Threads of Connection: Crafting Collective Narratives in Diaspora
10 / 6 / 2024

Syrian ADPP Fellows Ameen Abo Kaseem and Sara Kontar have been exchanging photo letters since 2020. In this interview, they unveil the power of photography in capturing moments of truth, and in bringing people together.

About the Project
Sara and Ameen — displaced visual storytellers — navigate the complexities of home, exile and self-discovery, seeking common ground through an exchange of photo letters. Their journey unfolds between Syria and the diaspora, transcending borders.

AFAC: The project Two Songs of Diaspora is the culmination of a collaboration that began in 2020 through the exchange of photo letters. What prompted this collaboration?

    Sara: While I had been involved in photography for a long time, it was when I started sharing my work on social media in 2020 that I became aware of the presence of other Syrian photographers, especially on Instagram. Before that, I felt that I was detached from any community of Syrian artists. That's why I started to seek out spaces or accounts that showcase photographers’ works. These spaces were rare and tended to focus on war-related themes or present stereotypical images. About a year later, I decided to set up the Al-Ayoun Instagram account to serve as a platform for gathering and sharing Syrian photographers’ works.

    Through this process, I connected with many photographers, including Ameen. When we started talking, we found that we had a shared feeling of estrangement. Despite living in different locations — myself abroad and Ameen in Syria — he told me during our conversations, “Even here, we feel estranged." We explored shared themes and worked with them. We exchanged photos that sparked long conversations, and, along the way, we found we had shared dreams as well.

    Ameen: There is a lack of this type of documentary photography in Syria. Commercial photos, portraits and wedding photography are the most common. We felt that photographers like us could be counted on one hand. This was in 2020 during the COVID-19 days. As Sara mentioned, we communicated more with each other because, during the lockdown, we felt as if we were in a closed box. Our continuous communication served as an exit.

AFAC: Collaboration between you two led to founding the Al-Ayoun network. How does working with a group of Syrian photographers in Syria and the diaspora contribute to your vision, as well as to Al-Ayoun’s?

    Sara: The inception of Al-Ayoun stemmed from a desire to connect. In April 2021, after I created the Instagram account, I began engaging with people, starting with Ameen, then Hasan Bilal, Mohamed Nammoor, Rya Abou Mahmoud, Yassen Sagha and others. Initially, our photographer community was small, but it has expanded. Our primary focus was on mutual support and communication rather than launching a large-scale project. We started organizing events and exploring opportunities for holding small exhibitions; lately we added the cinema section that is being founded by Diala Al Hindaoui and started organizing film screenings. Currently, we are working on establishing a collaborative network.

    Ameen: Sara is Al-Ayoun’s founder, and I joined later on. The idea was simply to create a space for sharing, to have the capacity to work collectively, to sit at a table and talk. Al-Ayoun extends from artists to the broader community. In my opinion, this endeavor is important at a historical level, because it is documenting things that go undocumented when the world spends immense amounts of money to selectively curate historical records. The raw images captured by ordinary individuals walking through Syria using their phones: this is the real picture of the collective memory that we aim to document. It may be a late move, but it is an attempt to salvage what remains and inspire those who are still engaged in this crucial work to carry on. The real fear is that this image will be completely erased, with no one left to tell the story.

    Al-Ayoun started as a small project, as Sara mentioned, through which we could help each other. There, we communicate, share grants, opportunities and resources with each other. What Sara did not mention — and this is something that constituted a turning point — is that she co-organized a print sale in France for the victims of the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. We raised funds from our work at a time when we felt we couldn't do more. Yet, we felt engagement from those who received our photos. When I spoke with them, all the photographers who participated in Al-Ayoun events from Syria and beyond agreed that they felt things they had never felt before, that they had never dreamed that people from around the world would come to see their works displayed.

    These experiences were truly surreal. For example, I can now easily go to a gallery in Lebanon and present a project, but such opportunities are virtually non-existent in Syria. Communication with the outside world and the tangible work were the essence of this project. At the same time, there is a kind of curse on Syrians — bearing in mind that I am a Palestinian who lived in Syria. We express sentiments that are incomprehensible to an outsider. We articulate emotions only shared with people who lived in the same place and experienced the same things. Yet, this is what we found in others living in a different part of the world, experiencing the same emotions and sharing similar lifestyles. This was the shared path: wherever we are in the world, we harbor this fear that we don't understand. Yet it remains ever-present within us.

    Sara: If we are to sum up the idea behind Al-Ayoun, it is an attempt to construct a shared space for communication, to build bridges that weave individual memories into a collective memory to break free from the imposed stereotypes. The Syrian diaspora holds many narratives. The diasporic tale in France differs from that in Germany or Lebanon or Turkey or China. We must unify the narratives while honoring our differences to create a shared memory where we address the notions of the diaspora through an artistic lens. We aim to work on collaborative documentary projects that transcend boundaries, virtually bridging gaps and exchanging experiences. We have yet to achieve these objectives, but these are our dreams and they are within reach.

AFAC: For Syrians in Syria and those in the diaspora, the access point to understanding how to move from the personal out into the public seems different. Can you talk a little bit about what that access point is for each of you in your approach?

    Ameen: Over the past 12 years, there has been a predominant emphasis on a heroic figure who narrates the tales of a wounded and fallen Syria. However, what is happening in Syria is well known, and nothing is left to be told from that angle. Delving into these themes over and over again no longer holds relevance or utility. Personally, I find that personal and intimate details offer a more authentic way to tell the story of the realities we are experiencing in Syria. It is through these small details that our story is told, away from the big headlines that no one wants to hear anymore.

    Sara: I feel there are different ways to engage with the political landscape in Syria. From a visual storytelling standpoint, many factors have affected us, such as the pre-2011 political climate — restrictions such as not being able to carry a camera on the streets. After that, Syria became synonymous with war. If, for example, we search Syria on Google, all we see is the war. Then we left, and we entered the diaspora phase. Even in this phase, the West continues to confine us within this war-torn stereotype, that of the “victim” and “refugee.” That’s why we must find alternative means to articulate the personal narrative. We, as Syrians, must speak about the personal to unearth a collective memory. I sometimes tell Ameen that he has given me something that no one else has, as if he said to me, "You have a presence here." At the same time, there is an exchange in talking about our experiences. My focus now is on collaborative projects, such as my project with Ameen, “Two Songs of Diaspora.” . We are also trying to create a wider vision of this collaborative process to work on projects within Al-Ayoun, starting with the launch of the platform in an attempt to avoid solitude in the diaspora. We experience this alone. However, we also share these experiences collectively, thereby reflecting a social reality. For this, we need to continue together.