This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – from the archives, an interview with photographic artist Hoda Afshar on the issues of representation in relation to how the media portrays refugees. This post follows on from last week’s celebration of World Refugee Day and the launch of Robin Hammond and Witness Change’s epic 1000 Dreams project. Follow and share on Facebook and Instagram.
An Issue of Representation
Alison Stieven-Taylor. First published in Pro Photo March 2019
In October 2018, I read a book, No Friend But The Mountains, written by one of the refugees on Manus Island, Behrouz Boochani a Kurdish-Iranian journalist. A particular section where he described being photographed by the media made a significant impact on me. In this passage Boochani described how he felt as he crossed the tarmac to board a plane that would take him to PNG, an act akin to running the gauntlet.
“The airport on Christmas Island has become a studio for a photo shoot. It seems that they are waiting in ambush, waiting for the time they can see me helpless and fragile. They are waiting to make me a subject of their inquiry. They want to strike fear into people with the movement of my possessed corpse… We get close to the journalists. One of the blonde girls takes some steps away and kneels down, taking a few artistic photographs of my ridiculous face. No doubt, she will create an excellent masterpiece which she can take back and show her editor-in-chief, and receive encouragement for showing initiative. That thin body underneath those baggy, sloppy clothes – all from the point of view of someone positioned below the waist. And it will really be a brilliant piece of art. My head I hold up high, dignified, and I try to maintain that as I climb the steps to the plane. But my steps are more like the steps of someone trying to run away.”
Boochani’s words made me think about representation and the role of photography in creating narratives that become part of our visual cultural, that inform our social and political language. His words also made me consider how through the visual portrayal of refugees as a collective group, individuals are relegated to a generic label, stripped of identity and as a consequence their humanity. In the media, refugees generally fall into two groups: the victim and the threat. There is no denying the media helps to shape stereotypes and that particular images are used to reinforce political dogma. This is not an accusation levelled at the individual photographer who rarely has agency in the work, but it is aimed at the news industry.
A few days after reading Boochani’s book, in what could be described as a serendipitous moment, I attended an event in Melbourne where Iranian photographer Hoda Afshar was in conversation via Skype with Boochani. The pair discussed their recent project, Remain. Afshar had spent ten days on Manus working with Boochani and others detained in the camp, taking their portraits and shooting her first short film. I was particularly interested in her ideas on autonomy and power, and how refugees are rarely given the opportunity to participate in the way they are visually represented. So, we arranged to speak later that week.
Afshar, who now lives in Melbourne, is both an artist and a scholar, the latter informing her creative practice which focuses on ideas of representation and identity. It was with the intention of working on a collaborative project that she reached out to Boochani early in 2018. When she told him she wanted to travel to Manus, she says he exclaimed “finally, an artist!” When asked what he meant, Boochani replied that the few photographers who had been permitted to come to the island had all been photojournalists.
“Behrouz said to me, I saw a lot of these people that I helped out win prizes with those images but no one talked about the person who’s in the photo. They were supposed to help us, what happened?”
To provide some context around Boochani’s reply, as a journalist – he’s been writing for The Guardian from Manus – he has become the inside contact for the media, the go-to person who can set things up within the camp. An astute observer, Boochani has watched as refugees are interviewed and observed that in the moment when they are visibly broken, that is when the shutter clicks. It is then that the photograph starts a life of its own, beyond the control of the person pictured. Afshar wanted to change that relationship and create a body of work that conveyed how these men saw themselves. “I said to Behrouz, as an artist I have an aesthetic, I understand visual language and have some ideas on what I’d like to achieve. I want to bring beauty to the images, but I will be guided by you, by the way you want to tell your story.”
I pick up on the word “beauty” and ask her to expand on the idea. “There’s been this resistance in photojournalism to beauty. There’s the idea that beauty somehow fetishises the suffering and pain of the people in the photographs. I don’t agree. I think we have become numb to photojournalistic images of refugees. People don’t care about them. I wanted to create beautiful, poetic images.” And as it turned out, so did the men.
