Photo workshop helps Beslan’s children share hope and healing

© UNICEF/HQ05-1328/ Dzarasov
Participants visit with children at a rehabilitation centre. Tamara Bagaeva, 18; Soslan Dzugaev, 13, Alina Sakieva, 18 and Alana Alikova, 17, are pictured here. Mikhail Dzarasov, 13, took this photo.

By John Varoli

An exhibition of photos taken by children from Beslan, site of the tragic school siege in September 2004, opens at the town’s Cultural Centre on Friday, 26 August 2005. The exhibition, entitled ‘Children Are the Most Precious Thing in the World’, includes 100 photos – moving, inspiring, humorous and sad – taken by children during a workshop organized by UNICEF.

The following is the story of how the workshop unfolded.

BESLAN, Russia, 26 August 2005 – In the leadup to the anniversary of the Beslan school tragedy, UNICEF organized a photo workshop and exhibition to remind the world of what happened here in September 2004. What sets this exhibition apart is that the children of Beslan – hardest-hit by the tragedy – are themselves the photographers.

© UNICEF/HQ05-1363/ Vazagov
A hallway is filled with rubble at School No. 1 in Beslan. Except for commemorative items, the site has been preserved as it was at the end of the siege. This photo was taken by Vano Vazagov, 17.

The workshop begins

Thirteen children are participating in the workshop; five of them were among the children taken hostage during the siege. The course has two parts: first, training in the basics of photography by Italian photographer Giacomo Pirozzi, who had worked in Beslan in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy; and second, picture-taking excursions in Beslan – to homes, playgrounds, medical centres, the cemetery, and to School No. 1 where the tragedy took place.

Under the curious gaze of the 13 teenagers, Pirozzi sets up his laptop on a table in the auditorium of the ‘Ossetia’ sanatorium on the outskirts of Vladikavkaz, the region’s capital city. Pirozzi quickly gets down to business and engages the children with questions about their experience with and understanding of photography.

Running the training is not always an easy job for Pirozzi. He has to cram into a few days what generally requires a three-month photography course. His explanations of photo basics and replies to questions are communicated to the children with the help of an interpreter.

At one point, the children ask Pirozzi to show some of his photos of Beslan taken last year in the aftermath of the siege. As soon as the images begin to appear on the screen, an icy silence descends on the room – a product of the power of photography and the children’s close involvement with the tragedy depicted. But soon they would have a chance to create their own images.

© UNICEF/HQ-1308/ Pirozzi
Malvina Bezhaeva, 16, places flowers at the grav esite of one of her best friends, Angela Kusova, at the cemetery near the town of Beslan. Malvina is one of the 13 children participating in the UNICEF-organized photo workshop.

Healing begins behind the lens

On days three and four, the children are given small Canon digital cameras. The photo excursion in Beslan begins. First stop: a heart-rending visit to the ruins of School No. 1 where the memories of those children who had been hostages begin to flow rapidly.

Next is the cemetery where the children who were killed in the tragedy lie in peace, followed by visits to families who lost children, to children’s playgrounds, and to the psychological Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz. Photos taken with the people of Beslan, encountered at random on the city’s streets, round out the excursion.

A visit to each of these locations was requested by the participating children, for whom the experience as a whole amounts to much more than a lesson in photography: It is truly a form of healing.

Amir Tagiev, a psychologist from Moscow who spent months working with the children of Beslan after the siege, has taken time to attend the workshop. “We never expected that the workshop would turn out to be genuine art therapy, and the results were incredible,” says Tagiev, summing up at the end of the event. 

The children have examined the tragedy with new eyes, from behind a camera lens, in the company of their peers, and with the intention of showing the world what they see and feel. As a result, most feel able to cope better with the pain that still lingers nearly a year later.

“There was some worry in UNICEF about how well this workshop might turn out,” Pirozzi confides. “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.”

© UNICEF/HQ-1334/ Dzugaev
This photo was voted 'Best Photograph' by the group at the photo workshop. It was taken by Soslan Dzugaev, 13, a former hostage in the Beslan siege.

Life continues

Two days in the field has netted over a thousand shots. Pirozzi works with the children to select about 400 truly excellent photos, grouping them in categories: the School; the Cemetery; Visits to Families (who lost loved ones); Joy and Love (including images of life in Beslan as it now is); and the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in Vladikavkaz.

It was clear the workshop has left an indelible impression on the children who participated.
“Visiting the family who had lost a child at the school was the toughest part,” says Soslan Dzugaev, 13, who has won the workshop prize for ‘Best Photo’. “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 most important message that the children of Beslan want to share through their photos: One year later, though the pain still lingers, life and hope are returning to their town.

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

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

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this story from New York.



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