We photograph, therefore we are

Agency, identity and affirmation form tangible outputs of the work of Rohingyatographer, a beacon of creative expression and resilience in the heart of the world's largest refugee camp
words – ahtaram shin + david palazón
location – cox’s bazar, bangladesh

Above: A group of children take a selfie using a sandal on a hilltop in Balukhali camp. 2022 © Ro Yassin Abdumonab

In the tapestry of global narratives, Rohingyatographer stands as a vibrant testament to the Rohingya community’s right to self-representation. Amidst displacement, each photograph transcends mere documentation – echoing Susan Sontag’s notion of photographs as tangible traces of reality. Through their constrained physical and uncertain temporal existence, the Rohingya find symbolic freedom in photography. Their images challenge perceptions of refugees as mere victims, boldly asserting their existence and identity. Declaring, “We are here; we exist; we are Rohingya,” these photographs transform simple observations into powerful vehicles for self-affirmation and collective memory.

“It’s one of the important documents I was able to bring with me while fleeing from Myanmar after my home and village were burned down by the Myanmar military on 25 August, 2017.” – Solim Ullah. Aged 71, he is holding a 3-panel document called a National Registration Card [NRC], which was issued under the 1948 Citizenship Law in Myanmar. In the 1970’s, the NRCs were taken away by various measures by the government of Myanmar. In 1995, the Temporary Identity Cards – also called White Cards – were offered instead to the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. White Cards were then taken away and Rohingya were just offered White Card receipts. Neither White Cards nor the receipts were useful documents to the Rohingya people as citizens of Myanmar. The Rohingya identity crisis began after the Myanmar Citizenship Law was passed in 1982 – the root cause of several crises including forced migration, statelessness and the humanitarian crisis. © Sahat Zia Hero

Drawing a parallel with Descartes’s ‘Cogito, ergo sum,’ the phrase ‘We photograph, therefore we exist’ asserts photography as the Rohingya’s means of validating their existence. Where Descartes’s philosophy emphasises the individual’s conscious thought as proof of being, this adaptation enables the Rohingya community to collectively assert their presence and identity. By capturing their experiences through the lens, they challenge the marginalisation present in global narratives. This shift signifies a movement from the realm of internal contemplation to one of external expression, transforming the camera into a powerful tool for existential affirmation.

Ro Mon Sur Ali’s commitment exemplifies this empowerment: “Choosing to become a photographer using my mobile was driven by my commitment to my people,” he said. “Everywhere I go in the camp, I witness the challenges my people face. Unfortunately, the world seems deaf to our struggles. Consequently, I decided to amplify their voices through my photography, sharing our suffering and emotions with the global community.”

This sunset is proof that endings can sometimes be beautiful, too. Likewise, we Rohingya expect that the ending of hardship for Rohingya will be beautiful one day. 2022 © Ro Mon Sur Ali

The Colonial Shadows of Photography

Photography’s legacy, deeply entwined with colonialism, is historically marked by its role as an instrument of dominance and misrepresentation. In Luise Nora Rommelspacher’s thesis on Rohingyatograher, she explores mobility and immobility – both physically and symbolically – as experienced by the Rohingya. It highlights how photography allows the Rohingya to articulate their stories and identities, contrasting with traditional representations that often render them passive or voiceless.

The practice of photography enhances observational skills, crucial for refugees in developing visual literacy. This ability allows refugees to become authors of their own narratives, challenging the often bureaucratic-driven stories of NGOs and aid organisations. Refugees, typically seen as beneficiaries in these structures, gain a form of agency through photography. It empowers them to tell their stories, amidst an environment where institutional memory is limited due to the transient nature of their personnel. This shift from passive recipient to active storyteller is vital in redefining their roles within the complex ecosystem of humanitarian aid.