The pair communicated for several months working out the creative approach and the practicalities of undertaking such an endeavour in what is essentially a hostile environment where photographers are not welcome. Afshar entered on a tourist visa and stayed under the radar as much as possible. Boochani arranged for a local fisherman to transport Afshar and the men to a remote island where she could work. Aware of her limited time, Afshar kept a gruelling schedule that saw her travel to the island with a different group every second day, as taking a larger contingent would have drawn too much attention. Even so, that 40-minute trip made everyone nervous.
“It was a big risk and I knew I’d only get one chance,” says Afshar of both the venture itself and her artistic approach. “Friends said to me why don’t you make documentary work just to make sure that you get it right. But I thought, what’s the point? I didn’t want to replicate what’s already been done, work that I believe has not changed anything, is not showing me something I don’t know.”
On the island she made a series of portraits in a makeshift studio using black fabric she’d brought with her. At times the climate was unbearable, a searing heat that was all consuming. Afshar tried to keep the sweat out of her eyes, and to protect her camera gear. But lenses fogged over, and humidity crept in damaging some of the film. Salt water and sand posed other problems. There was little reprieve and nowhere to escape to. Afshar developed a new appreciation of what life is like on Manus for these men and a renewed respect for her own freedom.
For the portraits Afshar asked the men to choose a natural element, such as fire or water, something from nature that “symbolically and metaphorically talks about how you feel inside and the emotions you want to express.” One Kurdish man chose soil, a metaphor for his statelessness, his loss of land and home. Boochani chose fire “because he’s angry.”
Symbolism is also present in the nakedness of the men as Afshar observes. “It’s so hot over there they are always in shorts, no one wears a top, but to me this nakedness is talking about bare life, naked life, stripped of any basic human rights. They are excluded from the borders of our society and labelled dangerous and threatening. While they live outside of the boundaries of our society they are still subject to the laws – for me their nakedness speaks to this truth and its harsh reality.”
Both the portraits and the film that comprise this project are performative, which Afshar states “is true of all instances where the subject is aware of the camera.” In the film the men sing, read poetry and narrate their own story, making the work deeply personal, and at the same time emblematic of a larger narrative.
The men also talk a lot about death. As I watched the film it became obvious death has come to consume the thoughts of these men who have lost friends to suicide, violence and disease. It is strange to hear young men, who should be in the prime of their lives, talk of their fear of dying in this strange, remote place. The sense of hope lost is pervasive.
Afshar says she’s not sure if the work will be successful. She’s not talking about her own success, although the portrait of Boochani has already drawn critical acclaim; Afshar was awarded the Bowness Photography Prize in 2018 (both the judged prize and the people’s choice). Afshar is of course delighted with the awards and accolades, and has shared the prize money with her collaborators.
But she is more concerned about reaching a broader audience and hopes Remain will communicate a depth that reaches beyond the stereotypical image of the refugee. “This is the first time the audience is standing face to face with a refugee…this film, these images make you realise who these people are that we are detaining.”
When I watch the 25-minute film with an audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I am aware that some around me are weeping. When the film ends there is an uncomfortable silence. The air is heavy with the redolence of complicity.
While Afshar has worked hard to give those she has photographed a voice, Boochani’s reaction to his portrait suggests that what the camera shows us can be a reality we’d rather not acknowledge. Despite the fact that he was integral in the making, he told Afshar, “I do not see myself in this picture. I only see a refugee. Someone whose identity has been taken from him. A bare life, standing there beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring…This image scares me.”
It is an image that scares me also, as it reflects the policies of my country’s government, policies that are in breach of human rights, as the United Nations has pointed out on more than one occasion. In pictures and moving image, Afshar shows us what the politicians would prefer we don’t think about – that these men are individuals who had lives and aspirations for a better future before being detained indefinitely on Manus. With that knowledge, we must not look away.
Postscript: Boochani is now living in New Zealand, however, there are still more than one hundred refugees who are being held illegally by the Australian government. This is our nation’s shame. As citizens of a democratic country it is our responsibility to use the privilege of our vote to call for positive change.