Eyes that tell a story: refugees in Lesvos by Jade Beall

Jade Beall left her son at home in the USA and went to Greece to photograph Syrian and Afghan refugees living in camps. Her images capture both the hope and sheer desperation of the people she met…

Photographer Jade Beall, 36, lives in Tucson, Arizona – “most of the time” – with her four-year-old son Sequoia.

(This interview was originally published in December 2015)

You’re known for your beautiful photographs of pregnant women and new mums. When and why did you start photographing women at this stage in their life?
After my body changed, following the birth of my son in 2012. They are often photographed naked and I love the uninterrupted skin and vulnerability that has nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

How do you help women to relax during a shoot?
I treat my shoots like a therapy session. I listen, I ask questions, I create a space of trust and ease.

How did you move from photographing (seemingly) happy families to documenting the plight of Syrian and Afghan refugees in camps in Lesvos, Greece?
Photographing vulnerable women I found not that different than photographing vulnerable humans. I treated them just like I treat my clients: with deep respect, curiosity, love and kindness.

Syrian Family in Kara Tepe camp

Is this a self-funded project?
Yes, I paid for my trip, it was a massive dent in my bank account and worth every cent.

What was your reaction, on arriving at the first camp?
I cried when we first pulled up. The first thing I saw was a father with his two sons. The boys were crying, both around the age of my own son.

Moria Camp

Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve met, and their situation?
There are two camps in Lesvos: one for Syrian families called Kara Tepe, another called Moria for single Syrian men and for all “economic” refugees who are mostly Afghans. It is a refugee camp with way more demand, it’s more chaotic, dirty, in an old detention centre.

I met so many incredible humans. One family in particular I really want to figure out how to bring to America. A beautiful Syrian family that needs only work and a safe place to live.

Are they happy to be photographed by you?
I had a translator, and I never photographed someone without permission. All those that I did photograph enjoyed the images I showed them. I still keep in touch with many of them via Facebook.

Syrian Child After Boat Ride from Turkey

Why is it important to have photographic evidence of the situation?
It is SO IMPORTANT for Americans to see who these “muslim refugees” are: nearly half of all of them are children. These are beautiful humans just like me and you.

What are you looking for at the camps when you take photos?
I am looking for anyone willing to share their story, which is very few because they are afraid for their lives and do not want their story shared. I am looking for eyes that tell a story.

Will this experience affect the subject of your photography projects from now on?
Absolutely. If I could, I would dedicate all of my efforts to photographing people in need. But I am a single mom and need to pay the bills until I get that epic sponsor to get me to the places that are in need of a photographer to tell the human stories that the world needs to hear and see.

Afghan Girl in Moria Camp #2

Is Sequoia ok with you being away, does he understand what you’re doing?
My son doesn’t fully understand what I was doing on this last trip to Syrian refugee camps, but he loves going through the images with me and asks me lots of questions about the children; he asks if they are OK.

Has the trip helped you to see another side of the crisis; does it seem different when you’re on the ground, as opposed to watching it on TV?
It is completely different being there than listening to news. And I only listen to NPR. The news feeds us a lot of fear. I felt SO SAFE in the refugee camps. I fell so in love with my muslim brothers and sisters fleeing for their lives.

Jade Beall