Photo Exhibit in Houston Changes the Narrative on Refugees

"There is no room for dignified depiction of refugees, and they’re not shown as human beings with hopes and plans to go back to normal life."

A father celebrates his family’s safe passage to Lesbos after a stormy crossing over the Aegean Sea from Turkey.  Tom Stoddart

The United States will shut its doors to most refugees on Wednesday, as the nation has just reached the Trump administration’s 50,000-person fiscal year resettlement cap. Meanwhile, a record 65 million people are displaced around the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Numbers like these are sobering, but they only have so much power. In a never-ending news cycle, it’s easy to become numb to the bleak statistics and oft-recycled images of people trudging across borders and crowding onto boats. That’s where “Refugee,” a photo exhibit from the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, comes in. Featuring work from five acclaimed photographers, the show is meant to put a human face on the crisis. This week is your last chance to see the traveling exhibit in Houston, where it’s on display at Silver Street Studios through FotoFest International.

Many photos in “Refugee” show simple scenes from everyday life: a woman cooking at the Say Tha Mar Gyi camp in Myanmar; kids in Puente Nayero, Colombia, playing table soccer with an improvised board. What the images have in common is their emphasis on the individual, a refreshing change for people often described only as a faceless part of a “mass” or “wave.”  Contributing photographer Omar Victor Diop told the New York Times that he deliberately posed his subjects — Central African Republic refugees living in Cameroon — for stylized, formal portraits in order to emphasize their dignity.

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A woman cooks in her family home in Say Tha Mar Gyi, Myanmar. She is married, but her husband left her within the last year to return to his family.  Lynsey Addario

“When you look at all the stories in the press, the refugees, I think it’s very dark,” Diop told the Times. “There is no room for dignified depiction of refugees, and they’re not shown as human beings with hopes and plans to go back to normal life.”

One photo in “Refugee” shows Briali Muhaghgh, from Turkey, hoisting his 8-year-old daughter, Roya, into the air after a successful crossing by boat to Lesbos, Greece. Muhaghgh feared that his wife and three other children, who had crossed on another boat, had drowned, but the family later reunited in Berlin. A pile of life jackets and inner tubes in the background is a reminder of the difficulty of the journey — but it’s a joyful, even victorious moment. Roya looks at something just out of the frame, eyes set firmly on the future.

FotoFest Director Steven Evans and Associate Curator Jennifer Ward will host a guided tour at 2 p.m. on Saturday, the show’s final day in Houston. “Refugee” is headed next to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Rose Cahalan is managing editor at the Observer and also edits the magazine’s arts and culture coverage.

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Published at 4:47 pm CST
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