Framing the refugees

Merav Naor-Weinstock is emotionally invested in her latest project – documenting the grim refugee journey to Europe – sometimes even at the expense of a stunning image.

Taken soon after this Syrian couple learned they would not be allowed to cross to Macedonia (photo credit: MERAV NAOR-WEINSTOCK)
Taken soon after this Syrian couple learned they would not be allowed to cross to Macedonia
(photo credit: MERAV NAOR-WEINSTOCK)
Merav Naor-Weinstock is no novice. She’s been in the photography business for quite some time, and we’re not talking about wedding pics or fetching frames of pastoral landscapes here.
The 43-year-old generally points her lenses at some troubling – sometimes momentous – scene in her capacity as a roving documentary photographer.
Polished professional track record notwithstanding, Naor-Weinstock is clearly emotionally invested in her current project, which involves documenting some of the refugees who manage to make their way from places such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Greece, in the hope that they can continue on to other countries in Europe.
Naor-Weinstock has been to-ing and fro-ing between here, the island of Lesbos – the refugees’ first European port of call – and the Greek mainland for over a month and a half, and has captured some highly evocative and emotive shots, some of which are on display at the Warehouse 2 venue in Jaffa Port.
She became painfully aware of the situation through IsraAID, an Israeli nonprofit NGO, founded in 2001, which provides disaster relief and long-term support all over the globe.
“They were one of the first teams to get to Greece in early August last year,” notes Naor-Weinstock. “Today they are the leading team in Greece, in terms of providing medical and psychological assistance to refugees, some of whom lost members of their family on the way.”
The photographer made her first working trip to Greece with IsraAID in early November and went back and forth several times between then and the end of December.
She coordinated each foray with the organization ahead of time.
“That allowed me access to places where entry is normally prohibited,” explains Naor-Weinstock.
It was not just a matter of popping into a refugee holding station, fishing for some suitably “sexy” situations and shooting away with her cameras. Naor-Weinstock spent time with the refugees and even befriended some. She felt that she had to get to know her subjects before she could present their predicament to the world in an appropriate and respectful manner.
Naturally, Naor-Weinstock knew she was not popping off to some fashionable seaside resort to take glossy advertising shots of families having the time of their lives. She had some idea of the grim reality she would encounter when she got to Greece.
“I did prepare myself psychologically, but what I saw there was far more powerful than I had imagined,” she recalls. “It was more powerful and a lot worse than I’d imagined. You can’t possibly prepare yourself for something like that.”
But surely, as a seasoned professional, Naor-Weinstock could steel herself and get the job done, come what may? Apparently not.
“I believe that I am first a human being and only after that a photographer,” she declares.
It wasn’t a matter of hiding behind the viewfinder and getting the frames just right, so they would have maximum impact on the general public. Naor-Weinstock was on a mission, to get the message out there, and to make a difference.
“In any given situation I always asked myself how I could be of most help. That is always my guideline.”
Even at the expense of a stunning picture? “There were times when I saw I had a fantastic frame, but I pushed the camera to one side because my help was needed.
Once, I found myself with two small children in my arms because the mother had to do something else. You could say I missed a great shot, but that wasn’t the important thing to do at the time.
“I am a documentary photographer, and my objective is to expose a story that the world, by and large, is ignoring in terms of what is really happening to these people,” she continues.
Really? But the media are constantly running stories on the refugees.
“Yes, but they generally relate to the refugees as an economic issue, or that they are swamping Europe. We have lots of labels for them, but at the end of the day, no one is telling the story of these people as people.”
Naor-Weinstock set about to redress the impersonal media take. “I wanted to meet these people and to tell their story.“ The accent was very much on “people,” on “human beings,” rather than on “refugees.”
She soon found herself confronted with all sorts of horror stories. She began her photographic odyssey on Lesbos and quickly took the full brunt of the desperate situation.
