From a distance, they could see the terrains of Syria. It was surreal to be this close. Just not close enough.
They couldn't witness the destruction, except for dark gray smoke. But they could hear it.
Tucson-based photographer Wayne Martin Belger and his 12-year-old daughter Tara stood there, frozen. United Nations observers were nearby.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The explosions were the sounds of a cataclysmic civil war that has demolished a country, family by family and building by building. Could it be that only Syrians remember what their motherland looked like before the turmoil? It's been five years.
Wayne and Tara could feel the vibrations of every bomb that dropped in their chests.
"It was probably drones, a drone attack because you didn't hear jet engines," Wayne says. "It sounded so violent. To hear that happening is really indescribable. It is something that people should hear. They should hear their tax dollars."
Some days later, in February of this year, Wayne and Tara were off to volunteer at Kara Tepe and Moria, two refugee camps in the Greek island of Lesvos, the closest European territory for Syrian's escaping the hell through Turkey. Tara wanted to get closer to understand why millions of people are fleeing. At age 12, she is the youngest person to ever serve the refugee camps in Greece.
Tara and her dad have traveled to nearly every corner of the United States, but the trip to Lesvos—along with a visit to Palestine beforehand—was her first time abroad. At the camps, Tara would spend hours distributing food, clothes and tea. Then came the times when Wayne and Tara would go to the shore to lend a hand to the people arriving to the island in cheap, plastic boats. Seeing the coast of Lesvos is a miracle to Syrians.
"We are dealing with people who just came from an area that was completely destroyed by either the U.S. or Russia or ISIS or rebels or [Bashar al-Assad]," Wayne says, describing how they have to sneak out of Syria into Turkey and are often dealing with smugglers who take advantage of their dire situation.
"There is a whole networking industry of just smugglers," Wayne says. "It is a total business."
Many of these so-called boats break down in the middle of the ocean or sink in the unforgiving waters of the Aegean Sea, because the Turkish smugglers overload them—at a price of $1,300 per individual—with people desperate to preserve what's left of their life.
"I feel gifted to meet them," Wayne says. "I feel honored to actually spend time and meet these people and hear their stories, connect with them. I love being there for their first footsteps in Europe. People singing, falling out of the boats because they are so excited, crying...even taking selfies with their eyes just beaming. They have absolute nothing and they have so much joy. I have seen food lines that are a half a mile long and not one of them complains." Wayne has been amazed by the kindness and gratitude Syrians show, despite living through some of the most brutal events a human can experience.
"I had a guy grabbing me by the head and kissing the top of my head over and over, as I was drying his feet and putting a blanket around them," Wayne remembers. "The guy is shaking and he just kept on kissing the top of my head."
Wayne has a video on his cell phone of a friend he met in Lesvos. His name is Bashar and he's a former engineer who taught at the University of Damascus. Bashar escaped Syria about one year before his family could get out. He'd tell Wayne about standing in the streets, holding his wife and children while drones and jets bombed their surroundings. There was nowhere to run. The buildings were not safe, so all there was left to do was stand there and pray that it wasn't their day to die. But if it were, at least they were together.
Bashar paid Turkish smugglers to get his family to Lesvos. The family was arrested in Turkey, then freed, then put on a boat that barely made it. Wayne watches the video in silence. It's the only thing he recorded live. He doesn't like documenting these precious moments in the name of photography or his work. But he just had to record this particular event so he could imprint it on his soul for the rest of his life.
Bashar runs into the water and grabs one of his kids from the speedboat. That day he also met his new baby. Bashar fled for help while his wife was still pregnant. He falls on his knees, holding one child, then the other, trying to make up for lost time, lost hugs, lost kisses. A volunteer runs out of the water carrying Bashar's wife on his back. They just hug and cry. Bashar and his family now live in Germany, where he got a job as an engineer.
"It was a beautiful day," Wayne says.
