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Picturing Refugees

How Yemeni Refugees Photographed Their World

As part of our series ‘Picturing Refugees,’ anthropologist Nathalie Peutz and photographer Nadia Benchallal discuss self-representation and the social significance of imagery after working with nine Yemeni refugees to document their lives in Djibouti over a year.

Written by Rebecca Buxton Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Children in Markazi camp reviewing their school notebook. © Nuha Nasr Mohsen

Yemen’s refugee crisis is unfolding far from the public eye.

Most of the 3 million people forced from their homes by conflict in Yemen are displaced inside the country, where cholera and hunger add to the deadly cost of war.

Around 280,000 Yemenis have managed to escape across the country’s borders since Saudi-led coalition airstrikes began in 2015. Among them are 38,000 people who took boats across the Red Sea to the small African nation of Djibouti.

Anthropologist Nathalie Peutz wanted to document the experiences of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti. Working with French-Algerian photographer Nadia Benchallal, she gave cameras to nine refugees in Markazi camp, in the coastal town of Obock. They captured images of their lives over the course of a year, as part of a project supported by NYU Abu Dhabi.

The U.N. refugee agency-run camp shelters around 1,700 Yemeni refugees, most of whom are unable to return to Yemen due to continued fighting but are unlikely to be resettled in other countries due to decreasing resettlement places.

As part of our series “Picturing Refugees,” we talked to Peutz and Benchallal about how imagery and meaning shifts when refugees are behind the lens themselves.

Yemeni refugees, Markazi

View of the Markazi camp and the Red Sea. (© Khalid Mohammed Ali)

Refugees Deeply: How did this project came about?

Nathalie Peutz: I became aware of Nadia’s work in 2012 when I saw her project on Muslim women, “Sisters.” Having researched Somali refugees in Yemen in the early 2000s, I became interested in Yemeni refugees fleeing to the Horn of Africa. But anthropological fieldwork takes a long time. I felt that there was an urgency to the situation and the necessity for this research to be out there in the public more quickly than an ethnography would have allowed. I thought about working with a photographer so that we could help document what was happening. Then we could exhibit the photographs and take them to the places that the refugees themselves couldn’t go.

Yemeni refugees, Markazi

A drawing by a resident of Markazi camp. (© Khalid Mohammed Ali)

Nadia and I conducted all of the fieldwork together. I originally submitted the proposal to NYU Abu Dhabi with the intent of giving out phones, allowing me to stay in touch with people if they were on the move. Of course, when I went to the camp I found that the one thing they all had was a phone to stay in touch with their family at home. So Nadia and I decided, let’s give some of the refugees cameras, because this could be a way of bringing people into the project to collaborate with us.

Nadia Benchallal: I was really interested in the project because it developed from a documentary project of taking my own photographs to working with refugees and teaching different communities through photography.

Refugees Deeply: How did you organize the logistics of the project? What ethical and security issues arose during the project and how did you handle them?

Benchallal: When we arrived, many of the refugees [coming from rural areas] didn’t know about photography or how to use cameras. This was the first time many of them had had a camera. This of course meant that lots of people wanted to be involved and show the outside world the situation they were living in. We selected people based on their eagerness to join the project. In January 2017 we gave cameras to nine people living in the camp. The camp had four sections, so we selected men and women from each section who were between 16 and 70 years old. I also followed the participants to give them technical advice as well as running several photography workshops throughout the year.

We did not know that the project would take on a life of its own. Most participants wanted to show that how they were living was not normal. One person was taking pictures only during the night. There was another man who was taking photos of the children that he was caring for in the camp. There was also a woman who wanted to show how they were living in their private spaces. I tried to organize the work around what the participants wanted to show to the outside world.

Yemeni refugees, Markazi

At night, when the electricity is turned on, boys power their phones and access the internet. (© Nasr Mohammed Ahmed)

Peutz: It was also difficult as we were printing many of the photographs and bringing them back to the camp so that people could see their work while it was progressing, as well as the portraits that Nadia was taking. It would have been far easier if we had had a printer in the camp. We had several exhibitions throughout the project. One in the camp, one in Djibouti City, and one at NYU Abu Dhabi and at NYU New York. This [beginning with an exhibition in the camp] allowed participants to understand their work as it developed and see the pictures as others were to see them. One older man who was a participant in our project began his own exhibition in his garden, featuring his photographs as well as the portrait that Nadia took of him.

Refugees Deeply: What do you think is distinctive about these photographs and how do you feel they portray the lives of the refugees that you worked with?

Benchallal: The important thing is that we didn’t train these refugees to be photographers. These are normal people taking photographs of things that are important to them.

Peutz: Yes, they began by taking photos of things that they wanted other people to see, like the conditions in the camp. But there are only so many photos you can take of these things. People began to take photos of their everyday lives and things that were important to them. They took photographs of their children, just as I take photos of my children.

Yemeni refugees, Markazi

A young girl poses for a photo in Markazi camp. (© Anissa Samir Abdulaziz)

Usually, when you see images of refugees, you see crowds, groups of men or vulnerable children. The important thing that you see with this project is the families who traveled together, live together and move on together. This was particularly true for the portraits that Nadia took. When she offered to take household portraits, many people asked her to come back the following day and they would have gathered their family wearing their best clothes for the photograph.

“Usually, when you see images of refugees, you see crowds, groups of men or vulnerable children. The important thing that you see with this project is the families who traveled together, live together and move on together.”

There are also many things that you don’t see in the pictures: the flies, the heat, the dust. But I think that is something really important about these images. That you see the humanity above the difficulty. I hope that people see Nadia’s portraits and can imagine these families being their neighbors, or people that they want to get to know.

Refugees Deeply: How did asking refugees to document their own lives change the subjects and framing, for example, compared to when you’ve photographed other camps?

Benchallal: For me, the most important thing was showing the dignity of people living in this way. As a photographer, I wasn’t trying to get our participants to take professional photographs, I was trying to help them to show the things that they wanted to the outside world. Most of these refugees were very well educated and were making plans to move on or were waiting to go back to Yemen. They had aspirations and I felt like that was something really important to get across.

Peutz: We didn’t know that the pictures would take on so many new meanings throughout the project. Particularly those that the refugees took themselves. There is one photo, for example, of an old man lying on his mattress in the camp, which was taken by his son. That man has since passed away and for his son it must be important that he is able to have that photograph.

Yemeni refugees, Markazi

Kiri Saeed Ahmed’s portrait of his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His father returned to Yemen a few months before his death. (© Kiri Saeed Ahmed)

Nadia’s portraits also took on different meanings. There was a group of five young men living together in the camp. One of them has since returned to Yemen, but the other four moved on to another country. And, on the plane, they took a photo of Nadia’s portrait of them held against the airplane window and sent it on to us. That photograph became a document of where they had been and evidence of how they were moving on.

Refugees Deeply: What kind of reactions have you had to the photographs from the community itself and from outside observers?

Benchallal: We were concerned because, as this is a Muslim community, and the women worry about being photographed, we did not know whether this project would be successful. But as Nathalie and I spent more time in the camp building their trust, I think we were really able to connect with them. It wasn’t like the usual photojournalistic projects. We spent time with the participants and began to understand what they wanted from the project and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Peutz: We had interesting reactions from people in Djibouti City. The Markazi camp is about four hours north of the city and so many people living there don’t even know that the camp exists or at least don’t know much about the refugees’ lives. The exhibition in the city really drew people’s attention to the situation of Yemeni refugees living in Djibouti.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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