Lens on Life in Lebanon Goes Live
23 August marks the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its Abolition in 1791. In the world today, International Labor Organization reports, slavery-like conditions still exist for an estimated 20 million people and we put the spotlight on Lens On Life in Lebanon, a photographic-essay and multimedia initiative by young migrants, women and men, working within the limitations of the Kefala [sponsorship] system – a form of modern day slavery.
No child dreams of becoming a maid or a manual labourer. But driven by poverty, political instability and war, waves of Africans and Asians take on such work every year in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East in hope for a better life and to provide for their families, often away from the support of friends and family.
In Lebanon, migrant workers clean our homes and help raise our children. They build the offices we work in and tend to the food we eat. Yet employers are known to violate the kefala system by interpreting their responsibility of these migrant workers to be ownership.
It is a situation faced by the 200,000+ migrant domestic workers – mainly women – who find themselves behind closed household or factory doors in vulnerable conditions including: passports confiscated to prevent freedom of movement, physical and psychological abuse, no legal recognition to dispute unfair trade or treatment, and unable to marry and found a family.
Male migrant workers, the majority manual labourers and hired help in small businesses, are also subject to the kefala system, which has long rooted racist ideologies dating back to the times of slave trade and European Colonisation of the Arab world. Viewed as unworthy by bourgeoisie Lebanese society, many male migrant workers live in fear of harassment by employers, Lebanese police and soldiers.
Adopting laws against the kefala system does not automatically translate into a practical abolishment, often because of the strength of traditional attitudes in Lebanese society and its legal systems. Such strong social stigma combined with lack of human rights initiatives means that many migrant workers today are at the mercy of their employers & recruitment agencies. Invisible to the outside world, the majority of migrant workers are silently subject to discrimination and abuse with the threat of detention, unpaid wages, arrest, and deportation should they demand their rights.
Reframing Perceptions: Agents of Positive Change
Indeed, it is also difficult to see any hope for the migrant worker in Lebanon who is caught in this predicament of servitude. And while it’s not uncommon to see news headlines reporting on migrant workers dogged by exposés into their dark realities of the abusive employers, racial misconduct, and suicide scandals, we know little of the migrant worker’s story, as they see it: their views of the country, their lives here, and the dreams that inspire them.
Lens on Life in Lebanon attempted to answer these questions through a unique participatory photography workshop and exhibition held at AltCity in Hamra, Beirut in Dec 2012. Fifteen migrant workers, majority from Sudan and Ethiopia working as maids, cooks, and hired-help, offer a glimpse into their everyday lives to illustrate alternative visual narratives away from the “shock-value” depicted in mainstream media.
This hard-to-reach group barely surface in the public domain, the lucky few who do manage to get time off work attend free language and computer classes at AltCity on Sundays hosted by Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF). The project facilitators were therefore able to teach fifteen migrant workers in simple skills in photography using their mobile phones and PhotoVoice storytelling methodology to build an awareness-raising, visual campaign by focusing their attention to the positive contribution they make in their community. The objective of using non-threatening visual narratives is to breakdown social barriers and gives these ‘faceless victims’ the respect they so rightly deserve.
“We know little of the migrant worker’s story, as they see it: their views of the country, their lives here, and the dreams that inspire them.”
The multi-lingual workshop was taught in English, Arabic and French to ensue activities were clearly communicated and culturally appropriate for the participants. Providing translation between facilitators and participants ensured that the students could discuss subject matter, take photos, debated which ones to select, and write captions and titles for their images.
To ensure one’s safety, the use of personal mobile phone cameras was the preferred method of capturing images. This small, unassuming device is a powerful tool for non-obtrusive image capturing without drawing unwanted hostility and suspicion by onlookers in places where picture taking is uncommon.
Individuals came back to class each week with a range of experiences, a visual autobiography focusing on the small pleasures and joyful moments of daily life. Beyond the alarmist news headlines of violence, trauma, and suicide rates, these photographs are the means to convey a message one would not expect from the migrant worker – the intimate spaces, people, and perspectives that they wanted to share of their lives.
Despite the fact that migrant workers are left to fend for themselves due to little or no protection from labour laws, their governments or recruitment agencies these images, as a collective narrative, these images create a space to articulate and validate cultural diversity, resilience, self-worth.
“I am very happy with my new photography skills, I poured my soul inside-out through my photographs.”
Such unseen realities of the migrant worker, even though a rare minority illustrates a deeper level of understanding about individuals forming strong social-cultural networks, perusing meaningful work opportunities, applying themselves in education, making much needed economic contributions to family members back home and within the Lebanese community.
Lens on Life in Lebanon highlights the small but important victories of the migrant worker, these triumphs of human spirit.
A Multimedia Approach to Advocacy:
Following the success of the Lens on Life in Lebanon workshop and exhibition, the visual collective is now part of a permanent online gallery Lens On Life Multimedia produced by the programs’ co-facilitator Ann Megalla. Her hope is that by sharing the participant’s stories using words, pictures and videos will spark more interaction between host and migrant communities, strengthen links that already exist, and build bridges where there are none.
Working with the participant’s images, unreleased video interviews, and formative research including infographics and accumulative report extracts, the producer’s intent is to illustrate a dynamic, holistic view of migrant worker issues in Lebanon integrating the migrant community, key NGOs and grassroots stakeholders, and social media dialogue.
The legacy of Lens on Life Multimedia is to ensure that members of the community, institutions, and agents of change will use the site as an effective, sustainable tool for advocacy. At it’s core the website is an initiative to mobilise local and international community to get informed, spread the word, raise a voice to challenge societal views, and governing bodies, that have shaped the current system that fails to protect our migrant workers and remedy their grievances.