“Refugees are usually depicted as not having voices or as needing to be spoken for,” says Nathalie Peutz, a professor of anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi who studies migration on the Horn of Africa. In response, Peutz developed a collaborative research project that examined how we communicate the stories of refugees.
Peutz paired up with photographer Nadia Benchallal to give cameras to migrants to document their lives in the Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti. In the course of a year, she and Benchallal visited Markazi four times – the last with 15 students from NYU Abu Dhabi.
Peutz describes an experience at one of the camps that she visited last month with the students. “When we took them to a Somali camp, a guy came up to one of the students and said: ‘You are just taking pictures of us and you are leaving, what are you doing for us?’ The students were a little embarrassed and taken aback, but it’s exactly what I wanted them to hear. What would it be for us to take pictures and take them somewhere else and say we’re helping these people, if they’re not involved in telling their own narrative?”
Peutz and Benchallal, who is French of Algerian origin, focused on the camp of Markazi, where many of refugees had come from Yemen. They say that their unlikely pairing – two women, one Arabic in appearance, the other Arabic-speaking – made them non-threatening to those in the camp and helped establish a feeling of trust. They gave cameras to 10 people in the camp and asked them to document their own lives.
When Benchallal returned a few months later, she led photography workshops and shadowed some of the aspiring photographers, giving them technical advice on shooting and editing, and on how to tell a story visually.
Benchallal, who also took pictures of the migrants, was surprised by how the refugees chose to document their lives. “I never thought of taking a picture of just the inside of the tent, but one of the women wanted to show the packages in the kitchen, how everything is decorated,” she recalls. “These images show that we are here, but just for a moment. We won’t live here for all our life; we don’t want to live here for all our life.
“Another did a story on night, because night is very particular. Electricity comes on around 6.30pm, and only lasts for two or three hours.”