Robin Hammond, Giles Duley and Muhammed Muheisen narrate how photography led them to finding purpose in a special session hosted in Sharjah’s House of Wisdom
History bears witness to the ability of a simple picture in impacting minds and creating lasting change. Taking note of the vital role of the practitioners of this art in turning people’s focus towards pressing global issues, the fifth edition of the Xposure International Photography Festival (Xposure 2021) paid tribute to three acclaimed photojournalists who have been making a difference in the lives of their subjects through their cameras and their activism.
Last night Saturday (February 13th), the three photographers, Robin Hammond, Giles Duley and Muhammed Muheisen, told their stories at a special dinner arranged for all photographers participating in Xposure 2021 at Sharjah’s newest cultural hub, House of Wisdom.
Photography as an advocate of human rights
Award-winning National Geographic Explorer Robin Hammond founded Witness Change, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing human rights through visual storytelling, in 2014. While he continues to work for international magazines and non-profit organisations, his career is dedicated to amplifying narratives of marginalised groups through long-term projects undertaken by his non-profit.
In 2011, on an assignment in South Sudan, he witnessed people with mental health conditions chained and locked up in prisons. “I visited the nearby prison and was shocked to discover dozens of men and women living in the most horrific conditions,” he said.
Hammond resolved to use his camera to document evidence of human rights abuses and make a difference to people with mental health conditions. His work has since led him on a mission to end the abuse and the stigma as he chronicled stories of people with psychosocial, intellectual and cognitive disabilities in 17 countries and refugee camps.
Talking about why he felt the need to push beyond documenting his subjects, Hammond said: “I thought getting the pictures published in newspapers would change things. But it did not. That is when I contemplated starting an organisation that would bring the change in their lives that the photographs could not.”
His collaborations with NGOs have influenced governments, inter-governmental organisations and corporations to put an end to shackling people with mental health conditions. “Today, 80 of the 88 people incarcerated in the prison I first visited have been released,” he said. “That is truly gratifying.”
Photography for better understanding of the human condition
Former fashion and music photographer, Giles Duley, now focuses on the long-term humanitarian impact of conflict to highlight lesser-known stories deserving of public attention and action.
In 2011, Duley lost both legs and his left arm after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan while photographing those caught up in the conflict. He was told he would never walk again and that his career was over.
“The 46 days I spent in intensive care were brutal and deeply traumatic,” he said. But his injuries also allowed him to better connect with some of the subjects of his photography, who had been through terrible experiences themselves.
“After I got injured, it just started a conversation with some people,” Giles reflected.
“A photograph can change a life and it doesn’t even have to be of the people in the image. I remember being contacted by a guy from Australia who was in medical school and said he wanted to become a doctor after seeing my photograph of an injured child in Afghanistan. As a photographer, you can’t change the world, but I hope I can influence the people that can.”
Duley says despite what he has been through personally and documenting many bleak and desperate situations, his work has given him a positive outlook on life. “I try to convey to people that though there are terrible things going on in lots of places, there are also amazing people in these countries. I go to places where people have lost their homes and loved ones to war and I can see hope and positivity from them and I want to bring that message back here.”
Duley is now the founder of the Legacy of War Foundation, a non-profit organisation that documents the impact of conflict. “We go to these places and ask the victims what we can do for them. And we do it. It is as simple as that.”
Photography as a means of giving a voice to the voiceless
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Muhammed Muheisen has been documenting the refugee crisis around the world for over a decade and is founder and chairman of the Dutch non-profit, Everyday Refugees Foundation. He focuses exclusively on documenting the stories of refugees and internally displaced people.
“Nobody leaves their home unless they’re forced to leave their home, and that is what I try to show in my images,” he said. “I show their daily lives and the challenges refugees face. I try to put names and ages because they are not only refugees and numbers, you know. They are people.”
“For me, it is a story of the people,” he says. “We always use the word ‘refugee,’ but behind the word there are people. There are men, and women and children.”
Muheisen mostly focuses on children, because “children are the real victims of conflict. They don’t get to choose where to be born, or the circumstances surrounding them. Children all over are the same, they just want to be happy and have fun."
It is this focus on the everyday, the fact that life goes on and never stops even when caught up in a refugee crisis that led Muheisen to launch the Everyday Refugee Foundation. It focuses on helping refugees and internally-displaced people, whether from war, natural disasters, discrimination, or poverty.
“I share the stories of the daily lives of refugees and people who have been displaced, their struggles, and the little sparks of hope that remain, despite their circumstances,” he concluded.
After the session, the visiting group of photographers was taken on a tour of the iconic 12,000 square metre facility, which was built to commemorate UNESCO’s naming of Sharjah as World Book Capital 2019 – 2020. They were briefed on the various offerings of House of Wisdom (HoW), which is the first-of-its-kind high-tech library and social hub in the region that supports learning, creativity, research and innovation. Xposure’s visitors also saw The Scroll, a striking 36-metre monument that stands close to HoW and was developed by British sculptor Gerry Judah, who interpreted the ancient Arabic scrolls in a modern way.
Xposure 2021 has brought several such gifted and compassionate photographers from around the world to share their inspiring stories with the audience. The 4-day festival concludes today in Sharjah.