Portraits of Syrian children made by photojournalist Maranie Staab were on display in Pittsburgh when they were vandalized, with the subjects’ faces crossed out by spay paint. This is the photographer’s response:
By Maranie Staab
"@maranierae, have you seen this?”
The Instagram post mentioning my name showed portraits of Syrian refugee children. They were familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. These were the children I had met and photographed while working in the Zaatari refugee camp last year. But in this photo there were x’s spray-painted across their faces.
It was an image taken at the “Displaced” exhibition presented during the Three Rivers Arts Festival under the Fort Duquesne Bridge on the Pittsburgh riverfront. Someone had vandalized the photographs, carefully defacing each of the children’s faces.
I was in a friend’s apartment in Iraq when I learned what had happened. Covered in dust and dried sweat, I had just returned from a day working in West Mosul. I am writing this from Iraq, where I have been for the past three weeks partnering with medical organizations and NGOs and working independently to collect stories and take photographs. It’s here in West Mosul that Iraqi and coalition forces fight to retake the city from Daesh (ISIS).
As I studied the vandalized images, my emotions quickly went from anger to disappointment to sadness.
Then, I had acceptance. Acceptance not because I think that this was OK. This was far from OK. But acceptance because photographing and humanizing the periphery of conflict challenges much of the rhetoric that exists today, which in turn usurps the way that people think and what they hold to be true. These photographs, and other work like them, can make people uncomfortable. Most people, including myself, resist being made uncomfortable, but I also believe that it is imperative that we not only allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable but that we also seek out ways to push beyond our comfort zones.
In September 2015, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto joined 17 other mayors in signing a letter of support addressed to then President Barack Obama, who had announced plans to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. In Pittsburgh, the reaction to that announcement ranged from unequivocal support to scorn, ridicule and rejection.
When I looked for nuanced coverage about what the situation was like, for more information about the human toll of the displacement I was hearing staggering statistics about, I could not find much. When I turned an ear to the conversations around me, they seemed based less on fact and more on hate, ignorance and fear.
I decided to go and see for myself. Two months later I was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, volunteering with the Syrian American Medical Society and Global Outreach Doctors. I spent three weeks in the camp, an additional week working outside of the camps in a hospital for war-wounded children and then went on to Northern Iraq with Doctors Without Borders as they set up mobile clinics for internally displaced Iraqis.
I’ve worked in several camps for internally displaced persons and with a group whose mission is to mitigate harm to civilians in conflict zones. I’ve listened to the stories of those who have lived under Daesh control, who have lost family and friends, who have seen death and destruction and have been forced to survive on flour and water for months at a time. I have witnessed a girl named Zeinab die in front of me. She was a victim of an airstrike, and I saw the effects her death had on her family as they were told, “She didn’t make it.” But amid destruction and despair, there is a resilience and a hope in these same people who, in the face of such hardship and adversity, have shown me, a foreigner in their land, nothing but warmth and generosity, and who only look ahead to the work of rebuilding their city.
That was my first experience in the Middle East. What I saw and experienced was so different from what the media tells us and shows us about that part of the world. What I saw continues to influence who I am and what I do.
In Pittsburgh, we had anticipated that vandalism of the exhibition was a possibility and included reprints in the initial budget. My heart had hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary, but my experiences told me otherwise.
It’s important to note that no one, including me, can be absolutely certain of the motivation behind the vandalism.Still the question remains, Why? Why would anyone deface art? Especially the faces of children?
I, too, am often asked about my motivations.Why would you go to Iraq? Aren’t you afraid? But aren’t all Muslims terrorists? Isn’t that where ISIS is? Do they speak English? But what will you eat?
These questions underscore the reasons that I not only choose to travel to certain places but why, more often than not, I seek them out and fund my own way.
I continue on my own journey, in a world outside of my own, searching for truth and greater understanding of people, of cultures and of places. In a time when we seem to be more focused on division and what makes us different, photography and storytelling is my way of communicating what I have learned about the world. It is through this search for truth that we, as a society, have any chance of rescuing the humanity of a place from abstraction and ideology.
I do not want to tell people what to think. By sharing images and stories, by putting names and faces with populations of people that are otherwise often only large, anonymous numbers or sound bites on the television, the aspiration is to encourage viewers to pause, and perhaps reconsider what they may have previously thought to be true.
To be allowed into someone’s life, to be permitted to photograph them and to sit with them as they share their story is a privilege. It is also a responsibility to then share these stories, raise awareness, inform and engage. The opportunity to display some of these images at the 2017 Three Rivers Arts Festival was a chance to do just that — to share some of these faces and stories with the city I call home, the city that I love.
When I was first notified of the vandalism, I posted to Facebook my disappointment and offered to meet with the person who damaged the photographs. That post continues to generate more attention than I could have anticipated. The outpouring of love and support I received for the work is more representative of the people of Pittsburgh than any one act of vandalism, than any one person with a can of spray paint.
A version of this statement was originally published on PublicSource. Maranie Staab can be reached at [email protected].