July 29, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: The purpose of this Behind-The-Scenes view of The Power of Faces is to provide insight (and hopefully encouragement) for others interested in doing similar work to support displaced people around the world. In no way is this BTS perspective intended to romanticize or glamorize the on-the-ground crisis facing millions of vulnerable men, women and children. There are numerous logistical and technical issues we have addressed that practitioners may find of interest.
– Thank you, Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders
More than fifty thousand refugees are currently living or being detained throughout Greece. Refugees are often portrayed in the media as downtrodden, desperate, often filthy masses clinging to life. And that’s true in many ways and they deserve every support possible.
Princeton, New Jersey-based documentary photographers and husband and wife team, Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders, have been documenting the Global Refugee Crisis from the perspective of refugee camps in Chios, Greece during multiple tours over the last year and a half.
“It was heartbreaking in many ways to witness the hardships and indignities so many people were experiencing,” Huang said. “It was also frustrating to see how refugees are often generalized as a homogenous type of person and shown in a negative light just because they are displaced.”
The team wanted to photograph people labeled “refugees” from a different perspective by focusing on people’s individual faces rather than their bleak surroundings. The team wanted to show them simply as people, just like anyone else anywhere else in the world.
They decided to launch The Power of Faces when they were planning their second trip to Chios in July 2017. The photographers brought their favorite orange and purple backdrops and several portable, high-speed photo printers to the refugee camps.
At the time, Chios had 2 separate camps on the island, the Souda and Vial Refugee Camps in operation. [See insets at the bottom for more on the camps.]
“Having a physical photo of family or friends to hold in your hands can be a great comfort in times of need,” Menders said, “and we wanted to use our resources and skills to give people new photos to keep.”
Coordinating a group of international volunteers provided by the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT), which is a local Chios relief organization, the team’s goal was two-fold. First, they wanted to provide residents with physical photos to keep, showing individuals with courage, beauty, dignity and grace. Second, with the written permission of residents who were willing to allow the photographers to publish their photo, Huang and Menders would continue raising awareness of the refugee crisis.
The considerations and logistics needed to print thousands of photos in refugee camps go well beyond a typical portrait setup – this isn’t picture day at school.
Here’s how they did it.
Step 1: Don’t get arrested in a foreign country
The Souda Refugee Camp is managed by the Chios municipality, so Huang and Menders had to obtain permission from the local City Hall as well as the camp authorities to enter the gates. After doing extensive online searching to figure out the bureaucracy, they identified the correct offices to contact and sent detailed email requests stating their intentions and credentials.
“It was necessary to provide the authorities a compelling, understandable story on why we wanted to give photos to the camp residents,” Menders said. “We assumed they receive requests all the time for different initiatives. It must be challenging for administrators to know what a group’s true intentions are and whether or not an effort will be beneficial or detrimental not only to refugees under their protection, but to the many other groups involved in this complex situation.”
The Vial Refugee Camp is managed by the military and has its own protocols, none of which were particularly clear to the team while researching from the comfort of New Jersey. Once on the ground in Chios, the team asked City Hall to request access on their behalf. The City Hall administrator, Sofia, said that she would speak with the Vial management team and they hoped for the best.
With their time in Chios being limited, after not hearing a response for two days, the team organizers decided to drive to Vial and ask directly.
As they approached the gates, the entrance looked familiar from raw footage video Huang and Menders had seen several months prior that had circulated around Facebook, posted and reposted by a handful of Vial refugees.
In that video, filmed on a smartphone, a distraught man stood at the same entrance, being shouted at in different languages by multiple people. He was holding a white plastic gallon jug and was backed up into a corner, swaying unsteadily on his feet. The police were keeping their distance – maybe about 15 feet away - as shouts came from all around. Some police were talking at the man while others were trying to keep people away from the man.
The man burst into flames screaming.
He fell to the ground and then quickly rose back on his feet and started running wildly, engulfed in blight yellow flames, running blindly through the building. He had set himself on fire. The video ended with him running out of view, burning alive and screaming.
A few days later, local newspapers reported the 27-year old man had suffered burns over 85 percent of his body and died after two days in the hospital.