He and Tara also talk about a man named Stavros—who was born and raised in Lesvos and oversaw the camps there—with such love. And he loved them, especially Tara. She could probably go back to the island alone and be taken care of like family.
"[Stavros] doesn't' call them refugees, he calls them guests and that they should be treated that way," Tara says. "He's such a nice guy." There's a Syrian girl, Anwar, who became really good friends with Tara. They're around the same age. With the few words in English Anwar knows, and the few words in Arabic Tara knows, they got to know each other pretty well.
There's the refugee camp's security guard from the British Special Forces and his beautiful wife with a hijab. Fred from France, wearing shades and with a mafia look. Too many characters.
After about three weeks in Lesvos, Wayne and Tara took a 12-hour-long ferry back to Athens on the Greek mainland. The ferry was split into two—the white people, as they describe it, and the refugees in the back. Wayne and Tara preferred the back. It was raining. It felt nice. A man covered Tara with his jacket so she wouldn't get too wet and gave Wayne his Islamic prayer beads. Tara had her guitar. Everyone requested Michael Jackson songs, but she can only do David Bowie.
The Fictitious Us and Them
As of last week, Wayne's studio near Third Avenue and Eighth Street houses three 48-by-60-inch-gelatin-silver-prints among the dozens and dozens and dozens of portraits of Syrian women, men and children Wayne photographed during his two trips to Lesvos for his latest project, "Us and Them." He says there are at least 40 negatives he wants to include. Soon his work will be exhibited at the New York Center for Photographic Art.
"Governments belittle and dehumanize groups of people," Wayne says. That's where the title for his series comes from—that fictitious barrier that's been forever laid down by people in power: that one group of humans is different/greater than/lesser than the other group of humans.
"Separation is an illusion," Wayne says. "It doesn't matter what color you are or where you are from."
Wayne designs and constructs every pinhole camera he uses for his series. Through 15 years of work, he's never owned a camera that he hasn't built himself, aside from the camera in his cell phone. The cameras are artwork within his artwork, made with pieces overloaded with energy—dark turned into good. With pinhole cameras, nothing is modified—it's all pure light in time.
He has a majestic camera he uses to photograph pregnant women close to giving birth. It's his homage to a woman's body: a mummified fetus rests in what looks like a red nest in the womb. He has a third-eye camera made with a real human skull for a project documenting abandoned houses in California's Wonder Valley. And the "untouchable" camera, with HIV-positive blood running through its veins and pumping the pinhole, serving as a red filter on the photographs of people with HIV/AIDS.
While Wayne was still piecing together the concept for "Us and Them," a friend shared with Wayne a "kill proof box" her father brought back after serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. In the box were fingernails, teeth, human pieces that were meant to represent a trophy of the number of people he killed. Inside the "Us and Them" camera, there are two fingernails and a tooth.
"His commander made him take a body part from everybody he killed," Wayne says. "It is part of the whole 'us and them.' You make them lesser, so it makes it easier to kill them. The tooth, he said, was the hardest because the guy kept screaming as he was trying to kill him. People naturally do not want to kill each other. They are forced into it. His daughter, whom I know, sent me a message about this kill proof box, and that he [was] tortured by it. I told her the idea I had for the project. She sent it to me and it was like a weight off his shoulders. He felt like it could do some good."
The camera also has pieces of glass from Palestine, a patch with the Star of David used to label Jews in ghettos during World War II, a red stamp that meant they were registered as Jews, and a cross in the very front with a two-headed eagle, the third Reich, and an A and O, meaning Alpha and Omega—the beginning and the end.
In Lesvos, it'd take Wayne maybe about one week until he brought out the camera. He built relationships based on respect and dignity. Shoving cameras in people's faces and just taking, taking, taking—it's an insult. He had a major problem with that while in Greece. Some photographers always took and never gave anything back.
