LOS ANGELES — The Annenberg Space for Photography serendipitously opened their latest exhibition Refugee during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates one of our most enduring refugee narratives, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (even if its veracity is in doubt). One of Passover’s central themes stresses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and it is this kind of empathy that the photographers included in Refugee aim to convey with their images of strangers searching for a home.
Photography has the power to bring awareness to issues in a way that the written word often cannot, adding a human element to statistics and headlines. Take for example Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of the Napalm Girl in Vietnam, or more recently Nilufer Demir’s photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. Refugee brings together five very different photographers who document refugees from five continents, in the hopes of capturing both the urgency, but also the complicated reality of their various crises.
Photojournalist Tom Stoddart followed asylum seekers from Syria, through Greece, to Berlin where they hope to find a new life. His black and white photographs show not only their struggle as they weather dangerous journeys by boat and detentions at borders, but also their elation as they establish themselves in their adoptive country. Stoddart’s images provide a convincing rebuke to those who argue that these refugees are taking the easy route by leaving their country.
German-born, New York-based photographer Martin Schoeller similarly captures newly-arrived immigrants, but with a very different style. Schoeller is well known for his full-color, close-up portraits of celebrities and politicians, and he applies this same approach to those who have recently come to New York from all over the world. Even as his portraits make visible the smallest details of each individual face, they have a democratizing effect, treating everyone — from President Obama to a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — with the same unflinching eye.
Fashion photographer Omar Victor Diop had never been to a refugee camp before he travelled to one in Cameroon to photograph refugees fleeing conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic. At a recent press preview, he noted that he experienced a bit of culture shock at first, as he was used to his cosmopolitan African lifestyle in Dakar, Senegal. Diop posed individuals in front of a blank backdrop, and then edited the images digitally, changing the colors of their clothes to shades of blue — which he sees as a symbol of hope — and adding patterned borders inspired by African wax prints. “The creative process doesn’t end when I take the picture,” he said. Images of African refugees often focus on the anguish and tragedy of their situation — at risk of becoming “poverty porn” — but Diop’s photos stress his subject’s dignity and strength, recalling Kehinde Wiley’s heroic canvases.
Our common notion of a refugee is as someone who leaves their homeland and travels thousands of miles, but two photographers focus on refugees within their own country. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario documents internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who live in camps that they are prohibited from leaving, despite the lack of resources there, especially medical care. Unlike other photographers who were able to work with relatively little interference, Addario had only a brief period of time with this community before pressure from the government forced her to leave, making her images all the more poignant.
Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide chronicles the lives of those displaced by the drug trade in Mexico and Central America and by conflict between the government and revolutionary group FARC in Colombia. Her images are the least didactic in the exhibition, instead capturing brief moments of visual poetry amongst the turmoil. An accompanying documentary film follows the five photographers, and has some great scenes of Iturbide playfully interacting with young Colombian children, enlisting one as her assistant. She has an ability to ingratiate herself with her subjects that gives her images a natural intimacy.
A related exhibition in the Skylight Studios gallery does little to enhance the themes brought up in Refugee, relying too heavily on multimedia bells and whistles to tell a story that the photographs do quite adequately themselves. The exception is the fascinating interactive Refugee Project, created by design studio Hyperakt and Ekene Ijeoma, which uses data from the UNHCR to track the global movement of refugees over the past forty years. The resulting data visualizations illustrate a tangled network of departures and arrivals, linking some to specific conflicts or environmental catastrophes. The overall impression is one of a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to the handful of countries that have been in the news recently.
Refugee eschews calculated political statements, instead aiming to convey the complex identities and narratives of its subjects beyond simply their suffering. It is interesting to compare Tom Stoddart’s photos of Syrians resettled in Berlin with images from a century ago of immigrants at Ellis Island. These earlier images have been incorporated into our national mythology as hopeful symbols of integration, seemingly free of the fear and hostility that greets so many contemporary refugees. Surely the passage of time is somewhat responsible for this difference, but photography has a role to play in changing attitudes. “Unfortunately photography doesn’t change the world,” Iturbide pessimistically opines in the documentary, and in sense, she’s right. But in revealing our shared humanity, it can open the door for the possibility of change in the minds of viewers.