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Syrian refugees share memories stored on their phones in powerful photo series

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Photographer Alex John Beck depicts the smartphone as ‘a depository for memory’

Photo by Alex John Beck

Smartphones have emerged as a critical tool for refugees fleeing war-torn countries in recent years, with many using their phones to navigate across Europe, keep in touch with their families, or even integrate in new societies. But a powerful new photo series explores how asylum seekers use their phones in far more personal ways, as well.

In February 2016, Alex John Beck traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to photograph Syrian refugees and their most treasured smartphone photos. Each entry in the series, released this month, includes a portrait of a refugee and an image of their phones displaying their most cherished photos. Some chose photos of family members that had been killed or left behind; others showed him snapshots of their old neighborhoods or family members that had safely arrived in Europe. Some said they deleted their entire library photo library due to invasive monitoring from local authorities.

The aim, according to Beck, was to use the smartphone as a window into each person’s memories. “When they leave, it’s one of the few things they have,” Beck said by phone last week. “It’s not necessarily the most sentimental object that they take with them… But it is kind of a depository for memory, and it’s the way that they still have connections with home. They have them in their hands at all times, just like we do.”

The subject of each photo also wrote a short description of the images that matter most to them, and their handwriting remains intact in Beck’s photos. “I am naive most of the time about these situations, as the viewer, so I want the subject to present the material to me,” the photographer said. “I think handwriting itself — the way people hesitate, the way they misspell things, cross things out, the way other people come in and fill in things — I think handwriting says more than a portrait I take ever could, in some ways.”

Traveling with Oxfam, the UK-based charity organization, Beck visited the Zaatari refugee camp as well as other informal settlements in Jordan and Lebanon. Before embarking on the trip, Beck says he wanted to portray refugees in a way that would resonate with wider audiences, without positioning them as “the other.”

“There’s an attempt often made by photojournalists to make situations seem unreal — to make it seem very far from the norm, when the reality is it’s oftentimes quite banal,” Beck said. “People just get on with life in these absolutely ridiculous circumstances, and I think the use of the phone is a good example of that. These people are just trying to keep it going.”

A selection of Beck’s photos is published below, with the photographer’s original captions. (Translations of the handwriting are quoted before each caption.)

“Stop the killing and destruction in Syria.” | Beqqa Valley, Lebanon, looking toward Syria. A valley of a rally in Raqaa, sent by his brother. The video was then deleted. Ali has been in Lebanon for over four years, originally from the Hama area. They don’t have consistent registration in Lebanon. Ali doesn’t keep anything on his phone for very long — photos of his family still in Syria, his home, and his friends have all been deleted. “I heard my neighborhood was completely destroyed. Nothing left.”
“Syria is the cradle of civilization. If only we still had our beloved Syria. What if it came back to us? And we’d come back as we were in the past. Oh beloved Syria. Oh Syria, oh my friends, oh my family, oh my district. I wish I could return to al-Tabqah, my friends, my family. I wish we could retrieve past memories.” | A tent in the Beqaa valley Lebanon. He tells us he was called to join the army, but was luckily smuggled across the border. He lost his toes to a bomb on the road. Haydar* from Raqaa — was engaged a few years ago but he’s no longer sure where his fiancé is living. He lost touch with her when he was trying to leave and doesn’t have a way of reaching her. At the time of this photograph he was considering making his way to Europe by boat, maybe trying to get to Turkey one way or another.
“We ask all the sects to lift the injustice, bring reconciliation, reunite all the Syrian communities, reconstruct Syria, and build the country anew.” | In the Beqaa settlements, people are wary of revealing their identity, due to extensive monitoring by Hezbollah and Lebanese security forces. Whenever they’re detained the soldiers go through their phones, looking for pictures showing the slightest Daesh [ISIS] sympathy. A bearded man is enough. The refugees do not send photos, and they immediately delete every message received.
“Syria was more beautiful in the past that now. I wish I could return to Aleppo. To walk in the streets.” | Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, looking toward Syria. A photo from Aleppo, where he’s from. Joram (16). A cousin passed by his home a month after he fled, and it was completely destroyed, along with the houses of his neighbors and friends.
“My young brother is like the rose. He went out and left his family and five kids. My only desire is that they leave Raqqa, and come to Lebanon.” | Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. A photograph of her brother, killed in Raqqa.
“I feel annoyed when I seem [sic] them living in their countries, and I have no country.” | J’s wife prefers to not be photographed, but was more than happy for us to photograph her daughter instead. She tells us a story of how, before they left, the regime called them to the mosque. They put the men in belly dancing clothes, played music, and made them dance in front of their wives, before killing them. “With a machine gun,” she says. This photo is of a family member jailed by the regime for three years before being released — he was anxiously trying to find a way out of Syria. “He had cigarette burns, and was beaten very, very badly. We think he was electrocuted. We saw the pictures,” she told us.
“If only the old days can come back. We miss Syria.” | M, several years ago, outside his workplace.
Photo by Alex John Beck
“I dream of returning to my country, living in it safely, and staying in my home with my family.” | Zaatari Camp, Jordan.
(Signs her name twice) | Shatilla, Beirut. A picture sent by her elder son, who was killed by bombs in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus.
“The suffering of S, refugee from Hama. I hope Syria recovers its security, its stability. A request for the compotent [sic] states. Please help the refugees. Work on returning them to their countries. Support the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and every country that hosts them.” | Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. All pictures deleted, to avoid detention by Hezbollah fighters searching the camps for Daesh [ISIS].
“I am currently a refugee in Jordan. Thank Allah, I am living with my family. I miss our home country very much, especially my home in Syria. I miss the look of my home, and our gathering in it each morning and evening. I wish I could come back.” | Their house in Homs, before the Regime arrived.
“I loved humanity and humans. I promised that, in my life, I’d never cause anyone pain or sadness. And I wish that our suffering could end by returning to a country that respects human values, so I can spend the rest of my life in happiness, cheerfulness and pleasure.” | Shatilla, Beirut. A photograph of his daughter and grandkids, taken on their arrival in Denmark by her husband. At one time in his life, Hamad taught history and geography. They were living in Yarmouk before they fled in 2013.
“I hope I can get to him as soon as possible. My wish in life, is to travel. I love the birds because they travel with no passport.” | Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. Khalif*, from Raqaa still had eight brothers back home and had been in Lebanon for about four years at the time of this photo. His brother’s in Norway and he was trying to figure out what to do next since life in Lebanon was difficult and his options limited. It took his brother about $3,000 and seven months to get to Norway, but he was doing well and finding his feet.
“I am from Syria. I live in Jordan. I only wish to return to my home country, Syria. I mean its streets. I wish I could see my neighbors, family, loved ones, friends. I miss its air, water. Everything in it.” | A picture of their street in Homs, taken the week before they left. Jabez* and his family left Homs in March of 2013. For nearly 15 years his parents had worked to buy the corner store (grocery and coffee) and the home their family lived in. They made the final payments right before they had to flee. Jabez’s sister had recently gone back to Syria but he hadn’t heard from her again. A friend had gone to their home and reported that their home had been completely stripped after a recent bombing.
“We want peace in our country. When would my children, sisters and I live in peace in our country, Syria?” | Zaatari Refugee Camp, northern Jordan. A picture sent by her 24-year-old son, Ghofran, on his arrival in Germany. He was working in a bakery when this picture was taken. “I didn’t hear from him for a week when he was on his way to Germany. A week. It is bittersweet because he’s far away, but he’s safe.”

All photos provided courtesy of Alex John Beck.