A voice in the silence: On telling children’s stories

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Shadi (name changed), 9, featured in UNICEF’s In Focus photography series

When this photograph of Shadi (name changed) first came across my desk, he and his family—refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic—had been living with a host family in Lebanon for the past nine months. In the week before the image was taken, he and his mother had briefly returned home to visit relatives. Then Shadi was injured in an explosion as the two crossed the border upon their return to Lebanon.

Light illuminated his young face, his bandaged forehead, his lacerated cheek, in stark relief to the expanse of shadows behind him. Somewhere beyond the frame was Shadi’s foot, also injured in the explosion. In a way, Shadi’s portrait seemed to hold a mirror to the conflict that had inflicted his wounds: a child struggling to heal while the country he left behind faced an uncertain darkness.

I hoped the Syrian conflict—by then, already a year old—would soon draw to a close, but over the next two years, I watched as the number of photographs of children injured, uprooted or otherwise devastated by the violence continued to grow. Those photographs, those children, each with their own haunting narrative, represent but a small proportion of the 5.5 million children who have now been affected by the conflict, which concluded its third year earlier this month, with uncertain darkness still ahead.

Telling the stories behind photographs is a significant part of my work as a multimedia writer. As images from around the world make their way to UNICEF Headquarters in New York, it is among my roles to transform photographers’ field notes into narratives. Sometimes that narrative—or, rather, what is known of it—consists almost entirely of what one can ascertain from the image itself: a snapshot of one child in one moment in time. At other times, the photographs are more like Shadi’s, full of context that can only be illustrated through the written word. Naturally, it is these photographs that prove the most moving and challenging to narrate.

Adnan, 5, with his father, featured in UNICEF’s Everyday Voices photography series

It is a great responsibility to be given children’s narratives, to become a conduit for their voices. With every photograph, I weigh that responsibility, knowing the words I choose may be my own, but they are not mine. I think often of 5-year-old Adnan. After suffering severe burns as shelling destroyed his family’s home, he stopped talking. He became frightened by the sound of cars. He started crying at night. The words are for Adnan and too many others like him who have borne the weight of silence.


All views expressed in this piece are my own.

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