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‘Telling our own stories’: Rohingya lives, through a camera lens

‘I take photos of our refugee lives to tell the world how we are surviving.’

Rohingya girls peer through a newly constructed fence in the camps. Some say that the government-built fencing around parts of the refugee camps may have made it harder to escape a March 2021 fire that displaced tens of thousands of people. Omal Khair/TNH
Rohingya girls peer through a newly constructed fence in the camps. Some say that the government-built fencing around parts of the refugee camps may have made it harder to escape a March 2021 fire that displaced tens of thousands of people.

Rohingya in Bangladesh’s vast refugee camps are documenting their lives through a camera lens – capturing snapshots of daily joys or growing hardships in a prolonged crisis.

Generations of Rohingya have fled persecution in their homeland of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, including the 2017 military crackdowns that pushed 700,000 people into the crowded camps in southern Bangladesh, and which Rohingya and rights groups say amounted to genocide

After years of having their voices filtered through visiting journalists, Rohingya are using smartphone cameras and social media to tell their own stories from inside packed settlements now home to nearly one million people.

“The world does not know what is really happening in the Rohingya camps,” said photographer Mainul Islam, whose family fled Myanmar shortly before his birth in 1994. “They know some bad things have happened, but the world does not understand our world after genocide.”

Outside Bangladesh, media coverage of the refugee crisis has faded over time, especially as coronavirus lockdowns made international travel and access to the camps harder. But Islam and dozens of other Rohingya photography enthusiasts have intervened.

Mostly using smartphone cameras, they have documented life in refugee camps during the pandemic, been the first to cover unfolding disasters like floods and fires, and shared cultural stories that shed light on Rohingya lives beyond their tragedies.

Photographer: Mainul Islam

Their main tools are platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where they directly reach distant audiences with photographs of daily life: children at play; adults at work; weddings; or rare glimpses of the camps at night, when outsiders are not allowed to enter. 

Yassin Abdumonab, 29, has filed photos for international media organisations, including during breaking news events like the massive March fires that levelled parts of the camps and displaced tens of thousands, or floods and landslides that swept through months later. His photos chronicling the disasters were carried by Reuters, and published in media including CNN, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The New Humanitarian.

“It feels really good to be doing my own work, to see my own photos on the news, on the TV,” Abdumonab said. “I feel proud that I’m a Rohingya and getting a chance to do the stories of my own people.”

Other Rohingya use photography as a way of documenting their frustrations in the face of mounting pressure from government authorities. Previously, a nascent civil society movement frequently spoke out against policies it feared would endanger refugees, such as new identity cards, proposed repatriations to Myanmar, or relocation to the controversial Bhasan Char island camp. Activists say they have felt pressure to stay quiet since August 2019, when authorities were angered by a failed repatriation attempt. Instead, many now use their photos to show camp conditions, which have deteriorated over the course of pandemic lockdowns and severe monsoon seasons.

Photographer: Dil Kayas

The vast majority of Rohingya photographers are men, who have greater freedom to move within the camps. Many families hold conservative attitudes about girls leaving the home, or worry that the camps are unsafe for women in particular.

Dil Kayas, 28, said women photographers like her have an important role beyond documenting the difficulties of camp life: they help create a record of cultural life, because they have more access to the spaces where children are cared for and food is made. 

Rohingya were denied an identity in their Myanmar homeland. Photography, Kayas believes, can help ensure that parts of Rohingya culture are not forgotten. 

“For example, luri fira is a Rohingya traditional snack. Someone from outside can’t quickly understand how much the snack is important [to consider photographing it],” said Kayas, describing a rice flour flatbread that Rohingya enjoy with meals, and that gives many a sense of home.

“Some people ask me why I take photos. My reply to them is that I take photos of our refugee lives to tell the world how we are surviving here.”

Learning the trade

For years, a lack of equipment and formal training made it difficult for Rohingya to cultivate their photography skills. Most make do with their phones, including Islam.

He calls himself a street photographer, posting black-and-white snapshots to his Twitter account and offering a glimpse of life beyond what visiting photographers may see.

“We are here 24 hours. We feel what is going on. Do foreigners feel what is going on? Maybe a few,” he said. “We can take photos that outside photographers can not.”

Several photographers, including Islam, have honed their skills with the help of people outside the camps.

Photographer: Yassin Abdumonab

Shafiur Rahman, a UK-based documentary maker who runs a photography competition and an art zine featuring Rohingya photographers and artists, said he has seen Rohingya participants evolve from enthusiasts to capable photographers and storytellers, able to provide images to news agencies and NGOs, or combine their images with text.

Abdumonab, a former participant, started working with visiting journalists on his own. A student who had been unable to complete his degree because of military restrictions in Myanmar, he arrived in Bangladesh after a military crackdown in October 2016, and saw his family follow as part of the exodus that came months later. 

It was then that he began working with the foreign journalists who arrived to cover the refugee crisis. At first, he played a supporting role, doing the legwork on arranging and translating interviews. 

He started concentrating on his own photography more seriously last year, when coronavirus restrictions shut down international travel and put the camps on lockdown.

Kayas and Omal Khair, 21, got their starts through a media fellowship created by rights group Fortify Rights in 2018, not long after they arrived in Bangladesh.

Reflected in their work is the greater access they have to women’s spaces. Khair, who lives with her parents and siblings in a bamboo shelter, said she has been able to cover sensitive issues like gender-based violence because women are more comfortable with her than with Rohingya men. Male family members are also more open to them sharing their stories with women than with male strangers, she added.

Photographer: Omal Khair

“The Rohingya community should have more women photographers, and also women to write their stories, emotions, challenges,” Khair said. “Only female photographers can do this. Women listen to women. They feel safe and comfortable to express their difficulties and challenges.” 

In Myanmar, Abdumonab was interested in photography but never had the chance to develop his skills. As a refugee in Bangladesh, he plans to continue documenting his community’s stories.

“There are so many traumatised people, and in the camps everyone has their own story to tell,” he said. “I think it’s good that now Rohingya are telling our own stories. If there is no one else, we have to tell the stories, because if we don’t, then these people will be forgotten.”

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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