THE-DISPOSSESSED

Pushed to the Margins, These Brave People Are Pushing Back

From the American West to the Middle East, the powerless face stark choices when confronted by the powerful

Smithsonian Magazine
Standing Rock #2: Oil-pipeline protester Mychal Thompson in North Dakota, in November 2016. Her quote, in Navajo, reads, “To be of the people means you must have reverence and love for all of the resources and all of the beauties of this world.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | July 2018

Syria’s civil war was hurtling into its third brutal year in the spring of 2014. Rakan Alzahab was 17. One day, when he was stopped at an army checkpoint near Damascus, a soldier examined his cellphone. Among the pictures on it was one of his cousin’s daughter holding a rebel group’s flag across her shoulder.

The soldier took him into a building where other soldiers beat him for two hours before setting him free. “I returned to my house where I lived with my mother and my sister,” Alzahab told Smithsonian by email. “My mother saw me and got shocked and said, ‘You will not stay here anymore. Go away and stay alive.’” And so began his long journey into exile.

Since fleeing Syria, he has covered almost 5,000 miles, traveling first through Lebanon and then Turkey, where he joined his eldest brother and worked (illegally) for a year and a half. In search of a better life, he boarded a smuggler’s boat with 52 other refugees, headed for Greece. “In the middle of the sea the engine stopped,” Alzahab says. The boat began taking on water, and “everyone started to scream.”

The Greek coast guard came to the rescue, taking the passengers to the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. Alzahab stayed there just a few days before pushing on to Athens and then Ireland, where he’s now staying at a reorientation camp in County Roscommon.

Zapatista #4
Zapatista #4: A couple with homemade tortillas on a Zapatista compound in Chiapas, Mexico, in October 2017. Their inscription, in Spanish, celebrates “our collective work with coffee, beans, corn and livestock” as the “economic fountain” of their movement. (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Moria #2
Moria #2: Rakan Alzahab, who fled the civil war in Syria, at the food tent at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, in February 2016. His inscription, in Arabic, reads, “Zabadani, we miss you.” It refers to his hometown, in the hills outside Damascus. (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Standing Rock #1
Standing Rock #1: Chief Arvol Looking Horse, religious leader of the three branches of the Sioux Nation (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota), at the pipeline protest in North Dakota, in September 2016. His inscription, in Lakota, reads, “We are spiritual, we will survive.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)

The photograph of Alzahab on these pages was taken while he was on Lesbos, where the refugee camp, a fenced-in jumble of cheek-by-jowl shelters, left a big impression. After a sleepless night—“I was afraid something would happen to me or someone would come and steal my money”—he walked to the food tent. “I was in the line, waiting, when Wayne came with his camera. I asked myself, who is this man and what is he doing here?”

Wayne is Wayne Martin Belger, an American photographer, and he was volunteering at Moria while working on a project he has titled “Us & Them,” a series of unusual portraits of people who have been oppressed, abused or otherwise pushed to the margins. The camera that caught Alzahab’s eye is indeed a curiosity: 30 pounds of copper, titanium, steel, gold and other metals welded together into a box that makes pictures by admitting only a pinhole of light. His technique requires an extended exposure on 4-by-5-inch film, but Belger sees the extra time as a chance for deeper connection with his subjects. A machinist, he built the camera himself to serve as a conversation starter. In Alzahab’s case, it worked: “I couldn’t wait to find answers to my questions, so I took my soup and went to Wayne and introduced myself to him. I asked him, ‘Can I get a picture in his camera?’ and he says, ‘Of course.’”

Zapatista #3
Zapatista #3: A woman with Zapatista soldiers, Chiapas, Mexico, in February 2017. The poster depicts her son, one of 43 students who vanished after police stopped a bus they were on in 2014. Her inscription, in Spanish, says, “Why? I will keep searching for you until my heart stops beating. I love you, my Manuel.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Moria #3
Moria #3: An Afghan woman at the food tent at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, in February 2016. She had arrived after crossing the Aegean Sea in a smuggler’s rubber boat. Her inscription, in Dari, reads, “We love you all.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Zapatista #1
Zapatista #1: In the village of Oventic, headquarters of the Zapatista liberation army, Chiapas, Mexico, in January 2017. The man’s inscription, in Spanish, reads, “Brothers of the world fighting together for a good life, justice, democracy and liberty.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)

Alzahab is one of more than 100 subjects Belger has photographed in five countries so far. He went to Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, to photograph the Zapatista rebels who have been fighting since 1994 for the redistribution of land and other resources, as well as autonomy for the nation’s indigenous people. In the Middle East, Belger photographed Palestinians seeking a homeland. In the United States, he spent more than two months in 2016 documenting protesters trying to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline because of fears that it would foul Lakota drinking water and burial grounds.

