picture by Hoda Afshar
This is Hoda Afshar's portrait of Behrouz Boochani, a writer turned refugee living a half-life on the Pacific Island of Nahru won the Bowness Prize in Australia.
This what Afshar said about the portrait.
“I sent this portrait to Behrouz after I returned from Manus in April 2018, and called him. I said, ‘This is you, Behrouz, with your passion, your fire, and your writer’s hands. It symbolises your resistance.’ He heard this, and paused. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘But I do not see myself in this picture. I only see a refugee. Someone whose identity has been taken from him. A bare life, standing there beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.’ He fell silent, then said, ‘This image scares me.’”
That idea of a picture scaring the subject is so poignant. That fear is not because of the camera but because of what has been done to the man by his confinement on an island with no hope, because of a policy that treats people as less than human.
You don't often get to read the reactions of people to how they are photographed (Larry Sultan's father springs to mind here) and perhaps that's not a bad thing. Here Boochani's response adds to the image, to the spectacle of the image. And it is a spectacle, it is theatre - of fear, of terror, of despair.
You can read more about Manus, and about Behrouz Boochani's writing on the island (written on a mobile phone). Here is a snippet..
Refugees are not angels and are not devils. Both ideas of refugees come from the same framework, and it is a dehumanising one … In Western culture, there is a deep desire to see refugees ... devoid of complexity. What I am saying is that there are two main discourses around refugees: as terrorists and dangerous people - an overtly racist representation - and a romantic image that many refugee supporters construct and perpetuate. I hope that my book confronts this.
And this is Afshar's very moving acceptance speech. There is no room for ambiguity.
2018 Bowness Photography Prize acceptance speech by Hoda Afshar
"In March this year, I travelled to Manus Island, where today nearly 600 asylum seekers remain
after having spent four grueling years in an Australian government detention centre.
I spent a week there with some of the most gentle, and fragile men I have ever met. Men who
made the decision to flee war or other circumstances in their country, to seek a better life, but
instead found themselves on Manus, stripped of those rights which, more and more, we regard as
the privilege of citizens, just because they were born into a world of unequal geographies.
Behrouz was one of them. But in one sense at least, he is a bit different from the rest. His training
as a journalist taught him the power of communication, and his tireless efforts to get the news out
has given him a kind of resolve, and purpose.
I got to know his circle of friends, too—a group of Kurdish men who share a language, and an
experience of stateless-ness that binds them as a community.
They have each other, at least, and the fact that we grew up in the same country, speaking the
same language, meant that we could work together more easily.
But I met other men, too. Men who lacked even those fragile bonds. And I would struggle to tell
you in words just how broken they are. Each day, they retreat further and further into a darkness
which they lack the will, much less the words, to communicate.
We are not islands. We are social beings, and all of us depend for our well-being on the safety
and bonds of a community. But in the last decade, we have been made to think that men and
women like those on Manus and Nauru represent a threat to the sanctity of our own community.
We have been told that, in order prevent the loss of lives, it is necessary to sacrifice a few; that
we should be careful not to care too much. We have watched politicians invent monsters for the
sake of convincing us of the need for stronger borders.
But I was born in Iran at a time when a terrible war was being waged on the border with another
nation, so I know what it feels like to live in fear because the enemy is waiting at the city gates; to
be told to hide in the basement because the planes are overhead. Here in Australia, we have been
made to believe that the men and women we have placed in offshore prisons represent a coming
threat like that. But they do not.
This is not just about Australia. This is about a new world that we are seeing come into being
before our eyes—a world in which the defense of borders depends on the drawing of new lines
between the included and the excluded. Between citizens and bare lives.
But these are very dangerous times, for what is being redrawn here are the limits of our human
community. And the very fragility of those shifting lines means that, one day, any one of us
might find ourselves on the outside.
I dedicate this prize to all the men, women and children on Manus and Nauru."