Bringing a face to the global refugee crisis
by Alexander Huang-Menders
As a young student, I look upon the state of human rights today with a sense of bewilderment: I often wonder how other human beings can be treated so poorly and with such little empathy. Unfortunately, we have seen around the world certain political leaders dehumanize and animalize refugees to justify their actions and further their agendas. In my home country, for instance, the Trump administration has advanced a rhetoric that refers to refugees as “thugs” and “animals.” This hostile language, which relegates refugees to a bestial persona, gives leeway to dehumanizing innocent individuals fleeing violence in search of safe asylum.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, similar problems have risen as the influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria and a number of other countries continue to overwhelm countries in the Mediterranean. Although COVID-19 has dominated much of the news cycle in recent months, the refugee crisis persists, even if the public has shifted its attention elsewhere.
In the beginning of 2020, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he was opening up his nation’s borders to allow the unrestricted flow of refugees into Europe. As a bargaining strategy, the chaos that Erdogan allowed for several tense days enabled him to re-negotiate terms with the EU on Turkey’s hosting of refugees.
Displaced men, women and children who crossed land and ocean borders into Greece were met with resistance. Greek Coastguard officers clashed with the migrants, pushing back, sometimes violently to stop refugees from coming ashore, a meaningfully different reaction from the heroism I witnessed by the Greek authorities and the Hellenic Coast Guard during my work in 2018.
I had traveled to Greece to document the refugee crisis in Athens and Chios island as part of my family’s The Power of Faces portrait project. In 2017, we launched our project in Chios, one of Greece’s easternmost islands located about 5 miles away from Turkey, and a hotspot for refugee boat landings. Through this project, we endeavor to put a human face to the refugee crisis. We created a makeshift portrait studio ‒ hanging a brightly-colored backdrop against a chain link fence or against a shipping container ‒ and took studio portraits of individuals, families, or groups of friends detained in Chios’s Souda and Vial refugee camps.
Our goal is to add constructively to the conversation about who or “what” a refugee is by separating the concept of a human being from the emotional, reactive “disaster porn” that sometimes saturates the news. Simply put, we seek to show individuals with their inherent beauty, courage, dignity, and grace. We not only “take” photos but we also give printed portraits to the individuals. We realized that most refugees had lost all their personal possessions when they fled their homelands, including their treasured family photographs. Having a printed photo of loved ones or friends to hold in one’s hands can be a great comfort in times of need. So our team brings portable printers into the camps and provides photo-quality portraits for people to keep. To date, we have distributed thousands of photographs to the individuals we have met in camps in Greece, Turkey, Mexico and Bangladesh.
Working in the refugee camps often presented its own particular challenges. Things did not always go according to plan and we often needed to improvise. For example, at Vial in 2018, authorities denied us access into the camp, in accordance with their longstanding policy to outsiders. The local police went so far as to warn us that if we photographed the camp or its facilities, we would be arrested immediately. They did inform us, however, that they had no jurisdiction over what we did outside camp boundaries. So we set up our makeshift studio in a dusty hillside directly across the street from the main gates. We stretched our bright purple backdrop between a tree and a utility pole, and draped our orange backdrop over a tall bush.
Another particularly challenging aspect of running this project at the camps was crowd control. We had to devise an organizational system that would allow us to photograph hundreds of people every day. An air of excitement, anticipation, and energy surrounded each of our working sessions, especially given the newness of the activity in contrast to the doldrums of daily affairs. Ultimately, we designed a queue system, using numbered tickets to manage the line at any given time and to make the experience as pleasant as possible for all individuals. We set up multiple staging areas — one to take numbers, another to wait in a queue, another to pose for photos, and yet another to receive printed photos — by running a simple spool of string to mark the boundaries.
Standing in a barren field, the hot Mediterranean sun bore down mercilessly. Yet, the crowds were patient, polite, and understanding as we worked to serve as many people as possible each day, even allowing us to make exceptions to the numbered queue when a lone mother with children would ask for a portrait.
When I spoke to refugees my age, I was particularly disheartened to hear their feelings about the odds being stacked so heavily against them. While traveling across countries or living in refugee camps, many have lost access to educational opportunities for years at a time. Despite any passions and aspirations these young people might have, many still felt that they would face countless, difficult challenges. Even if they were able to settle in a country of asylum, many shared concerns about facing language barriers, xenophobia, and uncertainty as policies concerning welcoming refugees change with fickle administrations.
Although the situations can be disheartening, we can never lose track of the inherent humanity within every person and our power as individuals to not only share compassion, but also to act to meaningfully touch the lives of others.
More information may be found at www.ThePowerOfFaces.com.
Alexander Huang-Menders is a documentary photographer, independent advocate and high school student. He resides in Princeton, New Jersey and attends The Pennington School in Pennington, New Jersey. Please note that the individuals in the photos we share have given their approval for us to publish their images.