Jan Egeland’s critique against the “logo arms race” in the humanitarian sector echoes this sentiment, advocating for the dignity and autonomy of aid recipients. This concern underscores the importance of empowering refugees with the autonomy to depict their reality as they see it, ensuring that their voice remains unfiltered and true to their lived experience. This contrast points to a broader theme in global narratives: the need for genuine representation and visibility that respects the agency and dignity of all individuals, especially those in vulnerable situations.

Visibility conundrum. A gas stove with IOM and UNHCR stickers in the Rohingya refugee camp. 2020 © David Palazón

Amidst the broader context of photography’s role in reshaping narratives and asserting identity, BM Hairu shared his personal insight on the therapeutic and empowering aspects of photography. “It lets me be creative and advocate for the marginalised,” he said. “Taking photos makes me feel connected to the world and helps me hope for something positive.” This reflection from Hairu highlights the transformative power of photography not only as a medium for external storytelling but also as a means of internal healing and connection for individuals in vulnerable situations.

This young Rohingya boy grips two heavy jackfruits, his excitement palpable with each step. It’s been ages since he tasted this fruit, a rare treat. The walk back from the market feels shorter, fuelled by anticipation. He imagines sharing them with his family, a small joy amidst their challenges. The jackfruit, more than a fruit, is a symbol of hope and resilience for them. 2022 © Ro BM Hairu

The Refugee Experience

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh endure a relentless struggle. Stateless and deprived of their identity and homeland, their existence bears witness to a continuing tragedy. Hailing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, they find themselves without a nation, their pleas for survival echoing in the void of a seemingly indifferent world.

Enduring decades of persecution, the Rohingya’s plight has been recognized by the United States as an ongoing genocide, highlighting the severity of their situation. In the refugee camps of Bangladesh, they exist in a precarious limbo. Countless lives are bound within the confines of makeshift tarpaulin shelters, scattered precariously across mountainous terrains, encapsulating a cycle of uncertainty and despair.

Life in the camps is marked by stringent restrictions. Limited movement, enforced by checkpoints, breeds a climate of fear. Reports of public beatings are alarmingly frequent, exacerbating the oppressive atmosphere. Prohibited from working, the refugees depend on sparse rations for survival, with malnutrition and hunger as constant companions. Their plight is compounded by violence, abductions and natural disasters, leaving them in a perpetual state of vulnerability. Nights in the camp are fraught with fears of fire outbreaks and kidnappings, offering no solace from the daily hardships.

This enduring hardship imprints deep psychological scars. Eyes that once held hope now mirror profound despair and a sense of abandonment. Dreams of returning to their homeland diminish with each day, overshadowed by the harsh reality of their statelessness. Calls for international intervention and repatriation go largely unanswered, leaving refugees in a seemingly endless plight. Despite international efforts to combat statelessness, the Rohingya remain without a homeland – their understanding of ‘home’ and ‘nation’ shaped by the absence of these fundamental rights. Repatriation remains elusive, with Myanmar showing scant willingness to support their return. Caught in the crossfire of geopolitical dynamics, the Rohingya are left stranded in a perpetual state of uncertainty and despair.

Shomsul is 68 years old. He sits at his front door everyday and reads the Holy Quran. He doesn’t talk with his family or anyone else; he only talks to God. He believes he was born to worship the Almighty. Neighbours comment he suffers from depression and he doesn’t sleep. He prays and reads the Quran all night. People respect him as a man of God. Like him, many Rohingya suffer from depression; they carry the trauma they experienced in the genocide in 2017. In faith, many Rohingya find the strength they need to survive refugee life. © Sahat Zia Hero

Amidst these dire circumstances, the resilience of the Rohingya finds expression in their cultural and artistic endeavours. Enayet Khan, a Rohingya artist, strives to capture and preserve their rich heritage through his work. He states, “Despite the Myanmar authorities denying our existence and identity, I depict our cultural heritage and the lives of my ancestors.” His paintings, drawn from oral stories, preserve a rich cultural tapestry, defying attempts to erase his peoples’ history and identity.