A refugee friend of Huang and Menders who was living in Vial at the time told them the man was distraught after being informed his asylum application was denied.
Life for refugees is fragile.
As Huang and Menders approached the metal gates, no indication or hints that the tragedy in the video had ever occurred.
After waiting about an hour at the gate, the team met with Theolopolis. He was a huge man who had the serious air of someone who had been dealing with too many problems for too long a time. He said their team was prohibited from taking photos within the boundaries of the camp but he did not have authority outside the camp.
“We were warned multiple times that we would be arrested immediately if we took photos of the camp or its facilities,” Huang said. “And we knew they would be watching our movements carefully.”
To their surprise, Theolopolis directed a young policeman to show them some possible locations on the other side of the chain link fences that might suit their needs.
The best location within convenient walking distance to the camp residents was the fence immediately next to the portable toilets. The leaking portable toilets. But it was still the best choice for the photo team.
A helpful detainee helped run a 100-foot extension cord through the fence into a container hut, which provided electricity to run the printers. The team printed out of the back of their rental car.
On the ground, the team had to navigate around over-zealous camp authorities and passing policemen who continually questioned them – sometimes by acting dumb and apologizing for their misinformation, and other times by acting as if they were the most organized people ever. Fortunately both methods worked as needed.
By July 2018, Vial had imposed tighter restrictions on both residents, the general public and journalists. The team was prohibited from working against the Vial fence or using the camp’s electricity. They were allowed to work across the street on a barren hill so they borrowed a generator and hung their backdrops against the bushes. The team resorted to running string between scraggly bushes to create staging and waiting areas and hoped crowd control would be manageable.
Step 2: Be clear about your intentions
Walking around with cameras makes people uncomfortable.
Walking around with cameras among individuals who are at the mercy of foreign governments, human/sex/child/organ traffickers, populists/fascists/nationalists/whatever-you-want-to-call-them-today, and others who might cause harm can make people extremely uncomfortable.
It was important for the team to project their intentions clearly to everyone around them both for the detainees’ knowledge as well as for the safety of their team.
“We are very conscious about the importance of making eye-contact with as many people as possible, smiling and waving hello,” Menders said. “It’s amazing how important that simple gesture is to our work.”
Of the hundreds of people who posed for photos, many spoke Arabic or Farsi or any number of other dialects that the team didn’t know. Google Translate and helpful residents played an important role throughout the project.
A 24-year-old Iraqi man living in the Souda camp, Mohammed, whom Huang and Menders met 6 months earlier and stayed in regular contact with through Facebook messenger, acted as their Arabic translator every day. It was fortunate for the photo team from a convenience standpoint, however, the team recognized it was terribly unfortunate that Mohammed had been living in limbo for 6 months as his asylum application crawled through the system.
Step 3: Plan extensively but adapt immediately
The team and volunteers set up makeshift studios against the container facilities on the beach at the Souda refugee camp and against chain link fences behind the latrines at the Vial refugee camp.
Ratha, a graduate student from London who volunteered in 2017 for several days said she tried her best to make sure people had as good experience as possible.
“It definitely made a lot of people happy,” Ratha said, “and I'm so happy I got to be involved with such a meaningful, thoughtful project.”
One of the great indignities of being a refugee is always having to wait in line for everything. The team wanted to minimize that problem for this project. Through extensive pre-planning and what-if scenarios, a crowd control system was designed to minimize the discomfort of waiting, while also putting in safeguards to protect the volunteers who were tasked with managing large crowds of anxious, excited people waiting their turn under the burning sun.
The team printed Take-a-Number cards from 1 to 300 to create an orderly crowd. 2 sets of cards were printed, with the assumption that over several days of use, many cards would be trashed. They also printed the numbers 1 to 300 as large as possible on 8.5”x11” paper and spiral bound into a notebook. The numbers were printed double-sided to reduce weight, which used 150 sheets of paper instead of 300, saving about 10 ounces of weight. Airline checked baggage is typically limited to 50 pounds per bag, so every ounce added up quickly.
People would take a number and see where they were in the queue, allowing for quieter communication, which made the “customer experience” as polite and enjoyable as possible and avoided the need to shout out numbers all day long.
