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Live, Love, Refugee: Changing Stereotypical Imaging of Refugees in the Media

In honour of World Refugee Day, which takes place on June 20th 2019, this week’s Photogenie theme is titled 'Free to Flee'. Through visual stories, our curators research the question “How is the humanitarian refugee crisis being visualised?”. On June 15th the Nacht van de Vluchteling takes place. We’ll walk it, you too? For more information please visit www.nachtvandevluchteling.nl

We are currently experiencing the largest humanitarian refugee crisis since World War II. According to Stichting Vluchteling (The Dutch Refugee Foundation), 68.5 million people around the world are fleeing conflict and war. Within this record amount of refugees, about 11 million are Syrian.

Media organisations around the world document the refugee crisis, often in a stereotypical way. In many cases, refugees are portrayed in a certain manner to reach a certain goal through the onlookers: empathy and the will to support. If people send aid, the photographs have done their job, but how do refugees themselves think of the way they are represented around the world?

Photographer Omar Imam had to flee Damascus in 2012 with his family. While living in Lebanon, he started a project focused on the refugee crisis, which he experienced himself, by creating a surrealistic photo series based on dreams and nightmares of refugees. He travelled down to the refugee camps in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where he collaborated with refugees to visualize their stories in an emotional interplay of light and dark - humour and roughness. Love, Live, Refugee examines how the relations, personalities, and dreams of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are affected by displacement, pain, and desire when surviving in a new country.

In an interview for Bright Magazine, Imam elaborates on the changing image of the refugee crisis: ‘As Syrians, we uploaded millions of photos and videos in the past 6 years, but they are the same five or six images: the fighter, the politician, the bloody boy, the refugee in the mud and people on rubber boats…We’re endlessly repeating the same images. These images give the impression that refugees have no education, no money, anonymous abstract backgrounds. [...] There is a will to change [these] stereotypes. Institutions and organizations that usually take the lead in photojournalism and documentary photography feel the need for this. I was happy to break that pattern and to collaborate with refugees to come up with a different narrative.’ - Omar Imam in Bright Magazine, December 2018.

While creating the alternative storyline of the refugee crisis, Omar Imam strives for something more personal than documentary photography: he captures personalities and dreams. He doesn’t want to add to the mass visualisation of the harrowing circumstances in refugee camps but to create a new perspective. A brave and confronting way to visualize the lives of people who have to flee their homes. Photographing someone else gives the photographer the power of the narrative. Refugees don’t have a voice in the way they are represented in big media, and often find themselves portrayed as a victim, refugee, as part of the ‘stream’ and not as an individual human being. On the other hand, it is necessary to be photographed because it can result in more aid. Camps that are accessible to press enjoy larger amounts of aid than small camps that aren'. This paradoxical need for photography and simultaneous dislike of the narrative creates a continuous tension around photography in refugee camps.

Imam understands that there should be more collaboration and respect in the communication of refugee’s stories. By collaborating with them in a manner through which they can tell their own story and compose their portraits, the photographed subject is empowered. In the beginning, Imam had some trouble establishing this new narrative, since refugees themselves sometimes think in the stereotypical framework as well: ‘I was concerned that stereotypical images of refugees work in a loop, with refugees themselves giving the press what is expected from them. The foreign photographers come with their blonde hair and good cameras and show empathy, while the other side shows victimization. It happened to me when I went to the refugee camps. On the first visit, people only wanted to show me how unfair their circumstances were, but when I told them I wasn’t looking for another story about victimization, they understood. People recognized and enjoyed creating images about dignity, about inspiration, while being realistic and not ignoring the difficulty of their circumstances. I hope I managed to show both.’ – Omar Imam in Bright Magazine, December 2018.

The collaboration resulted in a series of surrealistic photos that show the personalities, dreams, and hopes of refugees in the refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Following along the lines of Tim Hetherington’s ‘The Sleeping Soldier’, Imam tries to redefine visual storytelling of conflict and crisis. Hetherington tried to do the same in the Libyan uprising in 2011, where he died while covering this new visual path. After Hetherington’s death, the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award was created to continue pursuing new narratives in visual storytelling. Imam became a recipient in 2017.

About the Artist: Omar Imam was born in Damascus in 1979 and fled Syria together with his family in 2012. He is currently living and working in Amsterdam and is part of the Rijksakademie Artists. After Live, Love, Refugee, Imam started working on the series Syrialism about Syrians living in Europe and he started a new project in 2019 about the way the Dutch perceive the Muslim community.

Check out his full body of work on Instagram @omar.imam.4 and his website at http://www.omarimam.com/

If you want to read the whole interview with Omar Imam on Bright Magazine, click here.

Do you want to help? Check out the article on the Night of the Refugee to see what you can do to support people seeking asylum around the world.

Let us know what you think in the comments! Our weekly themes always include three photo series by different photographers.

Are you interested and do you want to stay posted? Make sure to follow us on Instagram @wearecurators.

Written by Myrthe Peek

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