes and smears, and obliterating the neatly drawn leaves.”

That’s when he saw what he wants us all to recognize about these children. “Of course, behind the tightly controlled faces, the carefully coiffed scarves, were ordinary teenage girls.”

Picture of a formal portrait of a Syrian teenage girl at a school in Reyhanlı, Turkey
Safiya, 15, from Idlib, Syria, is a refugee student at a the Free Syria school in Reyhanlı, Turkey
Picture of a drawing by a Syrian refugee child , the picture has several elements including a frowning face and a heart
A drawing of ”bad things” that are colored over with good things in order to give them life.
Drawing by a student at the Free Syria school

To learn more about David Gross’s project, “Inside-Outside” visit the website or download the free App.

There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. kath
    September 3, 2014

    The expressions of youth is so telling, continue to encourage their self expressionism they have much to say, will we as adults listen? Thanks to the photographer we want more.

  2. W.W. Fink
    August 31, 2014

    How sad for these and how they were helped to turn the horrible memories to something poisitive, given an opportunity they will somehow find a better place.

    Will we help them find that place?

  3. Judith
    August 31, 2014

    The portaits are stunning, they portray the sadness of the war but there is still hope in their eyes.

  4. Kathi Wall
    August 31, 2014

    Outstanding work and feeling!

  5. Mary Ann Setzer
    August 31, 2014

    Exceptional work! It was sad, but also beautiful. Truly a reason to continue praying for those in the war-torn countries, especially the children.

  6. shivi
    August 22, 2014

    gr8 job

  7. Samana
    August 21, 2014

    Thats really great !! Wish them a lot of good things !!!!!! Waaahh !! ❤️❤️

    August 20, 2014

    The biggest tragedy is not that you have tragedies in life, but that you are many a times not even given the opportunity to vent out your feelings about it. In a world, where disparity is the only reality and the society is torn by shifting loyalty, these children do not have a choice! Wars are fought because of religion, greed, power, passion, economical gains or obscure idealisms, but never for humanity. The Shrimadbhagvadgita stresses that Lord Krishna, in his Vishwa Roopa (the universal form) told the distressed Arjuna, that a war does never benefit anyone. Even the winning side loses. The last of the drawings is the one that is the most moving of all. It is as if the repressed sobs and the stifled cries cannot emerge even on paper. Do these children really deserve this? It’s a question, we as citizens of the respectable democratic world really need to ask ourselves.

  9. hubert
    August 19, 2014

    Great work…..I hope a lot of better things for all of them.

  10. Kenette Walker
    August 18, 2014

    Powerful, Beautiful, Breathtaking

  11. Regula
    August 18, 2014

    The portraits are beautiful. Children in exquisite clothes, intense as Visconti film stills. The drawings are what is inside them – complete devastation. Only Muhammad from Idlib cannot veil the sadness in his eyes. The others have learnt to hide the horror inside, have learnt that the world doesn’t want to know and made themselves into a façade as of chiseled marble.

    The drawings tell a devastating story: these children are all around 11 years old. But their drawings resemble those of very small children except when they are encouraged to think of a better future. There is nothing more direct to express the horror of war than these childrens’ drawings. The devastation of hope, of imagination, of gentleness, of the belief in the beauty of the day. It is all tangible from these drawings.

    Thank you for the intense presentation.

  12. Alice
    August 17, 2014

    Powerful story. Thanks for sharing this amazing work.

  13. Mary-Elizabeth McIlvane
    August 17, 2014

    Thank you for the honesty of these inner outer expressions of the children. We may speak different languages but emotons and expressions of their expressions speak the language of the spirit, shared by all people.

  14. Tennille
    August 17, 2014

    These images have not only captured the horror that these children have experienced, but also their incredible strength and courage. Their artwork reduced me to tears and believe that the art therapy would’ve been incredibly helpful in allowing them to express themselves. Beautiful, and incredibly sad and moving. Thank you for this story. Fantastic work by all involved 😀

  15. Barb
    August 17, 2014

    Exceptional photography of a sad subject. How I wish the art therapy continues and is somehow brought to others. Thank you for the power behind the story.

  16. Lalit Kumar Naidu
    August 16, 2014

    I love the portraits in this article. Stunning!

  17. Ewa Noth
    August 16, 2014

    In my heart i cry. So much bad happens all over the world all the time. More something like this. Feelings in the foto and text are very emotional and real. I feel it. Thank you!

  18. Marlon
    August 16, 2014

    Fantastic work! deeply human!

  19. MaryAm
    August 14, 2014

    The idea and topic was phenomenon! good job 🙂

  20. Santi
    August 14, 2014

    Amazing work and amazing stories. So very powerful!

  21. Christina
    August 14, 2014

    Amazing children will make amazing leaders and will fight for positive change. Beautiful works.

  22. Len
    August 14, 2014

    It is exceptional in presenting his view in different way we are used to. I was so moved by it. Thank you!

  23. Haili Li
    August 14, 2014

    I could never imagine what hell these young spirit went through yet still have hopes and joy for the most simple things in the world.Sympathy indeed is not getting them anywhere if the grown-ups keep screwing things up.Beautiful portray!

  24. Dini Ari Murti
    August 14, 2014

    Beautiful photos with deep messages.

  25. kEN
    August 14, 2014


  26. majed khan
    August 14, 2014

    Exceptional work on both sides of the lens David.

  27. Jody Aubry
    August 13, 2014

    With All the Pain & The Bleakness in the World Today… These Paintings Show… HOPE??? THANKS 4 Your Inspiration!

  28. erbPIX™
    August 13, 2014

    As a Christian, my heart goes out to these people. Unlike with unpreventable natural disasters, what has befallen them was completely unnecessary. I am thankful they are now in a place where they are free to use art to help to work out feelings that are unimaginable to the inexperienced.

  29. anthony flint
    August 13, 2014

    Stunning work. Emotionally charged.
    Thank You.

  30. Donna
    August 13, 2014

    I SO love this!!

  31. Gaye
    August 13, 2014

    The images of these children are now in my heart and mind. Need to show the world and help them.

  32. Kim Keirstead
    August 13, 2014

    What you did is amazing in so many ways! Thank you!

  33. Jerry Campbell
    August 13, 2014

    We must do more. Gladly support any student, esp. If interested in Science.

  34. John Waire
    August 13, 2014

    …so so powerful! Exceptional work on both sides of the lens David.

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