Sharjah: Sharjah entities on Wednesday announced at the opening of ‘Xposure’ photo festival they will sponsor the schooling of a Syrian refugee boy seen in a viral photo reading a book while perched on a garbage bin.
10-year-old Hussein, who fled with his family from Syria to Lebanon, had to drop out of school and collect junk, scrap and plastic from garbage bins to support his family. On finding a book in the garbage one day, the young boy began to read.
Hussein’s moment with the book was captured by architect Rodrigues Mghames. The photo, titled ‘The Reader’, and shared on social media platforms, went viral in just a few hours, and became a subject of discussion on key Arabic and international media outlets as it depicted Hussein’s passion for reading despite the harsh reality of his circumstances.
Organised by Sharjah Government Media Bureau (SGMB), Xposure on Wednesday announced the sponsorship of Hussein’s education until high school in cooperation with The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF), a UAE-based global humanitarian organisation.
Xposure also honoured Mghames at the opening ceremony of the festival in recognition of his role in sharing Hussein’s story with the world.
Power of photography
Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, inaugurated the week-long festival.
The opening ceremony began in with a video calling on the audience to step into a world of imagination and showcased a collection of imagery by lens professionals.
In their presentations at the inaugural ceremony, Chris Rainier, a documentary photographer and filmmaker, and Whitney Johnson, Vice President of Visual and Immersive Experiences at National Geographic, also underlined the power of photography and photographers in changing how we see the world.
Following the inaugural ceremony, Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed was escorted on a tour of the festival to observe the works of participating photographers.
Tariq Saeed Allay, Director-General of SGMB, said: “By highlighting suffering and injustices, photography gives the world insights into people’s diverse conditions, all of which have a great impact on the viewers. By supporting Hussein, Xposure wants his picture to be a global message that takes photography’s role beyond observing and documenting reality to become a tool for changing it for the better and a means to explore solutions to the problems spotlighted by photographers.”
He added: “What can we say more on photographs that has not been said before? A photograph is constantly evolving - even when it depicts the same image. Over time, the same image can alter our worldview, change perceptions, stimulate knowledge, and ignite our inner consciousness.
"These new revelations could unlock the key to making greater commitments to urgent issues around the world. It is a wake-up call to realise that our world’s beauty is not finite; it does not last forever. We must nurture it to keep it alive.”
Mariam Al Hammadi, Director of TBHF, said: “This initiative reflects the values of compassion embodied in the UAE and particularly in Sharjah, to come to the assistance and support of less fortunate people. This aligns with TBHF’s core mission to protect and empower vulnerable children and their families in vulnerable situations across the world.”
She added: “We believe that knowledge and education are pivotal to changing people’s lives and aim to help fulfil Hussein’s passion for reading. In collaboration with our partners in Lebanon, TBHF will ensure his access to education with Xposure, which is today setting forth an inspiring example of how creative events and festivals can support humanitarian causes.”
Mghames hailed Xposure’s initiative, describing how he had contacted several charity and humanitarian organisations to help fund Hussein’s education and support his family.
Handpicked 1,600 photos from top photographers were unveiled during the ‘Xposure International Photography Festival’, running until February 15 at Expo Centre Sharjah.
The event brings together 70 world-renowned photographers, award-winning storytellers, and photojournalists whose works will be displayed through 45 exhibitions.
Xposure 2022 is also featuring 28 talks, workshops, portfolio reviews, and more. The event will hosts its first-ever ‘Conservation Summit’, under the theme ‘Save Our Oceans’, on Thursday. The agenda also includes announcement of winners of the Independent Freelance Photojournalist Awards and Xposure International Photography and Film Awards.
Prominent names at this year’s edition include, amongst others, Magnum member Steve McCurry, who captured the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ portrait for National Geographic; American photographer James Nachtwey who documents wars and critical social issues; and Brian Skerry, a photojournalist specialising in marine wildlife and underwater environments.
‘Images do not lie’
Highlighting the power of photography to turn the tide against the largest existential threat of the modern world – climate change - Chris Rainier mourned the loss of both the natural environment and the planet’s biodiversity, and drew attention to the often overlooked loss of the vast destruction of traditional knowledge, cultural identity and unique indigenous languages.
“With the destruction of knowledge passed orally from generation to generation, we lose a vast wealth of information - of climate issues, traditional sustainability practices, a deep understanding of ecosystems and long-term natural farming and survival tactics,” he said.
The National Geographic Society Explorer added: “Photography provides crucial evidence to the massive changes happening around the planet. Image after image has shown the impact of man’s actions on earth. Images do not lie; they stir our collective consciousness and can indeed change the world.”
“The mission is urgent; the time is now; and photography is the tool to help preserve our planet,” he concluded.
Greater than words?
Describing Xposure as a platform that “helps create greater understanding and appreciation of diversity of human experiences and cultures,” Whitney Johnson pointed out how the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the power of visuals in understanding the medical, social, and economic upheavals of the current times.
She said: “Now more than ever, I am convinced of the power that visuals hold to help humans communicate and connect especially in disconnected times such as these. Photographs are a window to important changes taking place worldwide. The work of photographers in documenting both universal and individual experiences have driven home the overall human cost, resilience of frontline workers and loss for individual families worldwide.”
Citing the example of an image of a COVID victim wrapped in plastic on a hospital bed in Indonesia, she said: “Data can be hard to comprehend; but images like these are personal and impossible to turn away from.” Viewed by more than 1 million people in just a few hours, the haunting image forced both the people and the government to address the seriousness of COVID, she added.