Helping Refugees Tell Their Stories in Words and Portraits

interview by David Walker

©Brian Sokol
Iman, 25, fled from the war in Syria with her son and daughter, ending up in the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey. The most important thing she was able to bring with her is the Quran she holds in this photograph. "As long as I have it with me," she says, "I'm connected to God."

Since 2012, when he was on assignment for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, photographer Brian Sokol has been making portraits of displaced persons holding the possession that they most prize. He has now photographed in three separate regions. His straightforward portraits, shot on a simple, portable backdrop, and his recordings of the refugees’ own words, have now been widely used by the UNHCR and also been widely featured online. Here he tells PDN what inspired him to depart from his usual photojournalistic work to make portraits and record his subjects’ own words.

PDN: How did you come up with the idea to make portraits of refugees displaying (and talking about) the most important thing they fled their homes with?
Brian Sokol:
While passing through New York City last July, Ellen Tolmie, UNICEF’s chief photo editor, invited me to an Avedon exhibition. I was amazed by not only the larger-than-life size of the portraits, but by how much they managed to say about the subjects, despite Avedon having removed them from any semblance of an environment with his white backdrop.

A month later [August 2012], I was in a refugee camp [in South Sudan] for the first time—overwhelmed by both the scale of what was happening around me, and by my inability to say what I wanted to say in a single frame and picture caption. Those giant Avedon portraits of people standing in front of a white background kept popping up in the back of my head. I had an idea: Why not make a photo that’s essentially a vehicle for an extended caption, rather than the other way around?

The images aren’t the point. The stories behind them are.

PDN: Why did you take this approach to showing the plight of refugees? 
Like many humanitarian crises, refugee situations tend to get boiled down to statistics. "The daily arrivals have increased to more than 1,600 ..." For me, at least, these numbers are more or less meaningless unless and until I can somehow connect them with living, breathing people.

The project is an attempt to convey the humanity of individuals who have been dehumanized by their circumstances. To show that millions of people in similar situations around the world aren't just "refugees," aren’t others, but are mothers and daughters—normal people with kids and receding hairlines and cell phones.

I asked them to display the single object that was of greatest importance to them for two reasons. First, it was a means to get them to tell their stories in their own words. It gave me something to dig for that would drive the interviews forward, as well as tie the images together into a series. Second, I thought that having a written and visual record of what refugees themselves—rather than the humanitarian organizations charged with providing for them—deem to be of the greatest importance could be an effective means of targeting refugees' needs.

PDN: How long have you been working on this project?
The project began in August, 2012, photographing Sudanese refugees in South Sudan.

PDN: Did you start the project with any specific plan for executing it?
The project was spontaneous. I was frustrated and worried by the fact that my reportage images seemed as though they were adding to the anonymous, statistical perception of refugees. I asked the videographer I was working alongside if I could borrow the black sheet he’d brought along so that I could take some portraits where the individuals weren’t being entirely swallowed by their environment—the camp. As I went over hundreds of images at the end of the day, it was the portraits that stood out from the take. I decided to turn the portraits into a story, hopeful that UNHCR would see the value in them as well. It was such a simple idea that I realized it could be repeated again and again in various countries, cultures, conflicts—and that the results would likely show something about what all refugees have in common, and the differences between various regions, cultures and conflicts.


"The images aren't the point.

The stories behind them are."


PDN: Where have you photographed refugees for this project so far?
So far, the project has covered Sudanese refugees in South Sudan, Syrian refugees in Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, and Malian refugees in Burkina Faso.

PDN: How do you select the refugee populations—and specific camps—that you include in the project?
As of now, the project has focused on the three largest current refugee emergencies: Syria, Mali and the Sudan. The individual camps are chosen largely by where I’m able to get access. Working with UNHCR I’ve been privileged to get to some incredibly remote locations in physically and politically challenging situations.

While the majority of refugees that I’ve photographed have been living in camps, some of them have been among the “invisible,” and growing, urban refugee population. Urban refugees often live in even more difficult circumstances than those living in camps—as they can be hard for humanitarian organizations to find, let alone assist.

