Photojournalist gives up stable career, money & public identity to document life at Lebanon refugee camp

She entered photojournalism by accident, but now can’t do anything else.

STORY BY: Joshua Lee

If you were looking for a Singaporean taking the path less travelled, look no further than 41-year-old Zann Huizhen Huang.

She doesn’t have a full-time job, and the photographs she takes — with her “outdated” Nikon D7100 — don’t get published often enough to make her enough money, so she writes and teaches English on the side.

But yet, so determined is she to continue what she’s been doing for the past 12 years that she actively chooses this path, believing firmly in the necessity and importance of her work.

Shatila Camp, Lebannon
Two Palestinian boys play a mock battle with toy guns in the Shatila Refugee camp.

The Shatila refugee camp

You see, Huang has been making repeated trips — she’s done more than 10 now — to the Shatila refugee camp, located in the south of the Lebanese capital of Beirut, to take photos and document what life is like there, as well as how it has changed over the years.

First set up in 1949 to house Palestinian refugees, the resident population demographic has over the decades evolved to become home to thousands of Syrian refugees too — in large part because of its affordability — especially in the wake of the ongoing Syrian civil war that started in March 2011.

Huang tells us the Palestinian refugees living there are starting to feel marginalised (first as a consequence of being refugees in Lebanon, and now as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees into their tight camp space). That is one of the reasons she chose Shatila — because of its history and unique changes.

<p>A member of Fatah parades around the Shatila Refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.</p>

A member of Fatah parades around the Shatila Refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

Huang acknowledges Providence’s role in getting her access into the camp – something that wouldn’t happen for just anyone.

“Not everyone who walks into the camp can just get to stay with a family. Not many people who walk in will have someone invite you into the home, and become good friends with you for so many years.”

Shatila Camp, Lebannon
A Palestinian wedding procession in the heart of the Shatila refugee camp.

A stroke of luck

Huang’s adventure began in the year 2010, on the occasion of her first visit to the camp.

“I took some photos just to see what the place was like. They were not deep. I was like an outsider.”

By a stroke of luck, however, she found a family there who invited her to live with them, something she definitely thinks was thanks to Providence:

“Somehow you are brought to a certain place and you connect with certain people.”

It wasn’t easy at first. Walking around with a camera aroused the community’s suspicions, and she also was painfully aware of the perception of her presence:

“It’s a bit voyeuristic and intrusive. And what do they gain in the end? You’re just one of the photographers who come and go.”

But thankfully, things got better with more time she spent there, and with her return visits:

“As you understand the community well in and out, you get to know their way of life,” Huang explained. “Then when you start to take photos, it comes naturally. You know, ok this thing happening now is part of their way of life, you should take it in such a way. You don’t need to think so much.”

Shatila’s residents are now so comfortable with Huang that they affectionately refer to her as “Jackie Chan”.

The family she lives with when she’s there has also benefited from her presence: over the years, she has brought gadgets and gifts to them on her visits and stays.

One of the boys has received a Nikon camera, two lenses, a mobile tablet, a laptop, and software for editing. He has shown a keen eye for photography.

As she continued ferrying between Singapore and Beirut, Huang’s work was spotted by a nominator (Singapore International Photography Festival Director Gwen Lee) for the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund.

She was awarded a grant from them in 2014, which specifically allowed her to continue her work in Shatila in 2014. Thereafter, Huang continued her work in Shatila using her own funds.

Shatila Camp, Lebannon
Inside the home of a Palestinian family

Stumbled into photography & photojournalism

Now, we might be downplaying her work a little, no thanks to Huang’s self-effacing tendencies — after all, her photos have previously been published in Time, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Asian Geographic, as well as several newspapers.

But despite her achievements in photojournalism, it was never her childhood dream to be a photographer or a photojournalist, nor was she ever interested in even picking up a camera.

After being moved by a World Press Photo of the Year in Paris, France in 2002, she went on to teach herself photography techniques and skills, looking at the works of top photographers to try to figure out how they compose their pieces.

<p>Singapore<br />
Emma, all dressed up like a fairy as she sits on the tombstones of her great-grandparents in Bukit Brown. Her entire family and relatives went to pay respects to their ancestors before parts of Bukit Brown are to be closed for the construction of new highways.</p>

Emma, all dressed up like a fairy as she sits on the tombstones of her great-grandparents in Bukit Brown. Her entire family and relatives went to pay respects to their ancestors before parts of Bukit Brown are to be closed for the construction of new highways.

A large part of it, she says, has to do with individual experiences. Huang brought up the term “punctum”, made famous by French philosopher Roland Barthes. It refers to features of a photograph that invoke meaning, which is in turn informed by a viewer’s personal experiences.

“The thing about photography is that as a still image, it is very powerful. It can freeze that moment, crystallise that message that you want to tell. And the person who looks at it, maybe he’ll find some kind of connection.”


<p>Banda Aceh, Indonesia<br />
Boats that were washed onto the roofs after the tsunami.</p>

Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Boats that were washed onto the roofs after the tsunami.

Shooting the Banda Aceh tsunami

Ironically, it was a damaged camera that propelled Huang into her first photojournalism experience in December 2004.

She had left her teaching job and set off on a backpacking trip around the region, armed with a cheap Nikon, but had to end it when her camera went swimming inside a waterfall somewhere in the Philippines.

Inexplicably, that same moment on Dec. 26 saw a tragedy of a far larger scale happening right off the coast of Sumatra. The Banda Aceh tsunami went on to devastate parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Having returned home to fix her camera, Huang came to grips with the extent of the tragedy as images and footage of the disaster flooded the news. By the time her Nikon was ready to go again, she had set herself the goal of documenting the recovery of the disaster.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia
After the 2004 Tsunami

“I think documenting the picking up of the pieces was important because the beginning was so sensational. Dead bodies and big ships washed up on the roofs.”

After news of the tragedy faded, people largely forgot about the disaster and its victims. It was here she saw her role: to return to document the recovery stages over multiple periods.

She travelled to Banda Aceh in February 2005, and then went back again at the end of the year as well as a decade later, to see and take photos of how life had changed.

“Unbelievable. It looked as if a tsunami never occured in Banda Aceh. It looked even better than when it did before the tsunami. Life had pretty much resumed its normality.”

So why go to places nobody is all that interested in to take photos that aren’t as likely to be published? Huang smiles quietly for a moment and replies:

“You take the photos and you hope that whoever who is able to make changes — people who have the power to make policy changes — hopefully it gets to their eyes, maybe they’ll feel something that will compel them to implement some action or change.”

Beirut, Lebanon
Bamiyan Cave, Afghanistan

Huang’s tools of the trade

Passion: “You go out with a sense of purpose. You don’t just pick any topic randomly. You want to pick a topic that you’re passionate about so that you’ll keep going back even if it’s not the most comfortable or safest places, even though you might not be paid.”

Luck/Instinct: “Aside from being at the right place and right time, you also have to recognise the luck. Some people are very blur. When things happen in front of them, they’re still digging for their camera. You have to recognise it — that is instinct. You have to react really fast.”

Storytelling ability: “There should be a storyteller in you. If you want to document a particular country or community, you have to read up and immerse yourself in the community. You don’t just jump in and snap everywhere you go. You need to bring the audience through a compelling narrative.”