Despite their many differences, Belger says all of his portrait subjects have been cast into a “fictitious” role as outsiders or others—“them” in his formulation—by governments, media and other powers (“us”). These divisions, which he says are rooted in “fear and ignorance,” blur faces in the crowd into faceless masses. Much of the news coverage of the international refugee crisis, he says, “is about how we don’t know who these people are, that they’re terrorists, that they’re going to come into this country and destroy everything. Then you meet somebody like Rakan and you just want to connect with him and show that there are these amazing, gentle people out there.”

Palestine #2
Palestine #2: A Palestinian in Nazareth, Israel, in November 2015. His inscription, a poem in Palestinian Arabic, reads, in part, “Barefoot, free from every tie and blind tradition / You look to see a spectacular beauty in the sky / Crazy, yes. Though my craziness is the dream of the happy ones!” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Kara Tepe #1
Kara Tepe #1: A young Syrian boy at the Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece. His inscription, in Arabic, reads, “Jamal” and “Safety.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Moria #1
Moria #1: A Syrian woman at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, in February 2016. Her inscription, in Arabic, reads, “Hope.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Zapatista #2
Zapatista #2: A platoon-commander at a Zapatista military camp in Chiapas, Mexico, in October 2017. He declined to contribute an inscription. (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)
Palestine #1
Palestine #1: A young Palestinian woman in the Palestinian Territories in November 2015. Her inscription, in Arabic, reads, “caring, respect, happiness, hope, love.” (Artwork by Wayne Martin Belger; Photograph of artwork by Jade Beall)

Belger emphasizes his subjects’ individuality to spotlight their humanity. After getting to know them a bit and asking them to pose for a portrait, he asks them to write “words from the heart” in their native language. After enlarging the original 4-by-5 exposures into prints measuring 48 by 60 inches, he transfers the text onto the prints, which he titles as artworks. It’s his way of collaborating with his subjects—and giving them the chance to be heard as well as seen.

Alzahab wrote, “Zabadani, we miss you,” in Arabic. He was referring to the hometown he left in 2014, a place he does not expect he’ll ever be able to revisit.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the language of the inscription for the image Moria #3. It is written in Dari, not Pashto.

In constructing the camera he used to make these portraits, Wayne Martin Belger incorporated artifacts from World War II, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War, plus glass fragments he picked up in the Palestinian territories. (Jade Beall)
In constructing the camera he used to make these portraits, Wayne Martin Belger incorporated artifacts from World War II, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War, plus glass fragments he picked up in the Palestinian territories. (Jade Beall)
In October 2017, Belger journeyed in a 200-vehicle Zapatista convoy to see indigenous leader Marichuy speak in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. (Jade Beall)
After the pinhole camera photo shoot at the Moria refugee camp, Belger gave Rakan Alzahab a Polaroid photo as a keepsake. (Jade Beall)
Belger photographed Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Sioux Nation in the Oceti Sakowin Camp in September 2016. (Jade Beall)
Belger photographed Navajo water-protector Mychal Thompson in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in November 2016. (Courtesy of Ryan Redhawk)
Belger photographed a Zapatista platoon-commander at a military camp in Chiapas, Mexico, in October 2017. (Jade Beall)
(Jade Beall)
“Moira #2” (left) and “Standing Rock #2” (right) in the “Us & Them” installation at Belger’s Tucson studio. They flank a door from the Kara Tepe Syrian refugee camp adorned with the “Us & Them” camera. The door came from a structure for registering and fingerprinting new refugees to receive new EU visas, and when leaving, some refugees would wipe the fingerprinting ink from their fingers on the door. The Arabic writing on the door translates to, “Push your way through.” At the top of the door is a shrine with the child's stuffed animal mounted inside. The stuffed animal was left behind by a child refugee in Lesbos. (Jade Beall)
About the Author: Anna Diamond is the assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine. Read more articles from Anna Diamond
About the Author: Wayne Martin Belger is a photographer based in Tucson, Arizona. Website: waynemartinbelger.com Read more articles from Wayne Martin Belger