Step 4: Ask, ask, ask
The portrait project was primarily self-funded and so budget continued to be a challenge for the organizers. From a technical perspective, the team spent months searching for equipment that would be light enough, fast enough and affordable enough for the conditions.
Canon SELPHY CP1200 portable photo printers were selected for the project due to their small size and claims of being able to print a photo in 47 seconds. At about $109 each, they are affordable as well. Thanks to a donor, the team procured 6 of them. The team purchased about 3,000 sheets of photo paper and toner cartridges specific to the SELPHYs from Amazon.
Realizing that living in a camp means everything is exposed to the elements, the team thought it would be a good idea to put the photos in protective folio frames if possible. They found TAP Packaging Solutions made cardboard presentation photo frames that were ideal for their needs. Huang and Menders sent TAP a formal email request laying out the project’s goals. TAP Packaging’s marketing director responded immediately, and without hesitation agreed to support the project. TAP shipped 3,000 beautiful white marble finish folio frames from their location in Cleveland, Ohio to New Jersey with time to spare.
Huang and Menders had product sponsorship by Op/TECH USA camera accessories, which has supported their documentary work for a number of years. Op/TECH USA’s straps and protective covers have been important parts of their gear to keep equipment secure, organized and safe during the rough travel they typically do.
Step 5: Execute on the plan
Over the course of two visits to refugee camps in Greece, the team distributed nearly 2,000 photos to individuals to keep. Many people received multiple photos with combinations of family and friends.
“The response to the portrait project was tremendous,” Menders said. “There was massive appreciation for the effort from the individuals.”
Refugees are not faceless statistics, they are men, women and children each with their own hopes for a better life in a kinder world. These individuals matter. The Power of Faces helps to show it.
FOR FURTHER READING: The Souda Refugee Camp on Chios, Greece
The Souda Refugee Camp was located at the edge of the Aegean Sea in downtown Chios, which was ordinarily a popular tourist destination. The camp was staged there out of necessity – there was a few acres of public land available alongside the historic Chios Fort when refugees began to flow into Chios.
The Chios municipality was responsible for managing the Souda camp, and detainees were free to walk in and out of the camp as desired, but were prohibited from leaving the island. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Médecins Sans Frontières and numerous other international and local relief groups had daily access to the several hundred camp residents. The general public – both refugee supporters and detractors – also had access to the camp and its informal borders.
Many refugees chose to move their tents immediately outside the Souda boundaries – and voluntarily forego the available electricity and running water – because they said Souda was too dangerous.
From the sea, the Port of Chios’s scenic vista that previously beckoned cruise ships overflowed with refugee tents baking in the summer sun.
The Souda camp residents had convenient access to downtown Chios’s shops, services and public spaces to distract from the stagnation of living in a refugee camp. It is important to note that stagnation is often interrupted by moments of terror, fear, despair, anger, anguish and sometimes happiness.
Souda was closed down in January 2018 and all detainees were moved into the Vial refugee camp, elsewhere in Greece or, for a very few people, to another country.
FOR FURTHER READING: The Vial Refugee Camp on Chios, Greece
The Vial Refugee Camp is located inland and is managed by the Greek military, which maintains tighter restrictions on movement of refugees and access by both NGOs and the public.
Located in a hilly region of the island and surrounded by olive groves and open fields, Vial in certain ways can best be described as out-of-sight, out-of-mind. The remote location eliminates the availability of shops and services. Residents are heavily dependent on the camp management for food, resources and most services.
The camp is a 20-minute drive to downtown Chios but 2-hour walk for most people so going into town is not easily accomplished. A daily bus service is provided but transporting 50 riders out of 2,200 people creates an entirely new set of tensions and challenges for everyone involved.
Water in Vial is not potable, so residents are provided one 1.5-liter bottle of water per person per day. Summer temperatures reach into the 90’s and 100’s Fahrenheit regularly.
Living in a refugee camp, in a communal tent or container box, among thousands of strangers of different (and sometimes violently conflicted) nationalities, ethnicities and cultures, with limited food, medical services and other necessities, and being provided one 1.5-liter bottle of water per person per day, in 90+ degree weather, imposes countless indignities and hardships on individuals who had to flee their homelands due to conflict and persecution.