Hidden Lives: the untold story of urban refugees

I mentioned Andrew McConnell’s Hidden Lives multimedia project as one of my Developing Pictures highlights of 2012 the other day, but as it has now opened as an exhibition in London’s St Pancras station, I thought I’d kick off the new year with a more in-depth post about it.

Hidden Lives is an impressive piece of work, comprising of short films, compelling photography and written testimonies, produced over the course of last year by Andrew, working in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) and Panos Pictures. It documents the stories of 40 refugees and refugee families in eight different countries around the world. The project aims to shine a light on the fact that around half of the world’s 15 million refugees actually live in urban environments – towns and cities – rather than the tented, desert camps that more are commonly used as the visual motif to illustrate stories about displaced people.

There are lots of reasons why this is important. Refugees living in urban environments are much harder to keep track of and provide support to, so they are consequently often more vulnerable than those who are in a camp on the border with a neighbouring country (such as Daadab in Kenya or Za’atari in Jordan). There’s often a greater chance that they will slip through the net of services available to them, and be at greater risk of crime and exploitation.

The IRC says that ‘the classic picture of a refugee in a camp is changing. Refugees and displaced people move to the city in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence. However, in reality, what many actually find are harsh living conditions, lack of security and poverty… [The IRC] is developing new approaches to respond to the needs of refugees in towns and cities and are often hidden from those who are trying to help’.

This is to be applauded and supported, but how does a project like this actually help?

Interestingly, the project comes with little campaigning narrative from the IRC, who McConnell worked with to identify people to document, or ECHO, who funded the work. Its refreshing to see an NGO-commissioned, donor-funded, photo/multimedia project that appears quite editorially independent, even though it is surely, ultimately, a piece of advocacy work. McConnell’s interests as a journalist coincide with the aims of IRC and the remit of ECHO, but is this a journalistic project? Maybe not entirely, but it’s not your typical NGO ‘donate now campaign either. There’s no clear ask here – whether to give money, volunteer or to lobby anyone to take action . So it’ll be interesting to see how people respond and interact with it in it’s train station incarnation, and what kind of effect it has –  will it lead to increased public engagement with the issues it raises?

I think one way in which it does help to inform us about the issues and challenge preconceptions is by using a different visual language used to portray the individuals concerned. McConnell had previously documented Saharawari refugees in Algeria and western Sahara by photographing them at night, and Hidden Lives is kind of an extension of that work in both subject matter and style. These photographs are different in that they’re made mainly in cities rather than deserts, but they’re always shot at night, always in the dark. Many of the images are made on rooftops, using the city as both backdrop and metaphor; by isolating the subject as a tiny figure, seemingly dwarfed by the urban jungle, McConnell emphasises the scale of the challenge that many refugees in urban environments face. The use of the lack of light – or darkness – also plays on the fact that many of the cities that play home to the people featured really are very, dark intimidating – or even dangerous – places at night.

That said, this approach risks de-humanising the very people McConnell is trying to depict. The cityscapes can, and in some cases do, visually dwarf the subjects. The images have a something of a fashion-shoot look about them. But in fact they have the opposite effect. By using this controlled, additional lighting to photograph his subjects, McConnell somehow empowers the people he’s met. I hesitate to say that the photos give them dignity, but in a way this is what is happening. These are staged, considered scenes – collaborations, not fleeting, grabbed moments; they’re powerful, stylised portraits, not just documentary photographs.

The accompanying video pieces are also shot at night, although by contrast, they hardly feature the faces of the subjects at all. Instead we’re presented with the voices of the displaced, narrating their own stories, while the camera – sometimes in slow-motion – wanders the darkened streets of the cities the refugees currently call home. The effect of this is deliberately disorientating – another visual ploy to make the viewer feel the discomfort of being a stranger, a refugee, in an unknown, intimidating place. It’s a clever device that draws you into each person’s story before you get to actually meet them.

Clearly the main way that the project will help raise awareness is by its physical manifestation – exhibited in London’s St Pancras railway station – one of the busiest train stations in the world, and no doubt the arrival point into the UK for at least some of those refugees who make their way to Britain every year. Taking the work into a very public sphere like this, rather than presenting it in a gallery, can surely only be a good thing. Work like this is usually only seen if you’re interested in photography, go to galleries or read certain newspapers. Putting it in a public space used by tens of thousands of people everyday is a great way to reach people outside of the traditional audiences.

Look out for Hidden Lives around St Pancras station for the next few weeks, or if you won’t be passing through there, then visit the website. You can also find out more about the IRC’s work to help urban refugees here. And of course you can always donate to support their work. Even if they’re not asking you to.


About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in multimedia, NGOs, photography, photojournalism, refugees and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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