‘Hañdi,’ a deeply revered tradition among the Rohingya, celebrates a significant milestone in a woman’s journey into motherhood. As she enters her seventh month of pregnancy, her parents bring an assortment of gifts – durus kura [chicken], fiçá [bread], an array of fruits and nourishing soups. This tradition transcends mere culinary delights; it’s a symbolic weaving of love and connection across generations, strengthening familial bonds. The anticipation of Hañdi begins early in pregnancy, marking it as a treasured and enduring ritual in the tapestry of Rohingya culture.

A Photo-Voice Platform

Rohingyatographer, founded in 2021 by Rohingya photographer and human rights activist Sahat Zia Hero, with support from curator David Palazón, stemmed from the pairs’ collaborative work at the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre in Cox’s Bazar. This partnership evolved into a significant endeavour with the publication of Sahat’s first photobook, setting the foundation for a more inclusive initiative. Sahat, recognizing the potential of shared storytelling, initiated Rohingyatographer Magazine, a platform for other Rohingya photographers to convey their stories.

The magazine quickly emerged as a crucial medium, exploring aspects of Rohingya experiences, community documentary photography and visual anthropology. It has become a tool for fostering empathy and challenging stereotypes while elevating the voices of the Rohingya youth.

“I was once a young kid crying for food, but I am now happy and keen to participate in telling the story of my community. People will know that I am not voiceless.” – 13 year old Md Hasson. Md Hasson is deaf-mute. He is featured on the cover of the first issue of Rohingyatographer Magazine holding a mobile phone showing a picture of himself crying desperately while climbing on an aid truck. He was only eight years old when, in August 2017, Canadian photographer Kevin Frayer took the photo while covering the massive exodus of the Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh, escaping the genocide perpetrated by the military in Myanmar. The photograph became an iconic representation of the suffering of Rohingya people featured in news articles across the globe and was shortlisted as one of the 10 best photographs in 2017 by Time Magazine, obtaining a Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

Despite being deaf-mute, Hasson, who lost his mother at birth and was raised by his aunt and uncle, communicates with a unique language of gestures, making him popular among his peers. He dreams of becoming a professional photographer and, through this pursuit, hopes to address his condition. ‘I want to go abroad to learn sign language and learn further,’ he expresses with determination. As a junior member of the collective, Hasson has been provided with a camera to explore photography and hone his self-expression. Sahat sees great potential in him: “Perhaps one day he might become a famous photographer.” © Sahat Zia Hero

Initially supported by the Spanish Embassy in Dhaka, Rohingyatographer gained recognition with its first exhibition, subsequently attracting support from UNHCR for its second issue. The project has gained international exposure, featuring in exhibitions at the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival and the University of California. It has also garnered media attention and endorsements from outlets like Al Jazeera, The Guardian and Reporters Without Borders, and has attracted academic interest from institutions such as Warwick and Oxford Universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in New York.

When something breaks, it begins to decay. The more it decays, the more it breaks. This is what happens in our camps. This is how it is for everything and everyone. This bridge is like the story of the Rohingya people, a story of crossing from one place to another, without much chance of returning back, an uncertain future ahead and the slowly deteriorating present.’ 2021 © Sahat Zia Hero.

Sahat Zia Hero, as the leader of the Rohingyatographer collective, coordinates the efforts of 30 talented photographers, writers and artists. His remarkable work with this group earned him prestigious accolades in 2023, including the Nansen Refugee Award and the Prince Claus Seeds Award. Apart from their regular publications, the collective made a significant contribution by releasing the first monograph dedicated to Rohingya female photographers, which was presented at the Asian University for Women.

Among these photographers is Omar Salma, who speaks passionately about the impact of her craft. “Photography is my passion, my strength to speak with the world,” she says. “Through my camera, I document the history of my community, the unspoken language in the victims’ eyes and the palpable struggles in their daily lives.” Salma’s reflections underscore the transformative power of photography in the Rohingya community, serving as a vehicle for self-expression, empowerment and connecting with the wider world.

