Photography Ideas

How We Show It: The Refugee Experience

How We Show It: The Refugee Experience

What does it look like to be a refugee? Mahfud Mohamed Lamin, Global Refugee-led Network Mena representative, shares his experience. 

Images have a profound impact on how we see and treat people. They help shape our perceptions and our approach to individuals, but they also impact the policies and decisions made by those with power. 

If you close your eyes right now and think about the refugee experience, a few standard images might come to mind —a crying child, a group of women surrounded by tents looking contemplative, a group of desperate people at a border hoping to be seen and let in.

You probably think about these images because that’s the narrative often reflected in the media. Images and visuals that create a single story of refugees as victims, completely hopeless, and without a voice. Images that impact how people will respond to us and the decisions that they make about us. 

A group of Afghan women and children protesters demanding for refugee status in India

South Sudanese refugee man practices carpentry at a vocational training center in the Kakuma refugee camp
Images via PradeepGaurs and Adriana Mahdalova.

These images have created largely polarizing narratives about refugees. As either a negative impact on culture and security, or a positive addition that brings diversity to society. What is often missing from this narrative is our voice, and, in turn, our agency.

As a leader of the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN)—a network of refugee-led organizations in North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, MENA, and the Asia-Pacific—I am committed to ensuring that refugee voices are at the heart of the narratives about us.

An important piece of including refugee voices is to change how our experiences are visualized. We need to shift from the single focus around events and stereotypical images, to a more continuous focus that showcases our diversity and full experience. 

A group of young Syrian men listening to music on a computer

Syrian female refugees actively participating in a classroom environment

A young child approaches the camera with a flower, his mother in the background of a refugee camp in Greece
Images via Panayotis Tzamaros, ehasdemir, and quetions123.

We Have a Voice, We Have an Agency

As refugees, we are not helpless victims. We’re actively engaged in creating better situations for our families, and are willing and capable of determining our futures.

A recent report by the The Refugee Journalism project showed that by framing refugees as victims, we’re signaling that refugees have nothing to offer, which ignores our contributors and removes us from the decision-making process.

As a child, I remember my mother being extremely active—supporting families and coordinating political, cultural, and educational activities to avoid depending exclusively on international aid.

I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D and actively advocating to change the situation for refugees. Like me, many refugees have been able to do well and organize themselves.

To shift perceptions and narratives, we need more images that showcase refugees on the frontline fighting for our rights and working to secure our own futures. 

Afghan refugee barber cutting a man's hair while donating his time in the shop

Political refugees working on a tailoring of the no-profit association Linea Adele, in Milan

A senior Syrian refugee man works in a field planting crops
Images via Edward Crawford, Paolo Bona, and oussama obeid.

We Experience Joy 

The refugee experience isn’t just sadness, we also experience joy. We are resilient people who have found the courage to leave harmful situations, or to create new experiences when we have been displaced. Yes, there are many sad days, but those are incomplete, and they don’t reflect our full experience.

I remember clearly, in 2015, strong floods destroyed the majority of our terribly vulnerable mud houses in the Saharawi refugee camps, in Tindouf, southwest Algeria. People, including my family, had to go to the hills and set up tents to stay safe.

It was a difficult time. However, we supported each other and even found time to organize cultural and sport events, and time to have fun.

Showcasing our joy adds to our full experience and story that we are resilient and have been able to survive through and after crises. 

Cheerful Syrian refugee friends smiling to the camera

Syrian children at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan acting playful for the camera

Two Ethiopian children having fun playing football at the refugee camp in Sudan
Images via Anas Janahi, Richard Juilliart, and Amors photos.

We Are a Diverse Group of People 

All refugee experiences matter and we need images that highlight the diversity among the group. Let’s not forget that being a refugee is a legal status, not an ideological viewpoint or identity. 

We need more images to tell the stories of those who have been historically left out of the conversation, such as youth, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQI refugees.

We need to raise the visibility and experience of these people to ensure that no one is left out of the conversation. 

A young man practices plumbing at a vocational training center in Kenya

A disabled refugee child waves at the camera while celebrating International Children's Day from his tent in Azaz, Syria

An attractive trans woman from El Salvador wears a blue dress and smiles for the camera from her shelter in the US
Images via Adriana Mahdalova, Mohammad Bash, and David Peinado Romero.

We should use images of refugees that show a fuller range of the refugee experience. Shifting the narrative about us is critical in our fight to have a seat at the table, and to make lasting and inclusive decisions.

If we continue to only use and share images that show us as people without agency, desperate and waiting to be saved, policymakers will continue to treat us this way.

Even worse, well-intended policies will fail as there can’t be any lasting policies without the voices and minds of refugees helping to shape them.

Cover image via quetions123.

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