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Russian Federation: Beslan -- One Year On. Photo workshop brings hope to youngsters

© UNICEF/HQ05-1326/Aleksandr Pogrebnoy
A photo by former Beslan school hostage Aleksandr Pogrebnoy, aged 14, of fellow hostages Lena Ambalova and her daughter Lera, 8, at home in Beslan.

Journalist John Varoli sees how a UNICEF’s photography workshop for the children of Beslan turns into an extraordinary period of rehabilitation and rejuvenation. The children’s photographs are of such a high standard that the Beslan authorities will open an exhibition of their work as part of the commemoration of the first anniversary of the siege of School No. 1.

Several months before the first anniversary of the Beslan school tragedy, UNICEF decided to commemorate the event with a photo exhibition that would be something very different – a bold and more insightful perspective than that offered by a professional photographer. The answer: why not give cameras to the children of Beslan and let them photograph their hometown? Thirteen children from Beslan were selected, five of whom had been hostages during the siege at the school.

First, they’d have to be instructed at least in the basics. Enter Italian photographer, Giacomo Pirozzi. He has been to Beslan before, to chronicle the tragedy that befell this small Ossetian town last autumn, but this time his task is more unusual. In less than a week he has to teach 13 children how to become photographers – good enough to put together an exhibition. It’s a risky experiment, and many wonder whether it will work.

July 22, 2005 - Day 1 of the Children of Beslan Photo Workshop. Under the curious gaze of 13 slightly apprehensive teenagers, Giacomo puts his laptop on the table in the auditorium of the ‘Ossetia’ sanatorium on the outskirts of Vladikavkaz, the region’s capital city. He hooks his laptop up to the overhead projector, and introduces himself. 

Giacomo, smiling and convivial, quickly gets down to business and engages the children with questions about their photography experience and their understanding of its purpose and essence. Answers come in from around the table: “it’s fun,”; “it’s useful to help remember things from the past,”; “to help recall past emotions,”; “to inform people”. Giacomo is impressed. He has a sharp group.

© UNICEF/HQ05-1339/Alan Aldatov
A photo by 16-year-old Alan Aldatov shows Irina Katsanova at a window in her home overlooking the gutted remains of School No. 1. Her sister Alana, 15, was killed during the siege in September 2004
A bumpy start

Even so, Day 1, and part of Day 2, are not easy. Giacomo, though he provides a lively explanation of photo basics with the help of an interpreter, has to cram into a few days what generally requires a three-month photography course. Prolonged discussion of the technical aspects tends to put heads down on the table, but the enthusiasm of the children to pick up these new skills never wanes. On Day 3, when the children are given the cameras and let loose on Beslan, the fantastic results exceed everyone’s expectations.

“There was some worry in UNICEF about how well this workshop might turn out,” Giacomo confided at the end of the workshop. “But what happened here was much more than anyone expected, and there has been an incredible and enthusiastic response from the children. I’m happy to have been able to contribute to the healing process here.”

“We never expected that the workshop would turn out to be genuine art therapy, and the results were incredible,” said Amir Tagiev, a psychologist from Moscow who has spent months working with the children of Beslan, and who attended the workshop. “It was extremely important that the children felt responsible for their performance, and that they were treated with respect themselves.”

Giacomo showed the children many of his own magnificent photos – from AIDS sufferers in Africa, to tsunami survivors in Asia – to point out proper technique, and asked the children for their opinions, leading to lively discussions. One boy, Misha Dzarasov, 13, often took shots with his mobile phone of the African and Asian photos.

“He showed us very beautiful photos, but these were photos where the children saw suffering elsewhere in the world, how people suffer for not just three days but for years and how children often die in horrible circumstances; and for the Beslan children this was dramatic,’’ said Mr. Tagiev. “It was very important that the children saw this – people dying from and living with AIDS, and that they saw through these photos how people could still smile.”

Visiting School No. 1

After the mini- photo tour of the world, the workshop focus moved closer to home. The children knew Giacomo had photos of Beslan and asked to see them. As soon as they came up on the screen, an icy silence covered the room. For the first time, the children’s attention was 100 per cent. It was a compelling prelude to what was to come once they were sent to Beslan.

On Days 3 and 4, the children were finally given small Canon digital cameras. First stop, a heart-rending visit to the ruins of Beslan’s School No. 1 where the memories of those children who were hostages began to flow rapidly. Next, the cemetery where the victims lie in peace, followed by visits to victims’ families, stops at children’s playgrounds, the psychological Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz, as well as encounters with random people on Beslan’s streets.

While some may doubt the wisdom of letting the children visit the school and cemetery, it was the children themselves who chose to do so. Indeed, there was concern at first among the workshop organisers about the idea. But the children insisted. This was the point when it became clear that the workshop was more than a lesson in photography. It was now a form of art therapy. During those two days in Beslan, the children began to look at the tragedy with new eyes, from behind a camera lens. Most were then able to better cope with the pain that had persisted for almost one year. And they performed the task with greater professionalism, sensitivity, insight, and understanding than any professional photographer could have done.

Two days in the field netted over a thousand shots. Giacomo then worked into the early morning hours with the children to select about 400 truly excellent photos, listing them according to various categories: the School; the Cemetery; Visits to families who lost loved ones; Love and Joy (shots of current Beslan life); and the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz.

“Most important, we wanted to show that life continues in Beslan, and the children really wanted this to come out,” Giacomo added. “The photos are so beautiful and so full of colours, especially the section on Joy and Love.”

By the end, it was clear the workshop had left an indelible impression on the children. He not only taught them the finer points of an important art form, he helped them confront and deal with their worries and fears.

“Honestly, I didn’t like it much in the beginning,” admitted an outspoken Soslan Dzugaev, 13, who won the workshop prize for Best Photo. “I found it a little strange, but then I really came to like it. It especially became interesting when we went out and began photographing.”

“Visiting the family who had lost a child at the school was the toughest part,” added Soslan, who was the one who suggested the group visit the school ruins. “It was also tough to go to the school and to the cemetery, to see the graves of my neighbours who died; but seeing the faces of the smiling children was one of the better moments.”

Indeed, most of the photos show smiling children. This is perhaps the message the children of Beslan are now trying to get across – that one year later, though the pain still cuts deep, life and hope are returning to their town.

“All year long they heard how the world spoke about them,” said Mr. Tagiev. “Now, through these photos and exhibition, they can tell the world about themselves and what they feel.”

For more information:

John Brittain, Communication Officer, UNICEF Russian Federation,  tel: (+ 7095) 933 8818. Cell: (+ 7095) 761 6648. email: jbrittain@unicef.org
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