This young woman skilfully cuts fabric, crafting dresses that captivate the women around her. Admired for her diverse designs, she not only brings joy through her craft but also sustains her family—it’s her sole source of income. 2023 © Omar Salma

The forthcoming issue of Rohingyatographer, currently in production and seeking funds through a GoFundMe campaign, delves into Rohingya traditional cuisine. The edition promises to explore how food serves as a unifying element in the Rohingya community, weaving a narrative that celebrates their rich culinary traditions and the communal experiences they foster.

Rohingyatographer, alongside initiatives like the Rohingya Photo Competition and Omar’s Film School, has sparked a movement of visual storytelling among Rohingya youth. Initially nurtured via aiding journalists in the camps, this interest grew, especially as COVID-19 restrictions limited external media access. Young Rohingya photographers began leveraging social media to disseminate their stories, establishing collectives that have markedly altered both their community’s self-image and the perception of the Rohingya people worldwide. Their authentic narratives, which connect the realities of Rohingya life with a global audience, are prompting a critical reassessment of the Rohingya crisis and are instrumental in reshaping international viewpoints.

10 year old Md Sadek assists his mother in gathering bottle gourd spinach from the market as evening descends. This spinach, integral to Rohingya culinary culture, is a staple in their dinner meals. 2023 © Md Zubair

Photographers like Md Zubair are vocal about the challenges facing the younger generation in the camps, especially the threat to their language, culture and traditions. “Through my photography, I aim to illustrate the profound changes and challenges our community faces within the camp life,” he comments, drawing attention to the significant shifts in their cultural and daily practices.

Riah Mani is an 11 year old girl playing with a broken mobile phone. 2022 © Abul Kalam.

Behind and beyond the camera

The Rohingya photographers collaborating within the Rohingyatographer collective bring more than just their cameras to the table. Each of the 30+ members has developed a unique visual language, exploring themes that resonate deeply with their personal experiences and interests. This diversity of perspectives and subjects forms a rich, multifaceted narrative, showcasing the depth and breadth of the Rohingya experience through their lenses.

Nasima is 14 years old and her brother Ibrahim is 10 years old. They both live with a family of five people in Thaingkhali camp. Their father disappeared in 2012 on his way to Malaysia. 2022 © Abul Kalam

As the most senior photographer in the collective, Abul Kalam brings a depth of experience and perspective that is unparalleled. Arriving in Bangladesh at the tender age of 12, he trained under the tutelage of Saiful Huq Omi, a renowned Bangladeshi photographer. This mentorship, coupled with years of experience, has sharpened his skill in capturing the human condition with a profound sensitivity. Abul’s photographs do more than document; they reveal the auras of trauma borne by his subjects, testaments to their enduring spirit amidst adversity.

Samiya Sultana Reya is seven years old. She is looking at her empty perfume spray bottle. 2022 © Md Jamal

Md Jamal, born in the camps in 1995, brings a distinctive perspective. His approach to photography is not merely about capturing the subject but rather how the subject transforms through the lens. Growing up in the camps has given him an intuitive understanding of his environment, which he skilfully translates into visually compelling compositions.

Flames ravage the Cox Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh on March 5th 2023, leaving 12,000 Rohingyas homeless and destroying 2,000 shelters, along with mosques, schools and health centres. 2023 © Ro Yassin Abdumonab

Yassin Abdumonab, a respected figure in the Rohingyatographer collective, has extensive experience as a stringer for international media, guiding numerous award-winning photographers in the refugee camps. Despite his significant contributions, his own photographic work remains largely undiscovered. Revered within his community not only for his documentary photography but also for his dedication to serving his people, Yassin stands as a role model for the younger generation. He invests time in mentoring young Rohingya in storytelling through photography, with a particular focus on documenting the collective memory and daily life of children in the camps. As a father and an activist, Yassin passionately advocates for children’s education and their right to play, themes poignantly reflected in his work.