“It is very easy to show people as pitiful, but we mustn’t categorize them. These are close-knit, courageous people. There, you feel the strength of the family unit, people sticking together through a terrible and frightening ordeal. No one relates to that.”
“I started out at Skala [on Lesbos]. It is a small village of 300 inhabitants, known as a place where people go to write. It’s a lovely quiet spot.”
That has not been the case for some months now, as the location has undergone a seismic shift in energy levels.
“You sit there on the beach, in the epitome of tranquility – there’s a lovely beach there, with fishermen and the blue sky and the sea. It’s such a delightful place.
You blink and, wham, suddenly hundreds and thousands of refugees start arriving in dinghies. More and more boats approach the shore. It looks like there is no end to them. You can’t take it in, the dissonance between the calm of the beach and the sudden torrent of people arriving.” It has certainly shaken up the local life flow.
And they don’t arrive in the best of shape, often soaked and cold, and frightened.
“The women sit on the floor of the dinghy, the children sit on top of them, and the men and boys sit around them on the sides of the dinghies, to protect the women and children.” Sometimes the new arrivals have lost a husband or brother or son who was washed overboard during the 10-km. trip from Turkey.
Naor-Weinstock quickly became empathetic toward her subjects and did her best to blend in.
“I often got to know the people before I started taking their pictures. The camera became a non-issue. As a documentary photographer, that is the best situation to work in.”
In fact, Naor-Weinstock’s role also provided precious added value for the escapees.
“I’d take pictures during the day and then, in the evening, we’d sit around and I’d show them the photographs, and then they’d start to process what they’d been through.” They were willing subjects.
“They really want me to take their pictures,” she says, adding that she does her best to get the pictures to the refugees. “I have a notebook full of email addresses and I send them the photos.”
The fact that the vast majority of the people she met hail from Islamic countries, says Naor-Weinstock, did not make them less amenable to an Israeli photographer, even though there were circumstances in which she did not divulge her nationality. When she was at the refugee transit camp at Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, the situation was dire and emotions were running high. It wasn’t because I was an Israeli; all the relief teams were in the same predicament,” explains Naor-Weinstock.
She got close to one bunch in particular.
“There was an amazing family from northern Iran at the camp. I’d spend time with them every day. I’d never start my day without dropping by their tent. When they discovered I was from Israel, they reacted very warmly. They had absolutely no problem with that.
“And there was a doctor, from IsraAID, who was helping someone in poor shape to get out of a dinghy, and he asked her if she was Jewish – there was a Star of David on the IsraAID emblem. When she said she was Jewish, he gave her a hug. That’s one of the happier moments.”
Another amusing anecdote concerns a family with seven children. “I brought the kids candies, and one of them kept coming back for more. He was just being mischievous, like a normal kid in a normal situation.”
Naturally, there were many, many incidents of a very different nature. One photograph shows a young couple with a baby, moments after they discovered they would not be allowed to cross into Macedonia.
The Macedonian authorities decided to restrict their intake to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The couple came from Syria, but they only had papers attesting to the fact that they’d left via Lebanon.
The longer Naor-Weinstock spent with the refugees, and the more she crisscrossed the Mediterranean, the more the crisis became imprinted on her consciousness.
“I began seeing life jackets every time I saw something orange,” she says. She also got the occasional reality check. “I met a family at Idomeni whom I’d met at Athens five weeks earlier. It had taken them five whole weeks to get there, and I thought about everything I had done in that time. I’d been to Greece and back to Israel, to my comfortable home and my family, and it had taken them all that time to get across Greece!” Naor-Weinstock is planning to return to Greece after her exhibition closes in Jaffa on March 4. Another display of her photographs will enjoy a monthlong berth at the Jerusalem Theater, February 18 to March 17, and there are plans to show the works in Germany and Los Angeles.
“I will continue to return to Greece as long as there are refugees there,” says Naor-Weinstock. “I have to help to get their story out. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I am doing the right thing.”