Photographing the Rohingya crisis

Can a photo of a child refugee change the world? It has happened before, to a degree.

One of the most famous examples is the 1972 photograph of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running for her life during the Vietnam War after her village was hit with napalm. Taken by Nick Ut, it’s been called “an icon of conflict photography”, and might even have influenced public opinion enough to shift the tides of war — in 1973, the photo won a Pulitzer, and the United States withdrew from that war.

More recently, in 2015, the photo of a two-year-old Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach shocked the world into paying attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. The boy had not survived the perilous crossing to Europe. To date, it is estimated that over 5 million Syrians have fled their country to escape conflict. In the immediate aftermath of publication, the photo prompted Canada to change its position on accepting Syrian refugees. But the crisis continues, and the influx into Europe has had a dramatic impact on the continent’s political landscape.

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has deep roots, and in recent years communal violence has been reported as early as 2012. The conflict, which is happening in one of the most isolated pockets of Southeast Asia, has gotten more global coverage in recent months, as criticism of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi mounts. Much like the Syrian refugee crisis, this conflict has serious implications for regional stability, with reports already bubbling up of the potential for religious extremism to take root among the persecuted Rohingya and fan out across the region.

Scan any given news story of this refugee crisis, and it’s not difficult to notice similarities to the photos. Many tend to be wide shots, the human figures plaintive but distant. Their hands often reach out for help, but they never command the frame. The colours are murky, and the people are photographed like tropes rather than individuals.

Photographer Kevin Frayer took a different approach by shooting in black and white, creating images that are almost shockingly artful. Is it right for photographs of such deep tragedy to look so beautiful? But at least they compel you to take a real hard look. There are children in his pictures too, and their intense vulnerability commands the frame.

Can a picture can still change the world? Frayer believes so, though he acknowledges the obstacles: “I had gone with the hope of making a contribution to telling the story, yet you always feel like you never photograph enough. Or see enough. Or hear enough. There is an urgency for us to keep providing strong visual information that ensures these people are not forgotten. But in the end you leave because your visa runs out. I believe strong journalism can create pressure to force governments in good conscience to make decisions—the right decisions—to help people at their most desperate time. The relentless flow of information to the masses is a powerful way to provoke outrage and discussion. If the pictures—no matter how fleeting—can cause people to be moved to care in some way, then it is worth it.”