Going forward, I want to begin recording the stories of “forgotten” refugees—people caught in protracted situations that aren’t being covered by the news. Millions of people have been living for years, some for multiple generations, in camps and urban areas. I plan to focus on telling their stories next.  

PDN: Do you have to work through government agencies or NGOs to get access? If so, could you give a couple of examples of which agencies, and the process you went through?
The project has thus far been shot while on assignments for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Through them, I’ve been able to gain access to the camps, or worked with their partner NGOs to locate and contact urban refugees. Refugee camps are incredibly complex places, with sometimes dozens of UN, NGO, and governmental entities working together with limited financial and natural resources. Working with UNHCR has allowed me to not only gain access to the camps, but they have supported this project 

PDN: How do you approach subjects, and win them over? Are they reluctant? Receptive?
I know it sounds trite, but in refugee camps, everyone actually does have a story to tell. In some cases, I just walk around looking for someone with an interesting face, then—through a translator—ask them if I can chat with them for a bit.

Subjects’ receptivity to being photographed varies considerably from place to place. In South Sudan, I at times had difficulty keeping people from jumping in front of the camera. Almost everyone I spoke with was excited to tell their story, and did so without a great deal of coaxing. In the Middle East, the situation was completely reversed. As you can see in the portraits, many of the Syrian refugees have their identities concealed. This was done at their behest, for fear of being recognized. It took hours, in some cases multiple days, in order to establish a rapport with individuals and families before they willing to even speak with me about their experiences—let alone point a camera at them.

In the end, once the fears and suspicions have been allayed (if there were any to begin with), people all have stories to tell. I think that by taking a personal interest in them, and investing the time in hearing what they’ve been through and what they value and why—the process itself tends to win their respect.

PDN: What is each sitting like? What interaction do you have with the subjects? What instructions do you give them? What do they ask of you, explicitly or implicitly? What makes a portrait successful, and how many shots do you typically make of each subject to get the image that works for you?
Ultimately, taking the portraits is the shortest and perhaps least important part of the process. The interviews, which sometimes last several hours, that proceed the photograph are the interesting part. The expressions that people wear in the portraits are probably completely different from what they would have been had I simply walked up and shot a quick image of them. The portrait is an extension of the conversation, and is ordinarily over within five or ten minutes. Once the camera comes out, there’s relatively little instruction; often just hand gestures on my part. The number of frames I take can vary anywhere between half a dozen and several dozen.

PDN: Are you working with some sort of portable studio? If so, can you describe it?
Yes, it consists of a black cotton sheet. Honestly, that’s all there is to it—available light and a black sheet to semi-remove the subjects from their environment, but allow enough to be seen around the edges, or through the cotton, to put them partially in context. The sheet is usually held by my translator, and a neighbor or family member of the subject. When the shoot is finished, I fold it up and stuff it back into my backpack, where it takes up about as much space as a couple pairs of jeans, or a twin bed sheet.

PDN: What camera gear do you use?
At present I’m shooting on two Canon 5D Mark IIIs with Voigtlander, Canon and Sigma prime lenses.

In the near future, I hope to begin shooting my reportage work on Leica M rangefinders, and want to continue this project on medium- or large-format equipment.

I think the humanizing nature of the project will be all the more effective if the images can be displayed in large scale. Staring face-to-face at a life-size photograph of a person would go a long way to dispelling any view of them as a statistic.

PDN: What are the biggest challenges you've encountered while working on this project?
The biggest logistical challenges to the project have been the remote and difficult locations in which it has been shot. In Burkina Faso, I was working in temperatures up to 120 degrees, with dust storms intermittently blowing through camp. Given the security considerations of some locations, it’s not often possible to work during the hours of good light and moderate temperatures. Some of the portraits have been shot under midday sun, with both the subjects, and myself, broiling.