He'd set up the camera in one of the tents, which alone attracted mostly children who wanted to learn what that strange artifact was. Then more women and men would come. Wayne would take a Polaroid first that they could keep. He shot one to four portraits. He also asked them to write a meaningful message or just a word to describe what they're feeling that moment. A photo of a young woman says "hope." A young man wrote, "Al-Zabadani, we miss you," his hometown in Syria.
"My dear mother, I miss you so much. I want to do the impossible for you. God is big."
"I'm so sorry about my country because it's not my future anymore."
One is written to Wayne, thanking him for serving at the camp.
The photographs are how Wayne—a former hardcore hockey player and punk with burning Irish blood and red and black tattoos written in Aramaic up and down his arm—protests dehumanization.
"My way of rebellion is mass awareness," he says. "I create beautiful images that suck people in. It screws with their head, because it is a subject that they don't want."
Wayne keeps in touch with a lot of the people he met in Lesvos. He refers to a young man who speaks little to no English, who communicates with Wayne through Facebook emojis. He'll send a heart, a face blowing a kiss, another heart. Then Wayne will send thumbs up and a heart. They get it.
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
When they're in Tucson, Wayne and Tara spend Sundays at Casa Maria soup kitchen. As early as 8 a.m., they drive a truck to Trader Joe's on Oracle Road, where they get a mass load amount of donated food. Lately, the soup kitchen reminds them of how they felt in Palestine and Lesvos. There's something about struggling that makes a human much more open to a true connection with another human. There's unconditional solidarity.
Tara's volunteered at Casa Maria with her dad since she was 4 years old. (She also volunteers at Native Seeds/SEARCH on Wednesdays.) She's grown up with many of Tucson's homeless men, women and youth. They know Tara well, and she them. She sees no differences between people, whether they are mentally ill, struggling with addiction or praying to a different God or no God at all. As much as Wayne has influenced this directly or indirectly, he says that's just how Tara is.
"She has presence," Wayne says. "They'd find a Barbie or something in the trash, make little clothing for it, put little wings and give it to her."
It seems as if Tara found her tribe in Palestine. She's infatuated by the warmth, the small streets, the food, the ancient buildings. She wants to move there, she says. Screw it, maybe they will sooner than later. It's always been the two of them, even when Wayne was married to Tara's mom. Now mom lives in San Francisco.
They laugh at memories like their friend Ameer driving them for 45 minutes on Wayne's birthday to get special Palestinian ice cream from a shop that exists, and will always only exist, on Palestinian territories. They are also eternally grateful to a man and his wife who own a small falafel joint and happily chose to feed them during prayer hour.
"It was the overall kindness of people, that is amazing," Tara says.
In March, she was the featured poet in Words on the Avenue. She read some of the work she wrote after Lesvos and Palestine.
In July, Wayne—a California native, born to middle-class Irish-Catholic parents, who spent a lot of his childhood in a mostly Mexican neighborhood—is traveling to Iraq to meet and photograph an army of Kurdish women. They've been defending themselves against ISIS. And from what Wayne hears, ISIS is scared shitless of them.
"They're kicking ass," Wayne says.
Tara wishes she could go and meet the women. The first plan was for the dynamic duo to go to a refugee camp in Turkey over summer, and then Wayne would split to Iraq afterwards. But Tara has to visit mom at some point, and Iraq is off limits to her for now. She longs for the days in Palestine and Lesvos.
With "Us and Them," Wayne's deepest wish is to also photograph people from all over, including Native Americans and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, México, to follow this common thread of oppression, marginalization, and strength and survival. He might be burning a candle or two to get the opportunity to photograph Subcomandante Marcos, a leader in the modern Zapatista movement.
Wayne knows there are politicians who call for building walls and banning "terrorists," but he truly believes these "are more empathetic times. We are the most empathetic creatures that have been on this planet yet." It's a relief.
"I am there for the people, to get knowledge, not to take, that doesn't interest me," Wayne says of his work. "Even if it was my job, and I was getting paid a stupid amount of money, I wouldn't want it. I wouldn't learn anything."