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.)
All photos provided courtesy of Alex John Beck.