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Photo exhibition sheds light on refugee crisis

Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, September 20, 2018  /  09:51 am
Photo exhibition sheds light on refugee crisis

Victim of war: A young Syrian Kurdish girl stares at the camera from a school tent in the Arbat refugee camp, located in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. Children are the most vulnerable victims of war, as most suffer severe mental and physical damage (Iraq, 2014). (Courtesy of Aleix Oriol Vergés/-)

A photography exhibition, “The Refugee Crisis — A Global Issue” by Aleix Oriol Vergés, brashly communicates the incredibly harsh, inhumane conditions that force the refugees to leave their lives behind, hopefully for a better one.

“I would like to think each of my images tell a story on its own. The final goal is to make the audience identify the refugees, to see them as real people, not only a statistic or a threat to the ‘Western way of life’,” Vergés says.

This isn’t something that everyone in the countries the refugees are fleeing to aware of (or want to be aware of). But the incredible emotionality of Vergés’ photos make it impossible not to be emotional.

“There is a lot of prejudice and misinformation about the refugees in Europe, so I basically try to tell people the truth: The refugees leave their homelands because that’s their only option to survive.”

The exhibition, which takes place at Bali’s Rumah Sanur from Sept. 13 until Oct. 4, comes in two parts — with the first focuses on the conditions of Afghan refugees stuck in Indonesia as a result of their failed attempt to reach Australia through the hands of smugglers.

The second part looks at the liberation of the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane, which is located in the Northeastern part of the country.

The Barcelona-born photographer kick-started his passion for taking pictures in the early 2000s, coinciding with his interest in traveling.

Having initially focused on travel photography, Vergés organically gravitated toward photojournalism, putting plenty of on-the-ground focus onto the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

Reality bites: Syrian Kurds gather around a fire in the city of Kobane. After the liberation, most houses were left without electricity or running water and food was also hard to find (March 2015).Reality bites: Syrian Kurds gather around a fire in the city of Kobane. After the liberation, most houses were left without electricity or running water and food was also hard to find (March 2015). (Courtesy of Aleix Oriol Vergés/-)

“It all started with a trip I took to Iran and Iraq,” Vergés recalls of his early introduction towards the refugee issue.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, Vergés visited several refugee camps that sheltered thousands of Syrian refugees who were fleeing the war that was occurring in their homeland. He realized he could somehow contribute to helping more people be aware of the issue with his camera.

“That was the moment when I thought I could use my voice as a photographer and writer to raise awareness about the refugee problem. I think it’s my responsibility as a visual storyteller. Since that time, in 2015, I have traveled all over the Middle East and Europe to document the situation of refugees to make the audience open their eyes about this global issue,” Vergés recalled.

For the viewer, Vergés hopes that they are able to identify with the life displayed in pictures and “feel the refugees” reality, their everyday life, the fact they live a tough life but also showing that no matter what they are resilient and determined people, doing whatever they can to survive and to take care of their families.”

Many of Vergés’ photos garner their weight through the proximity of the realities and the people in it. It is difficult to look away as the subjects brim with so much life. This certainly has a lot to do with how Vergés captures his subjects.

“In my opinion, you have to get close to the subject if you want the image to be powerful and meaningful. That means spending a lot of time with them, getting to know them and make them feel comfortable so you can capture their true essence. I think that’s what really gets to the heart of the viewer,” he explains.

Right there: Photographer Aleix Oriol Vergés poses with refugee children in Idomeni, Greece, where many refugees tried to cross the border into Macedonia ( 2016 ).Right there: Photographer Aleix Oriol Vergés poses with refugee children in Idomeni, Greece, where many refugees tried to cross the border into Macedonia ( 2016 ). (Courtesy of Aleix Oriol Vergés/-)

Having such experiences, it is impossible that Vergés hasn’t been affected in some way. This sense of changing perspective and perception is something that his photos evoke strongly. He calls it “a humbling experience” and “an opportunity to share time with people who are incredibly strong and resilient, no matter how hard their life is”.

There is an appreciation of life that far-more privileged people sometimes even lack.

“That’s what I learned from them, to persevere and to enjoy the little things in life. I am still struggling with that, of course.”

Though there is an obvious feeling of sadness in these photos, there is indeed those awe-inspiring glimmers of joy. It is heart-rending and captures a wealth of emotions.

“I think the key is to capture whatever they are feeling in the moment. If they are sad, let’s tell it like it is. But let’s not only capture those moments, let’s also tell the audience that they refugees, as any other human being, experience moments of joy, happiness and fulfilment.”

For Vergés, it is about presenting that balance of humanity — to showcase a range of being instead relying solely on the dramatics of tragedy.

“I don’t particularly care for visual storytellers who only capture the negative or sad side of a situation, I think it’s biased. I don’t wait for the momentum, I just spend time with them and capture whatever they feel they can share with me,” he says, continuing that his “position is always as on observer, but also someone who creates a bond with the subject, without that I think the image will be empty of feeling and emotion”.

Vergés understands the situation is “grim” and complicated — with little possibility of changing soon. But he wants to retain an optimism that building awareness will lead towards some kind of change.

Throughout history there have been endless migratory and refugee crisis —World War II, Rwanda, Sudan, and others.

“But I think nowadays the coverage of the current crisis is broader thanks to the use of social media to broadcast the events in real time. I think that’s the main difference with previous crisis, but unfortunately we don’t seem to learn from previous mistakes,” he says.

In his opinion, he said there is need for a more serious commitment from governments to address the root causes of these migratory fluxes, which are mainly caused by armed conflicts — fueled by colonialism, sectarian violence and the intrusion of Western superpowers in the sovereignty of other countries.

“So, for me, even if the situation is grim it’s in our hands to change things by demanding our governments to take real action and put an end to these stagnant conflicts.”