After Brandon Stanton, an American photographer, lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago, he moved to New York and launched his famous photography project “Humans of New York”, known as HONY, in 2010. He would meander the streets of New York, photographing strangers and sparking personal conversations with them.
Stanton managed to establish a human connection with scores of residents of the cosmopolitan city. He produced intimate portraits of the people that make up America’s most populous city along with their stories. The project expanded to over 20 countries, celebrating people’s dreams and aspirations, but most importantly their daily struggles; a defining aspect of their being.
With over 20 million followers on social media and two bestselling books, Stanton’s tremendously popular project inspired countless spinoffs, from Paris to Bombay. They all have one goal in common – to remind us that we are all human despite our different backgrounds, circumstances and beliefs.
When it comes to the Middle East however, global perceptions in general have been largely shaped by wars and conflict. Two particularly interesting HONY spinoffs are from Syria and Palestine, known as HOS and HOP respectively. HOS and HOP offer a fresh perspective on conflicts that many do not want to follow or hear about. They exquisitely depict the faces behind the grim statistics that often make the headlines and show what life is like in these war-torn countries, one photo at a time.
Palestine has entered its 68th year under occupation, and Syria is almost in its sixth year of brutal conflict after the 2011 revolution to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad turned into a full-fledged civil war.
Anas Hamra, a photographer from Gaza and co-founder of HOP, told MEMO the project, which he launched in 2014 upon his return from a trip to the United States, was created “to reflect the dreams of Palestinian people and their daily lives.”
Jafar, a HOP co-founder from the West Bank, added that the initiative “aims at restoring the humanity that is often stripped away when Palestinians are reduced to calculative deaths, forgettable names, and burned and mutilated bodies.”
Marvin, co-founder and main coordinator of Humans of Syria who used a pseudonym, echoed the same sentiments and motives as Anas and Jafar. “The news coming from Syria is now only about numbers and statistics,” she told MEMO. Indeed, their mission statement reads: “Behind the numbers are ordinary human beings of flesh and blood – brave individuals who continue to struggle for life.”
Marvin said their collective started small in 2015 and has grown into a team of 60 volunteers, including photographers, editors, translators, designers and coordinators across Syria, in areas controlled by the Assad regime, opposition forces and other armed groups, including Daesh.
The Palestinian project, on the other hand, is made up of six members telling the stories of Palestinians inside Palestine as well as the Palestinian diaspora living in refugee camps across the Arab World, including Yarmouk camp in Syria, and beyond.
While many of the photos tell of struggles and strife, they also paint a picture of resilience and hope. One shows Abu Khaled, a 45-year-old Syrian man from the besieged Yarmouk camp, who sells homemade sweets for a living. Abu Khaled tries to maintain the same quality of his sweets in spite of the shortage in ingredients due to the siege. He adds extra sugar to the sweets now, in order “to break the bitterness we are living”.
Another photo shows a group of young Syrian boys in the besieged city of Darayya pushing their school bus. “The bus in our school is not old; it’s tired because of war. A lot of times it cannot operate on its own and every time we want it to work we, the boys, push it while girls race us to take seats.”
One photo tells the story of 40-year-old Abu Yassine who has been living under siege in Syria for years without cooking fuel or electricity. He cut and installed mirrors on a satellite dish in order to concentrate the sunlight and use it to heat his food and water. “I can boil water in less than ten minutes and we’re still in the last days of winter. I expect it to be much faster when the summer comes,” he told HOS photographers proudly.
Another man, Abu Salah, who has also been living under siege in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, has been using his bicycle to charge a battery that he uses to light up his house. “It’s important for a person to do sports. This keeps me healthy, and it lights up my house at night.”
Besides the individual photos, HOS occasionally publishes a series of photos, one such tells the story of 36-year-old artist Akram Abu Al-Foz who paints traditional Middle Eastern patterns on bombshells and bullet casings in order to “erase traces of sorrow” and turn them into “a source of hope”.
Another documents the story of the Syrian Civil Defence, also called the “White Helmets”. They are a group of volunteers who conduct rescue operations across Syria. One of the photos shows 14-year old Mohammed Zahra was of who began volunteering “to help save innocent people” after his father was killed, another shows volunteers in Aleppo gathering for a selfie after a rescue mission.
Some photos capture heart-warming moments, like the moment a newly-qualified Palestinian doctor delivered his first baby. Others simply capture the faces of ordinary civilians, like a young Palestinian man who carves artworks from wood, a street cleaner who is also a father of four, and a first-grader who, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, said he wanted to be in the second grade.
Zaher, an interior design student who also works at popular café Mazaj in Gaza city, regularly sees Yahya selling balloons opposite his workplace and they became friends and features in HOP.
When HOP asked Mahmoud Baker what his wishes were, he said he hoped to one day sell out all the items in his box. “I’ve been selling goods for four years and never managed that.”
Another photo shows two young men wearing gas masks while selling falafel in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, in order to protect themselves from tear gas fired by occupying Israeli forces.
HOP’s award winning photographer Niraz Saied captured a photo of a young Palestinian-Syrian girl in the besieged Yarmouk camp, before having been reportedly arrested by Syrian secret police in Damascus in October 2015. The girl in the photo told Niraz that she doesn’t like soup; the staple meal for those living in the beleaguered camp.
Both projects, which set out to humanise the masses, have garnered a lot of attention and positive support, with thousands of followers. Marvin said they are now preparing for their first Humans of Syria exhibition due to go on display in California next month.
Images Courtesy of Humans of Palestine and Humans of Syria.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.