Lost Family Portraits is a project about loss and the devastating effect that war has on families. It is also a reminder of the people who are left behind—in this case, in the refugee camps of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It’s a reminder of the 1.3 million Syrian refugees who don’t have the money to buy their way into Europe or have nothing to go back to in Syria.
The aim of “Lost Family Portraits” was to produce a fundraising campaign to aid the humanitarian organization CAFOD, the Catholic International Development Charity. The goal was to produce a provocative body of work which would resonate globally at a time where the international press and social media platforms are saturated with stories about refugees.
Despite their terrible traumas and fear of repercussions, many families came forward and agreed to take part in this project. They explained to us that they don’t want to be forgotten. They want everybody to know what happened to them.
Being able to tell their stories through words and photographs can perhaps help them come to terms with their losses.
The most important element of the shoot was trust. This is always the case, but in this instance it was particularly significant, given the context of the assignment and the atrocities these families have witnessed since the beginning of the war. From a logistic point of view, I hired a small production crew in Beirut, from where we transported everything we needed, including the chairs. We set up a portable studio in two different camps, leaving some space around the set to give more context to the photographs. We deliberately asked people in the background to go on with their normal lives—not to be concerned if they accidentally were in the shots.
Communication was the obvious challenge of this project. But having people with us who could speak Arabic and English helped us to understand the stories of the families I was photographing.
The other challenge was speed. We had to work very fast, knowing that the children especially would get bored very quickly. It helped that at the beginning of my career I freelanced for various newspapers, where I learned that sometimes you only have a few minutes to get your photograph.
Photographers have a very important role in covering significant events wherever they are. We have a responsibility to tell, through the photographs, what we see. We are the eyes through which the world sees what’s happening at that particular moment. In the case of “Lost Family Portraits,” I felt a responsibility towards the families I was photographing and still do.
These people trusted me and and opened up to me so I could use my camera to tell the world about their tragedies and the reasons why they escaped from Syria. They wanted their voices to be heard. It makes me incredibly proud to know that so far their stories have been read millions of times online and that the “Lost Family Portraits” project continues to generate interest worldwide.
Editor’s Note: Mitidieri’s project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2017—don’t miss the work from all 44 of the outstanding, international talents! You can follow Mitidieri’s work on his personal website.
If you’re interested in seeing more work on this and similar topics, we’d recommend the following features: The Drowned, a series that presents objects found on the bodies of refugees in an attempt to humanize the numbing statistics of the refugee crisis; Refugee Odyssey to Europe, Kristof Vadino’s project on the conditions faced by refugees as they make the perilous trip; and Outside Syria Yet Outside the Camps, a series that attempts to convey the tension and confusion on Syria’s border with Turkey.