The human lens of witness: A photographer’s experience

The human lens of witness: A photographer’s experience
by Leah BOKENKAMP
30 October 2016

It’s been a week since I returned from Bulgaria where I was documenting the 7th annual meeting of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT) at the Stone & Compass Center. My mind is still spinning and my heart is still full after this intense and powerful week. I am so extremely honored to have been there witnessing people coming together and making progress towards peace. There is so much to say, and I’m afraid my words will fall short of capturing the whole experience, but I will attempt to give you a glimpse…

I had an idea of what to expect and I was blown away.

This is what I expected:

I knew I would meet delegates from cities such as Tripoli, Jerusalem, Belfast and Kaduna. I knew I would hear stories of the struggles and hopes that exist in their communities. I knew I would hear Padraig O’Malley (the amazing man who leads this forum) speak to the delegates, giving them encouragement and guidelines. I knew I would witness teamwork and connection — both between delegates and between staff. I knew I would try to stay in the background, as unobtrusive as possible, taking photos of this event and I knew I would have a lot of editing work to do afterwards.

This is what happened:

The first delegates I met were five members from the Nigerian delegation. Handshakes quickly turned to hugs and laughter as we attempted to pronounce each others names. By the end of the conference when we had to say goodbye, there were teary hugs and heartfelt invitations to come visit them.

I was moved to tears during many presentations, forced to put my camera down and just take in the reality of what I was hearing. A man from Beirut told about his experience fighting in the Lebanon civil war, given a gun at 14 years old and made a commander at 17. He now is the president of an NGO called Fighters for Peace. Two women from Mitrovica gave a presentation about their work to reclaim the river in their community, to take the barbed wire down and make the waterway a safe place for connection and interacting instead of a boundary creating divisions among a community. I sat across the table from a brave young Syrian man who was part of exposing the atrocities happening in his city of Raqqa and fled his country two years ago, knowing he would be killed my ISIS if he stayed. I asked if he was ever able to speak to his family, knowing that doing so would probably put them all in danger. He explained that he talks to them infrequently and they have to be very careful and that when ISIS fighters show up to his family’s house to ask if they have heard from him, his family has to say that they hate him, that he is no longer part of their family – or they will be killed. At this point I started crying, I just couldn’t hold back – it was a sadness and grief that came from a place so deep inside it no longer belonged to me. It was the grief of every mother who has lost a son, the sadness of a whole people who are being slaughtered. It was not about me being sad (although I certainly was), it was the immensity of this situation brought to human form right in front of me.

I watched the staff work together on all the behind the scenes logistics, pouring over spreadsheets at midnight or making coffee and tea at all hours of the day, so that everyone was where they were supposed to be and had what they needed. I also smiled as I watched my husband, Mike Rozinsky, teach a man from Nigeria how to throw a frisbee, and was blown away when one of the tech guys, a local Bulgarian, played beautiful impromptu music with a speaker from Beirut.

I tried to be on the periphery, to not interfere with the important work happening at this forum, but I was drawn in over and over again. Not just through my lens, witnessing these human connections being made, but as a human myself. I found myself yearning for more time to connect with each person and to hear their stories, more time to get to know these people and to strengthen the understanding that we are human first. I found it impossible to be in the background and I was surprised and touched when a number of delegates came up to me during a break and showed me the pictures they had taken of me taking pictures during the presentation. My soul is filled, my eyes are opened and my belief that we are all in this together is strengthened. And yes, there are thousands of photos to sort through, but it doesn’t feel like a burden — it feels like a privilege and an opportunity to revisit that feeling of community we created. And I am so grateful for that!

Originally published at: https://www.facebook.com/Leah-Bokenkamp-Photography-448656135202572/

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