Istanbul is currently hosting a photo exhibition by award-winning photographer Greg Constantine at Galata Fotoğrafhanesi. The exhibition titled ‘Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya’ focuses on the Rohingya community’s suffering due to suppression and discrimination imposed by the military dictatorship. Visitors can see the photos until July 30
The exhibition "Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya" is a collection of photographs focusing on the persecution and violations against the Rohingya community living in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The community is a Muslim minority from the Rakhine state of West Myanmar. Stripped of their citizenship, the Rohingya people have been a stateless community since 1982. After years of suppression and discrimination, violent acts against them in 2012 destroyed the life of many Rohingya and resulted in inland refugee camps where they are denied the rights to health services, education and work.
Greg Constantine is an American photographer who lives in Southeastern Asia. He has traveled and lived in Asia for 10 years and collected photos of stateless communities, including the Rohingya. The exhibition "Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya" is on display in Istanbul until the end of the month. The photos were formerly displayed in London, Canberra, Washington, Brussels, Jakarta, Bangkok, Tokyo, Geneva, Kuala Lumpur and New York.
Daily Sabah conducted an interview with the photography artist on the current situation of the Rohingya community, the dimensions of the persecution and the artistic process he underwent during his stay in Asia.
Daily Sabah: As a journalist who was born and raised in the U.S., how did you end up living in Asia?
Greg Constantine: Actually, I changed my career when I was 32. I worked in the music business for many years, but I got tired of the sector. One thing led to another, and I was introduced to photography. It took several years to teach myself, as I am a self-taught photographer.
DS: Were you working as a photographer at a newspaper or a media institution?
GC: No, I have always been a freelance photographer. I choose the stories that I want to work on. That is a very conscious decision. I barely work on assignment. I wanted to dedicate myself to long-term, personal projects. I was living in Los Angeles and I decided to spend one year on a project about the issue of statelessness in Asia. I packed my things and chose Thailand as a base for the project. Actually, it developed into a 10-year project.
DS: Did the project concerning the Rohingya last 10 years?
GC: The Rohingya project took nine years. The larger project, which is a global one, took 10 years in total to complete. The project focuses on stateless communities in 12 different countries around the world. There are communities like the Rohingya in Malaysia, Nepal, Bangladesh and others. From 2006 to 2008, it was all focused on Asia. And then I extended the project to Africa followed by the Middle East three years later. I mainly dedicated my work to the Rohingya but the whole project tries to highlight this global issue, that is, communities and people all around the world that have their citizenship either stripped from them or denied mostly because of discrimination. The work started in exclusively Asia, namely Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and was extended to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, the Dominican Republic, Serbia and Ukraine.
DS: Could you describe the dimensions of the persecution against the Rohingya?
GC: That is a great question, as a lot of people have started to become familiar with the Rohingya people's problems in the last two-to-three years. What people have to understand is that there is a legacy of persecution in the area that dates back to about 40 years. I think it really started when Burma became a military dictatorship in 1962. That is when a lot of the problems started for this particular community. Technically, the community was made stateless in 1982.
DS: Is the discrimination against the Rohingya people an ethnic or a religious one?
GC: It is about ethnicity because there are other Muslim communities that are recognized by the Burmese government. When Burma adopted the Nationality Act, it officially recognized 135 other ethnic communities but not the Rohingya community. Rohingya was intentionally omitted for a number of different reasons. Since 1982, the dimension of the discrimination has always gone downhill and deteriorated every single year. In Rohingya, people cannot travel freely; they have been denied birth certificates for several years now. Even to travel from one village to another, they need to get permission. To get married, they have to get permission from the authorities. They are restricted in terms of how many children they can have. They are subjected to forced labor, arbitrary land seizure and religious persecution. What has happened over the past 40 years is that the Burmese government has put in place all these very strict and oppressive administrative tactics that made life so miserable for this community. They often feel like they just have to leave their own country.
DS: Do they have problems accessing sanitary, educational and government services?
GC: Yes. Historically, the community has had problems accessing healthcare services and education. I am not saying that children have never gone to school. They have always had problems getting into universities, for instance. Yet, especially since the violence in 2012, almost no Rohingya children have had any access to primary, secondary or high-level education. For nearly two-and-a-half years, almost no Rohingya child has had access to formal education at any level. More than 120,000 Rohingya people are living as displaced people in camps all throughout the Rakhine state. There are no schools, and there is no educational funding. The capital city of Rakhine is called Sittwe. Sittwe has a university, and before the violence, Rohingya children were able to complete a college education. They went to the university alongside Buddhist students as well. But after the violence, the Rohingya people have no access to university at all.
DS: Can they go anywhere else in the world?
GC: No, technically they cannot legally go anywhere. They don't have passports. If they leave Burma, by boat, for instance, they will be illegally exiting Burma, which is an offence even though they have no documentation. So, they are not allowed to leave, but if you talk to people, the Burmese government and the local political parties in Rakhine are actually quite happy that the Rohingya people are leaving.
