Spring 1994 (2.1)

Refugee Self Portraits
An Analysis

by Betty Blair

As our staff started preparing this issue about "Refugees" and making plans to go to Azerbaijan in October, we worried about bringing back stereotypical shots of distraught refugees standing around staring blank-eyed into our cameras. (See: "Self-Portraits: Refugees Portray Their Own World", AI 5.1, Spring, 1997) After all, our theme was a subject many people, particularly in the United States, had "turned off" and "tuned out"-the plight of the homeless that we see all around us on our streets, in our newspapers, magazines, and on television. How could we capture a wide range of their experiences, when we knew we wouldn't be able to stay very long in the camps?

And if we couldn't get good photos, who could? Would the refugees themselves be able to? What if we could find a way to put them in complete control to decide what they wanted to show the world about their daily experiences? Would there be a different set of dynamics at work when people whom they knew, trusted, and with whom they had shared so many difficult days, took the photos?

We decided to try it. And so it was, we loaded up with "disposable cameras"-Fuji's "Outdoor QuickSnap", 35 mm, 27 exposures and headed off for Baku. (Fuji has the only color processing lab in Baku.)

When we arrived, some Azerbaijanis expressed doubts that our project would work. "The refugees will sell the cameras. They'll disappear," they warned us. We decided to take the risk. Actually, the opposite turned out to be true. On the third day after we had distributed the cameras, when we arrived later than hour promised to pick the cameras up, the refugees worried that we had forgotten them. Needless to say, every single camera was returned and the rapport that we developed is a story in itself which will never be forgotten.

Actually, we didn't realize how rare it is for Azerbaijanis to own cameras. Photos are quite rare and, therefore, highly prized. And it was to these people who, perhaps, had never before in their lives even held a camera in their hands that we entrusted our project.

The following pages, entitled "Self Portraits" are the work of five refugee "photographers"-two men, Farhad and Bakhshayesh, and three women, Rahela, Farida, and Yegany, in three different locations near Barda-in a forest, an open field alongside a highway, and amidst some boxcars parked on a railyard siding.

Most of the refugees living in this central region of Azerbaijan had escaped from the city of Agdam three months earlier (July). For many of them, Barda was not the first place they had settled when they fled their homes; some had been wandering in the region for the past two years.

Barda's population under ordinary circumstances is 125,000. Now 90,000 more people have flooded into the region. Resources and support services are incredibly stretched. The newcomers have settled any where they think life can sustain them-in buildings such as hostels, schools, orphanages and, now, in open fields, forests and box cars. Tragically, it may not be their last move.

Even now as I write this article the last days of December, Armenian forces have begun their attack on Barda. If they succeed as they have in so many regions so often in the past, displacement of 200,000 people will be absolutely catastrophic.

The Results

When all the cameras were collected, film processed and photos studied and compared, we began to see patterns emerge that are significant to understanding the conditions under which refugees are surviving these incredible circumstances. Apart from the perceptive glimpse of their lives that they show us, here are a few of the patterns we identified:

1 The Importance of Kinship and Friendship. One of the most revealing characteristics of these photos is the very strong relationships which they display, both via kinship or friendship. A great deal of affection is evident in the photos-the proximity of people to each other. The fear, uncertainty and mental distancing that are so typical in photos of refugees has been replaced by an aura of love and trust. Kinship and friendship is the absolute basis upon which survival depends, not only for the acquisition of daily needs, but for the mental stamina and daily decisions that must be made.

2 Ratio of women and children to men. We distributed the cameras equally between men and women, yet, the majority of photos show women and children. Comparatively speaking, there are far more women in the camps than men. The men are at war, have been taken hostage, killed, or died of heart attacks or trying to find work.

In terms of family size, the national average in Azerbaijan is about four children per family though Baku families stop at one or two. In the countryside, families of seven, eight, and nine children are not uncommon. Statistics show that one out of ten refugees is a child under the age of five. The frequency of photos of children also show how central children are in these peoples' lives.

3 Differentiation of labor by gender. Even under these unusual circumstances, it is still the women who are intensely burdened with necessities of living-the preparation of food, gathering of water, rearing children, cleaning. While the women were constantly busy, men often told us they had "nothing to do." (Of course, "nothing" might have meant salaried tasks).

4 Life outdoors. These photos were taken in October when it was still "sweater weather". But as the tents often provided so little space except for sleeping, much of the food preparation took place outside. The winter will add its own complications of having to carry on so many of these tasks inside those cramped living spaces.

5 Theme Repetition. Ideas that are repeated over and over in the photos indicate the importance of that issue. That's exactly what we found with the trains where 20% of the shots in that bleak landscape dealt with photos of people stooping under box cars. In order to get to their only source of water, refugees had to bend under trains on five sidings. Obviously, carrying heavy buckets of water was not viewed as an easy task.

In summary, these Self Portraits taken collectively show the vitality, self dignity, ingenuity, generosity and humanity of these people. Their portrayal urges us to re-examine our concept of refugees, not to view them as pathetic, unkempt, dirty, ignorant, helpless creatures that are to be pitied but as human beings, just like you and me, who just happen to be trapped in a set of tragic circumstances, which, hopefully, will end soon.

From Azerbaijan International (2.1) Spring 1994.

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