My political consciousness began to develop before I even knew what politics were. Growing up in New York in the 60s and 70s imbued me with a sense of social and political justice. It was in the air, the music and the culture of that time. Once I decided that storytelling was my future, it was only a matter of time before I discovered that photography could be fused with the great traditions of social justice and the raising of political awareness. I became aware of the power that images and stories can have, and I quickly found examples of this: either the early work of Jacob Riis or the more contemporary work of Eugene Smith, particularly his ‘Minamata’ project, Philip Jones Griffiths’ work on Vietnam Inc or Eugene Richards’ Cocaine True Cocaine Blue.
Despite having found what I wanted to do in the work of others, it took many years for me to understand how to harness this ability and power within my own work. From my early photographs of the Kurdish struggle for independence to more recent work on the enduring impact of Agent Orange, my commitment to journalism that can make a difference has become one of the central driving forces in my life.
Striving to tell impactful stories is not possible without strong partners. Working with organizations like OSF, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and International Medical Corps, is how our work can have maximum impact. While I have the heart of an activist, I do not have the know-how or contacts to make a difference in the world of activism, so I strive to make a difference by telling stories.That is why the partnerships we create to produce and disseminate our work are key to reaching not only the masses, but also the right audience for making a substantial impact.
This month a new collaborative book of my photographs has been published by Steidl (you can find the book here) on behalf of ‘The Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen’ (The Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations – IFA).
IFA is an organization that operates worldwide to promote peaceful artistic exchanges and in this instance is recognizing Human Rights Watch for their work. Photographs from two personal projects of mine alongside writing by Ronald Grätz and Hans-Joachim Neubauer were selected to be in the 2016 volume. It was a great honor to be chosen to participate in this project. What follows are two written excerpts that I contributed to the book as well as a few of the photographs.
Under Cane: A Worker’s Epidemic
In Nicaragua, the average lifespan of men who harvest sugarcane is 49 years. At the root of these early deaths is an epidemic known as Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT). In the town of Chichigalpa, often called the “Island of Widows,” 1-in-3 men, mostly cane workers, have end-stage renal failure from this fatal occupational disease that is both a public health crisis and a social injustice. In Central America alone, over 20,000 sugarcane workers have died from CKDnT in the past ten years.
Beyond Nicaragua, the Central American country of El Salvador is also impacted by this epidemic. According to the Center for Public Integrity, CKDnT is now killing more people in Nicaragua and El Salvador – the 2 countries with the highest magnitude of mortality from the disease – than HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and leukemia combined.
Research on the subject of CKDnT indicates that repeated dehydration, severe heat, and environmental toxins might play a huge part in the rising death toll among sugarcane workers. These clues need further investigation and increased media coverage to find solutions to this widespread, critical problem.
With one private sugar mill in El Salvador poised to make history by becoming the site of the first ever CKDnT workplace intervention in Central America, labor conditions have improved due to increased water access, shade and mandatory breaks. However, since this fatal disease is both a global public health crisis and a social injustice, more research and health solutions are essential to continue creating a positive impact in the lives of effected workers, their families, and local communities.
What first began as an assignment in early 2013 for La Isla Foundation has developed into a personal project and mission to raise awareness about a fatal, and likely preventable, disease affecting agricultural workers around the world. Chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDnT) is considered an epidemic and spreads among sugarcane workers who endure long hours in hot fields. It’s likely the result of dehydration, heat, and fatigue and has turned into a blame game between the governments and the community—a game that takes a very measurable toll on the workers and their families. Yet virtually everyone on earth consumes sugar in some form, so we are all complicit in this story.
As I documented another wake and funeral for a cane worker too young to die (35), I looked into the tear-filled eyes of his 15-year-old daughter and then at all the young girls and women and thought about the impact on a community where most of the men get sick and die. People are still dying nearly every day. We are not aware of improved worker conditions, and instead of adequate water they are receiving sugar-infused liquid hydration packets, which are very detrimental.
