CNN Photos

Clown ‘revolution’ lifts refugee kids

Photographer Samuel Rodriguez calls it a joyful “revolution” targeting places dominated by despair. The revolutionaries arrive armed — not with weapons — but with brightly colored costumes and fake red noses.

Payasos Sin Fronteras — or Clowns Without Borders — hopes to give children living in refugee camps brief escapes from sadness, loneliness and fear.

Rodriguez traveled to troubled areas of Africa, Haiti and the Middle East to capture amazing images of children reacting to these performances.

“Those moments are really magical,” said Rodriguez, 34, who spoke with CNN last week near his office in Barcelona, Spain. “It’s something that I’ve never seen in any other voluntary work or any other kind of international cooperation.”

For the past 10 years, Rodriguez has used his camera to tell stories about people affected by regional conflicts, wars and natural disasters. He stumbled across Clowns Without Borders in 2008 while freelancing as a news photographer at Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.

“I was really shocked about the work that they did because it was super powerful,” he said.

Founded in Barcelona in 1993, Payasos Sin Fronteras started with a performance for refugees in war-plagued Croatia. It has sprung up in eight other nations, including the United States, according to its website.

Many of the children who attend the performances are alone, Rodriguez says, because their parents went missing or were killed in nearby wars.

“It’s a revolution, really,” Rodriguez said. “A nonpolitical revolution.” The performances profoundly help the refugees cope. They “reshape the daily life of the camp completely.”

During the shows at the camps, he has seen faces of girls light up instantly at the sight of clowns who are women. He’s seen parents and their children, for whom life is a constant struggle, enjoy a delightful few minutes together as a happier family.

“They have a chance just to rest their minds for a while and concentrate only on what I call this ‘magic circle,’ ” Rodriguez said. It’s a circle that creates joy for the audience as well as the performers. “Then, it’s like, the circle is complete, you know? The artists get more in return than what they give. Every time they perform they’re learning something. Because they learn about how to recover from bad times.”

Rodriguez seems hooked on the clowns’ humanitarian work. This month, he hopes to go to Colombia with them to help refugees there.

Photography, he says, offers opportunities to raise awareness about humanitarian crises around the world.

“Without memory, we are condemned to repeat our mistakes as human beings,” Rodriguez said. “Photography can help us a lot as humans to not repeat our mistakes.”

- Thom Patterson, CNN