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Capturing conflict

Montreal photographer brings the Middle East home


BY Misha Warbanski
Photography by Jenna Wakani

We’re looking at photos on Stefan Christoff’s laptop. They show a tangle of overhead wires that bring electricity to crumbling concrete buildings in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon’s largest, home to some 75,000 Palestinians. There’s no echo of the order we impose on our own electricity—no parallel lines. The wires create netting between the sky and the ground. A Montreal-based community organizer and journalist, Christoff took the photos on three trips to Lebanon.

In April, his photos were shown in an exhibition in Montreal called “Lebanon: Open Skies of Struggle.” The show also travelled to Winnipeg this summer.

“We take it for granted that our skies are open and free. We don’t think about the fact that for many people the sky can be something dangerous.” This is one of the ways Christoff explains the difference between life in a country where the threat of war is ever-present and one that is supposedly at peace.

Christoff didn’t start as a photographer, but as his collection of photos has grown, and turned some heads, the social activist found his art was becoming a useful tool to communicate some of the complexities of the Middle East. “The whole world is watching, or is at least aware, but we’re not doing anything,” he says, explaining that reporting on the Middle East is abundant but real dialogue less so. For Christoff, photos are a tool to address that gap by engaging people in social issues.

His photos and writing are also an attempt to document the living history of an oppressed people. “It’s not happenstance that when you read a history of the Ottoman Empire we hear about peasant revolts, but we don’t hear it from the perspective of people fighting the powerful,” he says.

Christoff first visited Lebanon in 2003, prior to the Syrian withdrawal. He had been working with Montreal-based Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. It was a failed attempt to visit Palestin—he was denied entry—that landed Christoff in Lebanon.

“I was mainly documenting conditions for work I was doing in Montreal with lawyers and the media,” says Christoff. He collected letters and affidavits from refugees to help with pending refugee cases in Canada. He also took photos for Indymedia Beirut and Electronic Intifada, a web-based news organization providing coverage from a Palestinian viewpoint.

When Christoff was working as a reporter for The Daily Star in Beirut, in summer 2006, those dangerous skies started raining bombs. The photos he took during this harrowing period became part of the basis for his latest show.

Telling these histories is something Christoff has become well-known for. He is currently organizing a series of workshops about the Middle East with McGill’s Public Interest Research Group. He’ll also be taking the project to Quebec CEGEPs this fall.

And there’s always the tug of the Middle East. “I expect I’ll be going back and forth to Lebanon and the Middle East my whole life. The time and energy they spent telling me their stories—I can only feel legitimate visiting again if I have achieved something. And by achievement I mean making my contribution to telling part of the whole story.”

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