Picture Balata

WHEN Through 4/28; Thu-Sat noon-5 PM

WHERE Acme Art Works, 1741 N. Western

INFO 773-278-7677 or picturebalata.net

Like a lot of Palestinian kids, Sabreen grew up fast. She’s 17 and has spent her entire life in Balata, the most densely populated refugee camp in the West Bank. Some 22,000 people occupy an area less than two square miles wide, where some of the streets are so narrow pedestrians have to turn sideways to pass through. The Israeli Defense Force considers Balata one of the strongholds of the Palestinian resistance, and for the people who live there, raids are a fact of life. No matter how old they are, chances are someone they know has been imprisoned or killed.

In Sabreen’s case, that someone was her cousin. His father was arrested before he was even born and spent the next 20 years in prison. “Within those 20 years, my cousin learned everything about occupation and how his father got imprisoned,” she says. “He decided to resist and he was imprisoned as well. His first meeting with his dad was at 19 years old, in the prison, where they stayed together one year. Then he came out, but he got shot. That was another massacre in the family. But that’s the case of all the people in the camp. All of them are used to the same thing.”

Sabreen is one of nine kids between the ages of 11 and 18 who’ve spent the last year working with Picture Balata, a Chicago-based organization that teaches them to use cameras to document life in the camp. Earlier this month she and two other participants, 15-year-old Hadil and 16-year-old Taha, talked about their experiences at the opening of an exhibition of their photography at Acme Art Works. They were in the U.S. for the first time, as part of a two-week tour that also took them to New York, D.C., Pittsburgh, Boston, and San Francisco.

The tour was organized by Picture Balata cofounder Matt Cassel, a 25-year-old photographer. The experience, he says, was more than a little frustrating. For starters his cofounder, 29-year-old Mohammed Farraj, who lives in Balata and works directly with the kids, isn’t allowed to leave the camp, though the Israeli government has yet to give him a reason why. “It’s hard to travel around the territories,” Cassel says, “but it’s harder for a man between the ages of 16 and 45–especially around 28 or 29.” Getting visas for the rest of the group was problematic: Cassel had to catch a last-minute flight to Jordan (where they were scheduled to depart for the U.S.) when it appeared that the group’s chaperone, Hadil’s dad, might not get his. In the end everyone made it except one 15-year-old boy, “Butch,” whose real name is Mohamed. “They said they couldn’t do it because of his name and his age,” Cassel says. “They needed to do further background checks.”

Cassel went to the West Bank for the first time in 2003, with a delegation sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago. Then a Columbia College photography student, he arranged to meet with journalists who’d covered the conflict for the Associated Press and the New York Times. He was disheartened to learn that most of them only commuted to the Palestinian territories on assignment. “There’s a quote I’ve heard a lot of times from journalists: ‘Everyone loves working in Israel-Palestine, because you can cover a war in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon,'” he says.

For Cassel, the trip crystallized doubts that had been in his head since 9/11. “Like most Americans and most people with Jewishness in their family, I didn’t have a real understanding of what was going on over there,” he says. “I was a little bit scared of Arabs and thought they were these mindless, soulless terrorists who don’t care about life or send their children to do a bombing. The more I learned the more I thought, Wow, this goes against everything I was ever taught.”

He returned to the West Bank in 2004 and spent most of the year taking photos there, staying with Palestinian families and keeping his own apartment in Ramallah. An English friend was staying in Balata with Farraj, a founding member of the Balata Film Collective, which produces short documentaries in English, Arabic, and German. Cassel decided to pay them a visit. One of the first things he noticed about Balata was how little the kids had to do there. It’s estimated that half the refugees in the camp are under the age of 18, and apart from school and a couple community centers, “there’s nothing for them,” Cassel says. “They’re just running around the street, throwing stones at each other, playing soccer, whatever.”

Back home in 2005, Cassel exhibited his work in galleries around town. “But people would ask me, ‘What’s it like to be a Palestinian? What do they feel?'” he says. “And that’s just not something I can answer. I fly in there too. I have an American passport, I can leave at any time. I can go to a checkpoint and I can pass in front of a hundred Palestinians waiting in line. If a soldier comes to my house, he’s not going to force my elderly grandmother into the street in a nightgown. And [these kids] have grown up with it, it’s theirs, so who better to talk about it than them?”

With that in mind, Cassel returned to Balata last July. He moved in with Farraj and the two of them spent the next three months teaching the basics of photojournalism to neighborhood teens who shared a single digital point-and-shoot camera. “Mohammed knew some kids; others we approached on the street,” Cassel says. “We were literally like, ‘Hey! Wanna do photography?’ And they were like, ‘Eh, why not?'”

One of the major themes Cassel and Farraj emphasized in their workshops was the portrayal of Palestinians in the international media and the need to present a different perspective on life in the camps. In artist statements included with their online galleries (viewable at picturebalata.net), the kids explain why they chose specific subjects: Sabreen wanted to depict women and young girls outside, “working to build this society and taking care of our families and struggling against occupation.” Taha takes pictures of cabbies because a lot of young people, including himself, “don’t have work, and they have to work as drivers.” Hadil decided to photograph empty streets because kids have a tendency to smile or pose for the camera despite how they actually feel. “But the streets,” she says, “they can’t lie.” Images of martyrs frequently appear: family members pose with framed posters of young men, armed and defiant, or hold up photos of infants who died in the cross fire.

Picture Balata isn’t an official nonprofit, so the group relies almost exclusively on donations from individuals. (Travel expenses are usually covered by honoraria from universities and galleries.) So far Cassel and Farraj have raised enough money to provide six digital cameras, and they may soon be able to put a computer in each kid’s home, but they still don’t have a central meeting place.

Cassel says his goal now is to enable Palestinians to sustain Picture Balata by themselves. He helped lay the groundwork last summer, bringing in professional Palestinian journalists, filmmakers, and photographers to lead workshops. For kids who have dreams of pursuing careers at a place like Al Jazeera, he says, those sorts of role models are crucial. He’d like to start a media school for Palestinians someday, but in the meantime he’s setting up college funds so the students in Balata can further their education in nearby Nablus. “The kids all want to go to university,” he says. “They all want to study. They all want to be rid of the occupation. That’s any Palestinian’s hope. They just want to have an opportunity. That’s why they embrace a project like this–it’s giving them a way to express themselves and say, ‘Look, I’m here. We’re trying to live.'”