Dorothea Lange: A Great Documenter of Ordinary American Life

By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service

It was the great documenter of ordinary American life, Dorothea Lange, who once observed that “photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” Alixandra Fazzina, who was awarded this year’s UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award on October 4, like Lange before her, has decided to let her photographs shine a steady light on the worlds forgotten. “Photography has an ability to draw people in. It’s a very singular moment in time… when you turn the page of a newspaper or a book and see a photo it really draws you into the story. I hope my photography gives someone else a moment to stand still, take the time to look, look properly, and engage in a slightly different way with the world,” she observed in a recent interview with UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming.

If Lange had focused her camera on the immigrants and farm labourers of Depression-era America, Fazzina’s lenses are trained on those displaced and impoverished by wars and conflicts in vast swathes of the world, whether it is Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East or Asia.

As a woman born in Britain who now lives in Pakistan, she is extremely conscious of the migrant experience. She also understands that while many in the world today are constantly on the move, often because of situations beyond their control, they have come to be viewed through the lens of prejudice, regarded as outsiders, even trouble-makers. But in order to see them as worthy subjects, Fazzina herself had to evolve as a photographer. She actually began her career as a photojournalist embedded with the British army in Bosnia, taking images in the way the army wanted them taken. But something in her chafed against the strict conditions under which embedded journalists were required to function. As she later put it, “I really got fed up with not being able to see what the side effects (of conflict) were… you just follow the troops in and never see what is happening to the civilians. It’s just always been my passion to be the one going in and showing things from the other side.”

So she decided to do just that: Start showing things from the other side as an independent photographer. That proved to be a quest without end. Today, many of her photographs have made it to the pages of well-regarded international magazines and newspapers like ‘Time’, ‘Stern’, ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Guardian’.

Ask Fazzina which conflict situation she had found the most devastating and she would be hard pressed for an answer. But she remembers going behind UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) frontlines in Angola and witnessing a huge crowd of people that no one had access to. That area was known as “El fin del mundo,” the end of the world, and it really seemed like that to her, where thousands and thousands of people were just stranded, with no access to aid of any kind.

But the story that most drew her in was that of Somalian refugees, an experience she later documented in her book, ‘A Million Shillings – Escape from Somalia’, that chronicled the experiences of people fleeing through smuggling routes from Somalia to the Arabian Peninsula. As she recalled to Fleming, she had originally set out to follow two groups of people, one of which was travelling together on one boat. “They started out with 135 people and only 11 survived. I remember setting out with these people on their very last day in Somalia. They had such intrepid joy. Because people knew me, they were asking for me to take pictures of their last steps in Somalia. That will haunt me forever, knowing that they didn’t make it across with their lives,” she said.

A photograph she took in Shimbiro in November 2007 shows Somali refugees standing shoulder deep in a choppy sea, looking back anxiously to try and locate dear ones left behind on the beach in Shimbiro, as they prepared to board one of the three smugglers” boats leaving for Yemen. The crew meanwhile hauls on board passengers from the water, packing the small boat with over a hundred Somalis and Ethiopians tied together. Later she came to know, as she revealed in that interview, only 11 of this boatload actually reached Yemen alive.

Fazzina is also keenly aware that it is women and children, who end up suffering the most amidst the traumas of conflict, displacement and disaster and her photographs capture their predicament eloquently. Decades earlier, Dorothea Lange had a photograph that came to evoke the Depression to most of the world. It showed a young mother, her lined face belying her 32 years, holding on to her two children asleep on her shoulders. One of Fazzina’s recent photographs almost echoes that Lange-ian photographic moment in a different setting. It shows a Pakistani mother holding her two young sons to protect them from a gale as it sweeps past the Sugar Mill Camp in Charsadda, shortly after the military campaign in Swat began.

But it is the photograph of Salima, 19, that best captures the searing impact of war on the utterly helpless. Taken by Fazzina in Bastatine, Yemen, in March 2008, it shows Salima wearing bright lipstick and clothes that are not her own in a dark room of a safe house controlled by human trafficking gangs. Salima now has to raise the twenty five dollars she needs to be taken to Saudi Arabia where she hopes to find a livelihood and hopefully a new life and she tries to do this by begging in the city every day. Salima, incidentally, would never have been in this state of desolation if the war in Somalia had not found her, and destroyed her family in the course of six brutal weeks. First her husband and child were killed in a mortar attack and, later, Salima lost the baby that she was pregnant with, during her attempt to flee Mogadishu for Yemen. The prematurely born infant was tossed into the sea by the crew of the vessel in which she was traveling. In the Fazzina portrait, Salima has the look of a hounded child-woman with little hope for the future.

In a world that is increasingly self-obsessed and driven by power, Fazzina’s photographs forces one to look outside carefully constructed, sanitized frames, confront uncomfortable truths and question easily cultivated assumptions about the Other. That, in fact, is her intention. As she put it, “My aim has always been to raise awareness of those forced to flee conflict, violence and misery. To give up one’s home and the subsequent struggle to build a new life is one of the hardest challenges anybody can face. Millions every year however have no other choice.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.