During my recent visit to El Salvador, conditions at one private sugar mill were markedly better due to an investment which supplied increased water access, shade and mandatory breaks, but I am personally frustrated, perplexed, and distraught by what I have witnessed. Using the power of photography and video to generate education, support, and community awareness, I believe my passion and commitment to being a part of positive change, while continuing the drumbeat of awareness, has only grown as I watch another child left fatherless and another family confronting an illness that can be avoided. This worker’s epidemic, which is also being found in other parts of Central America, Mexico, India and Sri Lanka, is an absolute human rights issue, which must be addressed.
In Chichigalpa’s community of Isla de Viudas — the Island of Widows — one in three men are in end-stage renal failure, with victims getting sick at earlier ages. According to La Isla Foundation, the condition may be a result of overwork, dehydration and exposure to pesticides or other toxins. The health crisis has led to clashes between the police and workers in Chichigalpa. After a worker died in one such confrontation, the government has said it would mediate between the protesters and their employers. There has been some criticism of La Isla by local groups for not being representative of the larger community, while the company that controls the industry, Grupo Pellas, insists it has taken steps to ensure proper hydration and working conditions, among other points.
It’s less about placing blame and more about raising awareness so we can create support for the people impacted by this and energize people to find solutions. This is what human rights activism means to me as a documentarian. While it’s important to work for big media so the message can reach the masses, one can have big impact by reaching the right 1,000 people and having more targeted impact with people who are actually in a position to make a difference. This work can also be used by schools, nongovernmental organizations and even the local community to educate and raise awareness. How do we use visual storytelling to not only tell the tough stories but also offer some amount of light? That’s why in my practice my goal now is to humanize and maintain the dignity of my subjects and open people’s eyes so they will at least learn, and maybe also take action.
As a photojournalist, you sometimes have to look deeply to find your story or it takes some time to figure it out. In this case it was thrown at me: in the town we were in, there was a funeral every day. The evidence was around us. It was like a refugee camp, with wooden run down houses and no running water. I thought of the similarity and then I thought ‘Wait a second, these people live here, they work here, this is unacceptable, it’s not supposed to be like a refugee camp.’ The injustice is appalling.
Syria’s Lost Generation
I started traveling to Syria in 1991 as part of my first project with National Geographic magazine documenting the struggle of the Kurds. I’ve returned a number of times for different reportages, and since the Syrian civil war tragically developed out of the hope of the Arab Spring in 2010, I’ve watched with disquiet and pain as this conflict became a proxy for the wars inside Syria’s fragile ethnic mosaic. More than two decades after I had documented Kurdish refugees streaming back from Iran and Turkey to their fractured homeland in Iraq, I returned to the same patch of land to witness the impact of Syria’s unending civil war in late 2013, to tell the story of Syria’s Lost Generation.
As refugees stream across Syria’s borders, we are seeing the loss of another middle class Arab population and the destabilization of another Arab, Muslim country. The youth population within this new refugee group is comprised of more than half of those four million displaced souls. What will happen to Syria’s next generation? I had been there enough to know the Syrians are a calm and well educated people, used to relative security and stability, albeit under the hand of an authoritarian regime that was now firmly entrenched in their fourth decade of rule. What happens when the whole fabric of a society is blown apart, frayed not only at its edges but threatened at its very heart?
I returned to northern Iraq and Jordan to tell the stories of some of these youth. I wanted to create an intimate look into the lives of those caught in the middle, left in limbo, robbed of their childhoods.
The plight of Syria’s youngest in the midst of that civil war is often overlooked, when not hidden in plain sight. At least 50,000 of the nearly 500,000 estimated deaths since 2011 are thought to be children — dead too soon but, at least, spared some of the hardships now plaguing more than 2 million Syrian youth living beyond their native borders: hunger; disease; little to no education; flashbacks or nightmares sparked by the sights and sounds of warfare; depression.
