Abdullah remembers the first Android phone he ever bought, a Symphony-92, in 2012.
An unremarkable phone for most, it was made memorable due to the photos and videos he took of everything in his environment – his favourites were flowers, rice paddies, animals and mountains.
But while the surroundings in which he grew up were scenic, the political context that defined his youth was an ugly one.
“As a Rohingya, I faced discrimination and many restrictions in Myanmar. I grew up wanting to be a photographer and videographer,” said Abdullah, who no longer goes by his full Burmese name.
Despite growing up in Maungdaw township in eastern Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Abdullah now lives in Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp in the world.
Long persecuted in Myanmar for their ethnicity and Muslim religion, in 2017 the Rohingya fled their homes in droves when the national military, known as the Tatmadaw, began a violent crackdown on the minority group. As the million or so Rohingya in the Bangladeshi refugee camps struggle to find opportunity due to their inability to work or leave without permission, the desire for them to tell their story through photography is growing.
Shafiur Rahman, a British documentary filmmaker and journalist who has worked in the Bangladesh camps, told the Globe they’ve been left out of the conversations among organisations and countries over their fate.
“They’re bystanders in their own lives and what’s about to happen to them,” Rahman said. “They’ve been left out, good and proper.”
He’s begun to change that conversation by founding the Rohingya Photography Competition, which officially started in April 2020 with the support of international photographers who were invited to submit their own work. The idea was born from walks Rahman would take around the camps, when refugees would show him pictures they’d taken and ask for feedback. He saw a need to allow the Rohingya themselves to tell their own stories for a larger audience.
“The idea is that really, the best people who can show the world what the situation is should be the Rohingya themselves. This is their lived reality,” Rahman said.
Abdullah’s township in Myanmar was one of the most targeted areas for violence by the military as Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, in what was charged as genocide at the International Court of Justice in December 2019. But even in the camps, Abdullah says without formal education, it will be difficult to provide opportunity for children growing up there.
“The youth who are illiterate don’t have any opportunity to improve themselves in the camp, [but] already these youth have multiple talents and skills – photography, videography, art and drawing, writing poems and stories,” Abdullah said. “But there is no platform in the camp to improve their talents accordingly.”
The stories behind those photos and captions are very important in our camps. By uploading those photos we can express our tradition, manner and history
A total of 1,600 photos poured in from the Rohingya diaspora in India, Malaysia, Germany, Bangladesh, and Rakhine State when the photography competition began, but the vast majority came from refugee camps. Rahman says photographers in the camps sometimes spent hours getting their photos in, given Bangladesh’s restrictions on high-speed internet there, described by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission as a security measure.
Photographers were able to submit up to four photos a month for the duration of the competition, using their own smartphones. Rahman says the award ceremony in August generated a lot of interest, with 2,000 people watching from the camps on Facebook Live. The photos represent life in the camps – both tragic and uplifting circumstances.
Mohammad Salim Khan, who lives in Kutupalong Camp and won second prize in the “Rohingya Life” category, has been able to financially benefit from his talents. He says he’s contributed reflective photos about the camps and has been vocal about the photography campaign.
“The stories behind those photos and captions are very important in our camps. By uploading those photos we can express our tradition, manner and history,” Khan said.
He says he does capture the struggle of refugees, but he’s also moved by thoughtful moments in the camp as well. His parents became refugees in 1991 and he was born in Bangladesh, meaning he’s never seen his family’s village of Pirkhali in Myanmar. He’s also been able to assist visiting foreign photojournalists as a fixer and with translation, learning more about documentary filmmaking and photography in the process.
As enthusiasm among the photographers grew, so did the desire for a deeper form of storytelling. With an upcoming exhibition at the Oxford Human Rights Festival and even a book, there’s an ambition among photographers for more opportunities to tell their stories and share photos. Rahman says it’s a success for these photographers to be able to publish their photos in publications in Italy and the UK, seeing their names in print.
Following the competition, he decided to start producing his own monthly zine – the small, self-published Doc Sabba, which means 10 pages in the Rohingya language.
“At first, some just started off taking photographs. Then, some started telling stories of individuals,” Rahman said.
I had a dream of becoming a photographer because I wanted to prepare myself to represent my nation through photography. There were very few people to express their joys and sorrows
Competition participant Zahangir Alam says photography has allowed him to show the world his culture, but also how the Rohingya have been persecuted for it. He said he considers himself lucky to be able to tell his peoples’ story through Doc Sabba, saying he has learned more about his fellow residents in the camps by photographing them and telling their stories.
Amina Khatun, who fled Myanmar in 2017, is among Alam’s subjects. Her current trade as a tailor has an unexpected backstory for those simply glancing at her photo. Deprived of education and freedom of movement in Myanmar, and also the victim of military violence, she fled to Bangladesh. The move to Bangladesh saved her life, but her lack of access to technical education and opportunity persists due to restrictions on refugees in the camps. She says despite not knowing what her future holds, she’s motivated to learn new skills, like sewing.
Alam was able to share the story of her journey through photos.
“I had a dream of becoming a photographer because I wanted to prepare myself to represent my nation through photography,” Alam told the Globe. “There were very few people to express their joys and sorrows.”
Rahman says that monetising this photography is the next step, made more difficult from occasional unauthorised usage of the Rohingya’s photos by major media outlets – something that the filmmaker highlighted himself in January when Agence France-Presse failed to credit a Rohingya photographer for an image widely distributed on their wire. The photo was later recalled by the organisation after Rahman’s complaint.
The necessity for Rohingya to make a fair wage from their work is especially essential, given the scarcity of opportunities for employment in the camps.
“You’re supposed to just survive, basically, on the rations given to you,” Rahman said.
He’s hopeful that due to entry restrictions into the camps during lockdown, news organisations will see this as an ideal time to begin training up the budding storytellers and photographers in the camps to contribute on a professional level, including wages and coaching. Given the personal risk involved in their coverage, spanning important issues like human trafficking and the controversial relocation of refugees to the remote island of Bhasan Char, backing and training from news agencies on how to best navigate these situations could prove essential in protecting photographers.
The need for that kind of support was sharply underlined in late December, when Rohingya photographer and refugee Abul Kalam was arrested and reportedly beaten by Bangladeshi police for photographing buses relocating refugees to the island. Bangladeshi and international rights organisations called for Kalam’s release, saying that he hadn’t broken the law. He was released in early January.
Such incidents show a clear need for photography in the camps, as do the photos in Doc Sabba and from the competition.
“People around the world don’t know what condition we are living in, how our daily life [is] in the camp and what is our culture and tradition,” Abdullah said. “I can show only through my stories and photos.”
Those interested in working with Rohingya photographers or purchasing photos can get in touch through the Doc Sabba newsletter here.