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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”