The greatest human difficulties have been trying to win the trust of subjects, while keeping to a schedule. I began photographing this project for myself, between other shoots in a very compressed timeline. As UNHCR has come to see the value in it as well, they’ve provided me with more time to work on it—but it’s always a juggling act, and there are never enough hours in the day, or days in the camp.

PDN: How did you overcome those challenges?
The logistical difficulties you don’t really overcome, you just deal with them and hope for the best. Keep hydrated, wrap your gear in a bandana when the dust storm comes, that kind of thing …

As for the human challenges, time, and a good fixer and/or translator are what make the greatest difference. I’ve been very lucky to work with some amazing, motivated people. Mohammed Abu Asaker translated from Arabic to English while I was working with Syrian refugees in the Middle East. He was able to cut through fear and suspicion, and draw incredibly emotional statements out of people who, a few hours before, had been unwilling to be photographed, and silent as stones.

PDN: Are there any particular lessons you've learned along the way?
Personally, I’ve been driven to tears on numerous occasions while working on this project—not only out of sorrow for what people have been through, but out of astonishment at just how resilient human beings are. I’ve met refugees who have seen unspeakable horrors and lost everything, and I mean family members and their sense of place—not just material objects—who are more content and gentle than the average upper-middle-class iPhone user. It’s inspiring to see what the human heart is capable of surviving.

Professionally, I initially started into photography as a means of illustrating my writing, but the photography took over. This project is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to really mix the skills of interviewing, writing and photography, in order to tell stories. It’s reassuring and exciting to find that these different disciplines can all work together, and receive such a positive response.

PDN: What images did you like best, or do you feel most satisfied by, or have the most interesting back stories?
The story of Leila, the girl holding her jeans, was perhaps the most rewarding of the Syrian portraits. The image isn’t particularly special, but her story—and the situation in which I interviewed her (inside a cold, drafty building with no walls or doors, and a constantly blaring television showing unbelievable, gruesome atrocities in the background)—struck a chord with me. I can still remember the smell of the damp concrete room, and the way her eyes lit up when she went and got the jeans from her bag.

PDN: What impact are you hoping to have with this project? 
I come from an editorial background, and my intent with this project is much the same as when I am shooting for magazines and newspapers: I want to put compelling stories in front of the eyes of people who can affect change, be they policy makers, diplomats or highly-motivated housewives.

On a smaller, more immediate scale, I hope to show that refugees aren’t just victims of circumstance. They’re dignified individuals with families and friends and places that they used to call home. They’re real people. By photographing a few, and asking them to tell their stories in their own words, I’m hoping to give some sense scale to the human cost of war—something to help give an actual value to the numbers and statistics that get thrown around when discussing refugees. These are just a few individuals, but they are among millions of people in similar situations.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I hope that having a written and visual record of what refugees themselves—rather than the humanitarian organizations charged with providing for them—deem to be of the greatest importance could be an effective means of targeting refugees' needs. With this project I hope to share refugees' experiences and needs as a tool to leverage change, and influence the institutions charged with protecting and providing for refugees.

PDN: Where has the story been published so far?
At the time you wrote to me, it had only been published on UNHCR.org and Al Jazeera English. Since then it’s run as a video on CNN (television and online), in Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Toronto Star, and on the homepage of my agency, Panos Pictures.

PDN: Besides getting the images published by news outlets, do you have other plans for distributing or showing the project?
The project was initially inspired by an exhibition, and I’m thinking of ways to present the images, and tell the stories, in large scale photographs and human voices.

Also, UNHCR, plans to use the images to promote World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20.

Once there are enough countries and stories, I plan on making both a print and e-book.

PDN: When do you expect to finish the project?
I still have a tremendous amount to learn about refugee issues, and a lot of ground to cover. I plan on investing several years documenting both unfolding refugee emergencies, and telling the stories of camps and people long forgotten by the media. Hopefully the project will continue to be of interest and value to UNHCR, who have so far made it possible. Even if they do continue to support it, I’m going to need more partners, as well as some grants, to get there.

Related Article:

Brian Sokol Photo Gallery


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