As the unimaginably brutal conflict ends its fourth year, we are witnessing one of the greatest human rights tragedies of this or any century. My work has attempted to highlight the emotional toll the war is taking on the youngest of those driven from their own country. In coordination with the International Medical Corps, I met with and filmed Syrian teenagers (and their families) profoundly rattled by the collapse of their old world and their new, unsettled life as refugees in Northern Iraq and Jordan.
My first stop was in Jordan, where I filmed a group of four teens living with their 83-year-old grandmother in the eastern desert, next to a small agricultural plot where tomatoes and zucchinis are grown. They were part of a small enclave of maybe ten families living in tents, surviving on the good graces of a local farmer but disconnected from all the aid and supplies of the giant Zaatari refugee camp, now the second largest in the world with nearly 200,000 people, and only one hour away.
This dislocated family of teens—Muna, 16, Sumaya, 15, Bilal, 14 and Lamia, 13—had first travelled to Daraa in the south and then over the border to Jordan. Their parents had made them leave their hometown of Hasakeh, Syria, to avoid rape of the girls and conscription of the boy into the military or the Free Syrian Army.
They left behind their parents and four other siblings, and I found them living in a tent. For me, this story was especially poignant. I have two teenage kids, including a 16-year-old daughter. My heart ached for the mutual loss this family was going through—the kids separated from their parents, unprotected and in limbo— and I also was in awe of their strength and adaptability. When 16-year-old Muna told us, “I wish I had not lived to see the things I saw…and my greatest fear is never seeing my parents again,” everyone in the tent, including myself, my interpreter and the folks listening on the periphery, were in tears.
I also filmed people in the Domiz camp just outside of Dohuk in northern Iraq—the region where I had witnessed Kurdish refugees returning from Turkey and Iran in 1991. It was sobering to witness yet another refugee crisis 22 years later.
Here I met Jihan, 16, and her family, who had fled from Damascus over a year earlier. Beautiful, articulate, sensitive and deeply troubled from not only what she had witnessed, but by the realization that, “maybe I’ve lost my adolescence,”—her story powerfully articulates the plight of Syrian youth.
In one instance, while filming in Jihan’s family’s tent, her father made a cellphone call. I intuitively filmed close-ups of his face, and the reactions of the family. As the call progressed, I watched the faces of the kids transform from looks of concern to quiet tears. My interpreter told me later the father had just learned that a bomb had killed his neighbor’s 17-year-old son.
One of them was Jihan, a 16-year-old who has lived in the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraq, for more than two years. The surrealism of her situation—like many exiled Syrians, Jihan’s middle-class family now calls a cold, dark tent in a foreign land home—and the pain of leaving others behind has changed Jihan, perhaps irreparably.
You have a young woman who became an activist as a teenager back in Damascus and who was upset with her father for leaving. She felt she should have died a martyr there rather than leave everyone. Jihan is articulate, open to discussing her and her family’s struggles and eager to use her story as a platform to draw attention to what she and others are going through. Still, her anguish is clear.
Everyone handles it differently: some accept their displacement as Fate; others, like Jihan, have real trouble accepting their status as refugees. Once in the field I immediately latched onto Jihan, as well as Muna, another 16-year-old girl who, with several family members, was living in a tent in the Jordanian desert. With their testimony, she stitched together an intensely personal account of what has become a universal experience for young female refugees—a struggle that, among other challenges, includes caring for siblings and threats of sexual assault.
What will these kids grow up to be? We need to care about this if we want to stop the cycle, and if we want to have any impact on the cycle. You just have the sense that this is not going to end any time soon. Whenever that happens, it’s the children who will watch the pieces of their homeland be put together again, and it’s they and their own children who will have to live with however those pieces are arranged.
What I witnessed leaves no doubt in my mind that at least in northern Iraq, the expectation is that many of these folks will remain permanently and not return to Syria. The world, and specifically the Middle East, is witnessing the reformation of it’s artificially made borders nearly 100 years after they were created. And it’s youngest will pay the heaviest price.