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Thursday, 9 September 2010

Alixandra Fazzina - A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia

I was blown away by Alixandra Fazzina's pictures of Somali refugees trying to get to Yemen. Here is a slideshow that show the pictures from her book , A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia. Great music, great pictures but the two absolutely do not go together; a case of the music working against the images.

The words below are from an interview in the August issue of the BJP.

“It’s important to get over that this isn’t a choice, it’s something forced on people,” says Alixandra Fazzina. “Becoming a refugee is one of the most horrible things that can happen to you, especially if it’s the result of conflict. Too often stories on refugees end up being a statistic.”
Allixandra Fazzina has faced death shooting her story – both her own and that of the Somali refugees she’s photographing. Fleeing civil war at home, desperate Somalis are making their way to the Gulf of Aden, where people smugglers wait to take them to Yemen. It’s a journey fraught with danger. Some estimates suggest that only one in 20 of those smuggled make it, the rest falling victim to drowning, exhaustion and the smugglers’ aggression, and Fazzina was not immune to that aggression. “If the militia saw me pointing the camera at them they would fire at my feet; sometimes they would fire at my feet when I arrived just to warn me,” she says.

Fazzina is referring specifically to her project, A Million Shillings, which details the desperate journey Somali refugees take across the Gulf of Aden. But her words could equally apply to the other stories featured here, from Burmese Muslims cut adrift in Bangladesh, to young Afghans reduced to poverty in Greece. Even the comparatively wealthy Westerners forced to leave Dubai deserve sympathy – having staked their fortunes on a dream, many now face ruin. But too often that sympathy is not forthcoming because, as Fazzina also points out, migration has become a dirty word. It’s also a blanket term, covering a broad spectrum of people.
According to the United Nations, a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. Such people don’t automatically become refugees – they must apply for this status. Until it is granted they are asylum seekers; if it is denied and they stay in the country they become illegal aliens. Like the unrecognised Burmese Muslims in Bangladesh, they are denied freedom of movement, permission to work and basic human rights.

“It was incredibly scary. It just takes one militia who’s high and thinks it’s funny, and they were shooting so close of course they could have killed me. Mostly they’re just drunk or they’re chewing khat or they’re on hash and they’re really psyched up. They love firing their guns, it’s a macho thing, and they’ll just shoot randomly at the refugees. I witnessed summary executions on the beaches – refugees who were too scared to get on the boats were told to kneel down and shot there and then. I was told, ‘This is the bad time, you need to go away now’.”
In fact, Somalia is so unsafe that few NGOs venture there, and when Fazzina started the project at the end of 2006 she had little backup. She flew to Bossaso, a coastal town well known for smuggling, with little more than the address of a guesthouse, going straight from the hotel to the UNHCR in order not to compromise its security. From there she was pretty much on her own but, she says, connections were key – other journalists have been killed trying to cover the story. She found a translator who’d worked for the US forces in Mogadishu, whose English was rusty but whose knowledge of the area and its people was invaluable. She also photographed in Yemen, where exiled Somali journalists were able to help her – Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work, and many have fled for their lives.
But Fazzina also worked with the smugglers themselves, both in Bossaso and Djibouti, another popular crossing point, and says she couldn’t have done the story without them. That made her happy she wasn’t directly working with an NGO, as she would have been putting them and their work at risk as well as herself. In Bossaso there are eight main smugglers, known as the “big fish”, and she got to know one called Omar. “I made sure I met him at the end of my first trip, then I got out of town,” she says. “I met him in the town and interviewed him, then he allowed me to go to one of his safe houses, where people wait before making the journey. I told him my story was about the refugees and why people were living this terrible life, and he was very happy to be photographed.
“The next time I went back to Bossaso, I went out to one of the departure points along the coast [with her translator]. We got fired at and then on the way back, on a road controlled by the smugglers, a car started coming towards us. I was very nervous and when it stopped, and armed men got out, I was debating whether to get out of the car or stay in it and hide. Somehow I decided I’d get out, then Omar suddenly appeared out of the truck with his militia, running towards me with his arms open.”
It’s a terrifying story but Fazzina almost laughs as she tells it, out of sheer relief and disbelief. Gaining the bad guys’ trust was essential, she says, and to do so she had to work out how their world was structured. “The smugglers are from different ethnic groups and the refugees generally stick to the smugglers from their clan,” she says. “I worked with the elders of the community and explained what I was doing to them and, although the smugglers are really the warlords, the elders would say to them ‘OK she’s going to do this, if anything happens to her something will happen to you’. I went through the tribal system, working out which vehicle I should be in, which clan my driver should be from.”
Fazzina also got to know people attempting to cross to Yemen, and their heartbreaking stories are told in her book, A Million Shillings. Originally she had hoped to follow one group of refugees from Somalia to Yemen, but she quickly realised this was impossible because so few make it. Of one group of 135 she got to know, just 11 survived. She took pictures of the women waiting to board the smugglers’ boat just a few hours before they died, smiling and laughing into the camera. Those pictures haven’t made it into the book because they were too personal – “I didn’t want the book to be about me,” she explains.
Other images she had to leave out because she couldn’t take them in the first place – because they were too dangerous or because she laid down the camera to help the people she was shooting. She and her translator were the only people on hand on a beach in Yemen when a boat laden with dead and dying refugees landed, for example, and she immediately stopped shooting to pull the dead off the boat and give water and emergency first aid to the weak survivors. “As a human being you have to intervene, although it probably would have been one of the most dramatic images I could have shot,” she says.
Fazzina also shows the bleak reality the refugees face when they arrive in Yemen – housed in impoverished camps, many move on to try their luck elsewhere, in Saudi Arabia or even the UK. She discusses their options in the book but doesn’t pursue them, “or the book would go on forever”. Even so, she ended up with thousands of images and it took her months to edit them into a coherent narrative, plus write the very thorough texts that go with it. She then had to raise the funds to publish the book, persuading the International Office of Immigration to pay for the printing.
The result is both interesting and serious – the format of a novel rather than a usual photobook, it’s the antithesis of the glossy coffee table read. Given the subject matter, it feels appropriate, and Fazzina hopes the format will encourage people to go into both story and her subjects’ lives. “It’s more about the story than the photography, I almost had to put the photography second,” she says. “As a photographer that prioritising doesn’t feel right but the storytelling is really crucially important. The point of the book is to raise awareness – hopefully some good will come of it.”

BJP interview here

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