KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 — This Saturday, Malaysians will be able to put a face to the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar courtesy of an exhibition by American documentary photographer Greg Constantine.
Open to the public from tomorrow to May 1, 2015 at Prototype Gallery L4 at Wisma Central on Jalan Ampang, the exhibition is called Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya.
Held in collaboration with the National Endowment for Democracy, Blue Earth Alliance, Tenaganita and Prototype Gallery, Exiled to Nowhere is the latest in a series of international exhibitions held in London, Canberra, Brussels, Jakarta, Bangkok, Tokyo, and most recently in Geneva.
Constantine, who has been recording the struggles of the Rohingya for the past nine years, hopes to highlight the persecution and human rights violations against this stateless community in Myanmar.
A book of the same title chronicling his project was published to critical acclaim in 2012. We chat with Constantine about his experiences and his passion for documenting the stories of the stateless.
What drew you to the Rohingya situation?
It’s all about the issue of statelessness. My work on the Rohingya has been specifically in southern Bangladesh and inside Rakhine in Burma. I think for anyone who wants to know more about the issue of statelessness in Asia, you have to be exposed to the story of the Rohingya.
In my own experience, the Rohingya case is by far the most extreme situation of statelessness in the world today. And in so many ways, it is the most severe situation of human rights abuse I have experienced as well. For me to do the work that I needed to do for this project, Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya, I had to spend time in Bangladesh and when the violence erupted against the Rohingya in Burma in 2012, I had to go there to document it.
It is a story that changes for the worse every year and I wanted to create a long, sustained documentation of this story for people to see. I started photographing the Rohingya in southern Bangladesh in early 2006 and made 8 trips to Bangladesh from 2006-2012. Since the violence in Burma in 2012, I’ve travelled to Burma four times, most recently in November 2014.
You’ve been based in South-east Asia for the past 10 years. Has it been predominantly Burma and Bangladesh?
Actually I’ve spent a lot of time in countries throughout the region working on stories for my Nowhere People project. In 2006/2007, I spent time in Sabah, Malaysia working on a story about stateless children there. I’ve created photo essays on stateless people in Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The project has slowly spread beyond South-east Asia. Since 2008, I’ve created photo essays on stateless people in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine, Serbia, Italy, Holland and the Dominican Republic. So, it truly is a comprehensive exploration of an issue that is global.
How did you get started in documentary photography?
I made a big shift in careers when I was about 31 years old. For much of my 20s I worked for different companies related to the music industry in the US. I studied business in university; I’m a self-taught photographer.
When I was in my late 20s, I quit my job, cashed in my retirement savings and travelled in Asia for seven months. That trip in 1998 was followed by a second trip in 2000 that was eight months long and it was during these two trips that I fell in love with photography as a means to tell stories.
It took several years, but slowly I transitioned into a full-time photographer working on long-term personal projects that focus on human rights and other social issues and injustices. In 2005, I moved from the US to South-east Asia and began my long-term project Nowhere People, which documents people and communities around the world who have been denied or stripped of the fundamental right to citizenship and as a result are stateless.
I’ve now spent nine years working almost exclusively on Nowhere People (www.nowherepeople.org) of which my work on the Rohingya is by far the biggest chapter.
What was your most challenging experience in chronicling the Rohingya situation?
I think the biggest struggle has been trying to find outlets actually interested in publishing the work. It’s become increasingly more difficult to find traditional magazines or newspapers that are willing to publish these stories. So in many ways, I’ve not put much faith in the traditional print media to get my work out there.
How do you engage people? I’ve had to adapt and that is the reason why I’ve chosen exhibitions as the primary way to get the work out there and it has been incredibly rewarding to see how various audiences are engaged with this story. The situation for the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh gets worse every year. And seeing how nothing has changed over the years is another of the more frustrating aspects of documenting the Rohingya.
After every trip to Bangladesh and especially after every trip to Burma since 2012, I always walk away saying, “How can this still be happening?” But it is still happening and people need to know it is happening. I’ve seen a lot of suffering with the Rohingya community all these years.
Burma really is a beautiful country, but unfortunately, one experience that will stay in my memory for many years to come, will be the streets of downtown Sittwe, lined with ordinary citizens of the Rakhine community, clapping their hands and cheering as over 2,000 people (including hundreds of monks, students, men and women) marched through the streets of Sittwe shouting racist, anti-Rohingya chants. It was a very public display of hatred, bigotry and racism that is very different from the picture most people have in their head of Burma.
Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya
Prototype Gallery L4, Level 4, Wisma Central, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur
April 18 — May 1, 2015
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10am - 8pm, Sun 10am – 5pm
Public Launch: Saturday, April 18th @ 3pm – 6pm
Photographer’s Talk: Sunday, April 19th @ 2pm – 4pm