DS: What was the most striking situation or image in the area when you first arrived?
GC: My work consists of two different sections: One in Bangladesh and the other in southern Burma. During my first trip to Bangladesh in 2006, I was shocked by the conditions that the Rohingya people were living in. It was the worst living conditions I had ever seen. The area where they lived in was basically a swamp; mud formed every time it rained. No access to medical assistance, no access to sanitation or clean water. Every single person was sick, particularly the children. When you look at these children, you think they have no documents; they do not technically exist in the world. You ask yourself what type of a future these children will have. Bangladesh refuses them and Burma has clearly made it known that they want nothing to do with the Rohingya community. "Where will these children fit in the world today?" it is asked. Moreover, every single year, the situation has got worse and worse. Another shocking situation struck me after the violence. In Sittwe, there was absolutely no Rohingya Muslim presence whatsoever. There is no call to prayer, no Muslim shops; it was like a part of the identity in this area had been erased. All the Rohingya people were forced to leave the city. In Sittwe, there were 12 Muslim quarters. After the violence, 11 of them were completely destroyed. Only one exists, which is located right in the center of Sittwe, with 5,000 Rohingya people left. They cannot come, go, leave, work; they are living in a modern-day ghetto.
DS: As a woman, I wonder: What are Rohingya women are undergoing, particularly unique to them as females?
GC: One problem I think is unique to the Rohingya community is the issue of having to get permission to get married. It is a really big deal for the youth. This obligation is, especially for women, an extremely humiliating process, as their families have to pay money to the authorities for their children to be able to get married. The young couples-to-be have to wait for months or even years to get permission. Women and men want to have a normal life and they end up getting married through Islamic rituals, which is completely illegal. Furthermore, if they are caught doing that, the men can face jail time. In the last four or five years, we see a lot of the people leaving in boats. They want to go to Thailand or Malaysia to save up money. Women are restricted to have up to only two children. This compels the Rohingya women to make decisions they don't want to make, such as forced abortions. And women have to give birth at home as they do not have access to health services. Moreover, when men leave on boats as immigrants, women are left with their child having to defend themselves. The men try to find ways to survive with their families. When the men are gone, the women become vulnerable to many different things.
DS: Did you experience difficulties with the authorities while taking photos?
GC: From 2006 to 2012, all my work was done in southern Bangladesh. In the Rakhine state in Burma, prior to 2012, problems only existed in three northern townships of Rakhine. This is where 95 percent of the population is Rohingya. These three townships have historically been a black hole for journalist and foreigners. Prior to the violence, in Sittwe, there were really no problems concerning the Rohingya community. They coexisted with the Buddhists. So, I decided to focus my project in the southern part on people leaving northern Rakhine. I made eight trips to southern Bangladesh. I never really particularly had any issues with the authorities in Burma. I actually have more challenges with the authorities in Bangladesh. I always traveled as a tourist, not as a journalist because it would be really difficult otherwise.
DS: How did the local people react when you wanted to take their photos?
GC: I rarely had any problems with the local community, as they want their story to be told. They volunteer to show their stories, however painful the stories might be. They want more people to be exposed to their stories. I talked to people a lot before taking photos, as I wanted to know their stories. So, I think the reaction has been mostly positive.
DS: Do you take photos in a planned setting or in a spontaneous and instinctive way?
GC: In each particular trip, I have some purpose in mind. But beyond that, it is a kind of discovery. I think this is a part of the process of documenting photography. You don't particularly go into a situation with a lot of pretense. In the Rohingya situation, you know that you are going to discover a lot. So, in each trip, something new and unplanned comes out of it. And the story changes from a year to the next. For instance, a snapshot taken in 2013 does not picture the whole story. That is why I go back to the scene every single year. I am trying to create a body of story that allows people to see the history of what is happening to this community as it has changed every year.
DS: Is there a specific reason why you prefer to take black and white portraits?
GC: I still use only film, not digital cameras. I use black and white film because it has the capacity to capture the essence of what you see. It is a very personal and subjective decision. The images that have left the deepest impact on me are all black and white. It has the capacity to record and reflect moments.
DS: Where will your future exhibitions be displayed?
GC: This is the 12th exhibition of the project. I am hoping to hold a few exhibitions in Europe. It is very important that the Rohingya issue comes in and out of the news once or twice a year so that people become aware of it. My motivation is to create sustained and continuous attention about the matter. All the places where the exhibition was held were very calculated. Istanbul is also a very critical destination because Turkey is one of the few countries in the region that has shown a lot of attention and is concerned about the Rohingya community. Actually, I will publish a photobook consisting of photos from my project in September. It will include the entire 10-year project focusing on 12 different communities, including the Rohingya.