Md Anis is seven years old. “He is the naughtiest in our neighbourhood, he likes to grab snacks and food from people. He is my favourite child because he is very energetic, smart and creative. He is always inventing and playing different games.” – Yassin. 2021 © Ro Yassin Abdumonab

Some photographers take an intimate angle, presenting their views and stories of life inside the Rohingya home. Umme Salma’s photography poignantly illustrates the genuine struggles of Rohingya refugees. Her work is a call for recognition, equality and justice. “The Rohingya deserve a voice,” she states emphatically.

Umme Habiba, born in Myanmar to a family of three, cherishes a memory from her father, a Rohingya fisherman. His prized possession was a kerosene lamp [Serak] inherited from his grandfather. Amid the 2017 conflict and ensuing brutality, Umme Habiba’s family fled Buthidaung township for Bangladesh. Her father, realising he’d left the lamp behind, was distraught, as it held immense sentimental value. He once told Umme Habiba that the lamp was a beacon in life’s darkest moments, echoing his grandmother’s wisdom. After his passing, she kept the lamp close, drawing comfort and guidance from its light. Now living in a refugee camp, facing daily hardships and an uncertain future, Umme Habiba relies on her father’s advice for strength. The lamp, a symbol of resilience, reminds her of the guidance it provided her father during his night fishing in Myanmar. 2023 © Umme Salma

“Photography, for me, is a ceaseless passion, a medium through which I express the beauty of our natural surroundings, the struggles of my community and the core of what it means to be human. Every photograph I take tells a story, often shedding light on the untold narratives of the Rohingya, showcasing their resilience, hope and the enduring strength of the human spirit,” said Parmin Fatema.

Beauty defies age; it is a testament to character. In Arakan State, Rohingya women – our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers – relied solely on their physical fortitude in a world untouched by modern conveniences. Despite raising large families, often of 8-12 children, they radiated a vigour and beauty that needed no digital enhancement. 2023 © Parmin Fatema

Echoing the ethos of the legendary war photographer Robert Capa, who famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” these Rohingya photographers embrace the principle of closeness. Their work goes beyond mere imagery, capturing profound narratives and raw emotions woven into the fabric of their community. In this act of creation, taking a photograph becomes a powerful act of self-assertion and ultimately a reclamation of identity. I photograph, therefore I am.

Muhammad Jalil is 102 years old. Born in 1920 in Thaming Chaong, Rathedaung, he is one of the oldest Rohingya living in the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. He has been an eye-witness to many historical events in Arakan like the Japanese-British war before Burmese independence. He has married three times and currently lives with Bibi Ayesha, his third wife, who is 64 years old. He has been a refugee three times.

He first became a refugee in 1978, when the Tatmadaw – the Myanmar armed forces – conducted an operation called Naga Min [Dragon King], targeting the Rohingya through the confiscation of possessions, destruction of villages and desecration of mosques. Between the 6th of February and the 31st of July 1978, it is estimated 250,000 fled to Bangladesh, including Jalil and his family who lived in a temporary makeshift camp in Kutupalong for about eight months, until they were repatriated along with 180,000 Rohingya refugees.

The second time Jalil became a refugee was in 1991, when operation Phi Thaya [Clean and Beautiful Nation] was launched by the Tatmadaw resulted in killings, rape, arbitrary arrests and the burning of Rohingya villages. 250,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Bangladesh. Three years later about 150,000 Rohingya refugees, including Jalil’s family, were repatriated to Myanmar. An estimated 35,000 Rohingya stayed and currently live in the registered refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Once again in 2017, Jalil was forced to flee to Bangladesh with his family when the Tatmadaw perpetrated one of the worst genocides in recent history. An estimated 725,000 Rohingya refugees were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh. Jalil has since been living in the refugee camp under crowded conditions, without freedom of movement or the most basic human rights, deprived of access to a healthy environment and to nature. He is living with a single hope, to go back to Myanmar before he dies. “My eyes are dying to see my homeland once again. I want to die in my own country.” – Md Jalil. © Hujjat Ullah

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