This March is the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Since then, some 400,000 have been killed, and over 5.5 million refugees have streamed out of Syria; millions more have lost their homes. Over a million Syrian refugees live in Jordan, thousands of them in sprawling refugee camps that have morphed into temporary cities. About one-third of Syrian refugees are children under 12; many have been refugees longer than they ever lived in Syria.
Dutch photojournalist Chris de Bode has visited Zaatari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp, several times since 2013. In January, Save the Children asked de Bode to help the world better understand how time has passed for these refugees.
“I thought, let’s do something really accessible, a form we all know, in all its simplicity,” de Bode says by phone from Amsterdam. “Why not shoot school photos?”
De Bode set up a small portable backdrop and photographed individual, close-up portraits of 48 children, in both the Zaatari and Azraq camps. “I didn’t want to photograph them as refugees,” he says. “Just as kids.” Their commonality is their age: 7 — the same as the war itself.
De Bode asked each child where he or she was born, and if the child had any memories of Syria. “On the whole, most of the children didn’t have any memory at all,” he recalls. “I found that quite touching, because slowly this generation is losing all memory of where they actually come from.”
Seeing refugees in school photos changes the viewer’s eye. “I’ve been in this work for quite awhile,” de Bode says. “If you photograph someone within the context of being a refugee, with all the symbols that go with that” — the dust, the makeshift housing, the clothing — “it’s not very dignified.” Instead, a simple white drop sheet and questions about school and toys and brothers and sisters change the focus.
“Suddenly, being a refugee is not the important thing of looking at the picture,” says de Bode.
The images may be simple, but they are shot on a handmade Swedish Hasselblad camera, one of the finest in the industry. The quality of each image is extremely crisp. That, too, was a conscious decision: To photograph the children with one of the world’s finest cameras, de Bode says, was his quiet way of honoring them.
All students were photographed at a Save the Children-sponsored early learning center. Interviews were conducted by Chris de Bode, lightly edited for space.