The camera of a budget smartphone has become a way for many of the Rohingya stuck in Bangladesh’s refugee camps to tell their own stories, capturing photos of their lives in the camps, which became the world’s largest when 700,000 people fled the Myanmar military five years ago, joining 300,000 who had already sought refuge across the border.
These photographers, who are all under 30, are building a record of the culture and traditions they fear could be lost so far from home, and have sharpened their skills during floods and fires and other all too frequent moments of crisis.
Their photographs have featured in international media and photography competitions. Sahat Zia Hero, one of an increasing numbers of Rohingya photographers, last year published a book of his own work called Rohingyatography and has followed it up by helping set up a magazine that publishes the photos of others he meets in the camps.
Until 2012, I studied at Sittwe University in Rakhine state. I had to apply for papers and permits from the government to show at checkpoints where they only searched Muslims. Even at the university, I was discriminated against by students and even teachers. They hated us Rohingya.
When the riots happened, the violence meant no more education for Rohingya. As I returned to my village, I was detained for three days and beaten by police. I didn’t leave after that. I supported my father by fishing, but I also bought a smartphone and computer and this was when I started my photography. They were illegal for us to own, but I used them in the jungle, learning about them from YouTube videos I streamed using Bangladeshi internet service on the border.
We are refugees because of a genocide by the military, and now a million Rohingya people live in refugee camps. Our objective is to highlight our crisis, to show the international community that genocide and persecution is still going on even without publicity.
Living in the camps is difficult, especially without education and freedom of movement. The camps are crowded. Nowhere is safe for the Rohingya right now.
The Covid-19 lockdown meant international journalists stopped coming to the camps, but this encouraged Rohingya photographers to tell their own stories. Taking and sharing photos feels like a duty to my people, a way to use my passion for their betterment. It’s the best language – it speaks more than words and shows the reality. I want the world to see the Rohingya people as human beings, just like everyone else, with our hopes and dreams, sadness, happiness and grief.
Find Zia on Instagram @ziahero
I’d never touched a smartphone until I passed my school exams in 2017. My brother gave me a smartphone to call my sister in Malaysia, but I thought why not start capturing some memories and moments and the beauty of my surroundings. I could keep them inside my phone as history for future generations. Instead, only a few months later we had to leave our home because of the military’s attacks and I took more photos as we escaped through the jungle.
Now I take photographs because it gives me joy – it can swing my mood from sadness to happiness. If I ever feel depressed or anxious, I pick up my camera, because in that moment of taking the photo, I am focused totally on that subject and not on my depression. I can’t really express the delight I feel when sharing those photos with others, especially when they appreciate them.
I take photos of whatever takes my interest – it doesn’t matter if it’s animals, human, nature, foods or something else; I just take the photo. Whatever my eye sees, so does my camera.
Find Ishrat on Twitter: @IshratForiImran
Rohingya lifestyle, our cultural traditions from Myanmar, and our creativity – I wanted to capture that, so that’s why I started taking photos and videos from inside the refugee camps. It’s my passion to tell the world about our lifestyle, so wherever I go in the camps, I use my phone to take pictures.
I take photos of Rohingya children, shelters, artworks, flowers, cultural traditions and also of the crises we face in the camps, like landslides, flooding and fires. Though a few other Rohingya don’t like their photos being taken for their privacy, most are really interested in photography and what we’re doing by sharing it with the world.
I’m a genocide survivor. I live with my family and we have suffered without freedom, surviving an uncertain future for almost five years in refugee camps after already facing decades of discrimination and violence in Myanmar.
People aren’t always able to express their feelings, and photography takes courage, but this is our documentary of the crisis we face in these camps.
Find Yassin on Instagram @ro_yassin_abdumonab
Photography helps us let people know how we suffer. I take photos of people who are still suffering as they live a life of refuge here. I take photos because I think they can help others understand the subjects of those photos and what they desire.
It makes me happy to take photos, and when I want to raise an issue faced by my community, I always choose taking photos over writing because it has a stronger impact on the viewers.
Find Ro Anamul on Instagram @roanamul_hasan
I don’t remember exactly why I got into photography but I loved it from a very young age, though I only started in 2017, with a small mobile phone. I’ve even started making short films as well.
I love taking photos and do it as often as I can, especially of nature and on the street, but I have to be careful because of the rules inside the camp – I don’t always feel secure taking photographs here. Most people encourage me, though the reaction is mixed and some wonder whether it has any use for me in building a career.
These pictures capture memories and testimony, and record our lives for decades and eras to come. A special image can help to ease chaos and reveal the unknown. It helps me mentally and also economically, and I can use it to truly capture our society. I think these photos will be part of our history.
Find Mayyu on Instagram @mayyu_khan
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