Andrew McConnell’s partnership with the International Rescue Committee to document the lives of urban refugees  takes centre stage in an exhibition at St Pancras station (London) from tomorrow.  I hope the project gets the attention it undoubtedly deserves.

From a personal point of view it’s good to see a project not defined by the name of the agency (wonderful though Panos are), or the name of the photographer, (a photographer’s name in this context is only a draw for a tiny fraction of people who tend to be more interested in aesthetics then issues anyway) but instead a seemingly singular vision, executed by McConnell with art and commitment.

I really like the approach taken in the film below, which is part of a series found on the website (more details at the end of this post).

The project has some similarities with MSF’s also excellent Urban Survivors project, that examined the lives of people living in slums.

I’m not sure why MSF gives so much space and importance to the  photographer’s bios?  People will spend a limited time on a website and if you want them to focus on the critical medical issues encountered in slums why give them the opportunity instead to read about how many World Press awards Stanley Greene has won?

Don’t let that put you off watching this powerful and dignified photofilm from the website by Andrea Bruce (Wonderful photographer.  I don’t need a bio to work that out) that focuses on sexual violence in Guatamala.


Ethical Questions

I think it’s really important to be open and honest with people about why you want to photograph them and how those photos will be used.

The Urban Survivors project is a collaboration with NOOR photo agency.  The  photofilm shot in Kenya features a young woman talking about her little sister. The sister must have agreed to be photographed by Francesco Zizola for a photofilm, but she cannot have been told the real reason, that she is HIV+.  That’s because according to the film the girl herself does not even know. The photofilm let’s us know that by the time the story was published she has been informed of her status.

I’m trying to imagine what justification there can be in following an orphan child and photographing them for a story about them being HIV+ when they haven’t been told?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

It’s something that for example BBC producer guidelines would prevent you from doing if you were working for them.

Working on a shoot, under pressure, with limited time, invariably leads to poor decision making. And I say this from experience. That’s why producer guidelines help.  MSF have some decent ones relating to photography that were drawn up by their UK office.

Ethical questions aside (if you can ever put them aside?) it’s a very touching film and I would like to think  the girl and her sister saw it and gave consent before it was published on the web.

Do check out both projects which deserve recognition.


About Hidden Lives

Over half the world’s refugees now live in large towns and cities where they are confronted by a unique set of challenges. The traditional image of life in tented, sprawling camps no longer tells the full refugee story. As urbanisation reshapes much of the world, refugees too are increasingly moving to large towns and cities.
In addition, urban areas are rapidly expanding, making them increasingly vulnerable to man-made and natural disasters. With this explosive growth come new types of risks, vulnerabilities and potential humanitarian crises.

The classic picture of a refugee in a camp is changing. Refugees and displaced people move to the city in the hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence. However, in reality, what many actually find are harsh living conditions, lack of security and poverty.

Working with the International Rescue Committee and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid and civil protection department ECHO, Panos Pictures photographer Andrew McConnell has spent many months documenting this new reality in eight cities across four continents. Through images, refugee testimonies, and video, the resulting body of work presents a unique insight into the lives of urban refugees today and challenges the commonly held stereotypes. From Somali refugees in Nairobi to Syrian refugees in north Jordan, and from Burmese refugees in Kuala Lumpur to Afghan refugees in New York, the story of where people flee when all is lost is changing…

  • Refugee Hotel by Gabriele Stabile and Juliet Linderman documents the arrival of some of the (hopefully) luckier refugees who have managed to make it to the shores of the US.

  • Maimouna Jallow, MSF

    I understand your questions on whether this was ethical. So, as the person who recorded the audio interviews with Farida and Zura whilst Francesco Zizola took the photos, I would like to explain the process.

    We approached several MSF clients via our youth group counsellors and had a meeting with them to explain the concept of Urban Survivors and to let them know that we were looking for people who would be willing to tell their stories on access to health care in a setting like Kibera. At this stage, we did not know if it would be a story about HIV or not, we were open to hear what the real issue for teenagers living in Kibera is when it comes to getting healthcare. And although our projects have a strong HIV focus, we also deal with chronic diseases and sexual violence for example.

    Both girls, along with about 10 other teenagers, came voluntarily to the meeting. Farida was especially keen to tell her story and that of her sister. It was as though she had something that she had been holding in that she wanted to share. As soon as we discussed the programme with her, we realised that her sister was not yet aware of her status. We spoke to Farida at length about the fact that we could only follow Zura if she knew why we were doing so, and explained that their story and photos would be published world-wide. For us, consent was not just a signed document (which of course we got), but a clear understanding of all implications of being part of the campaign. We were also aware that although Farida is Zura´s legal guardian, she is only 19 and so we consulted with her late mum’s best friend, who was the first person to tell Farida that their mother had died of AIDS and that she suspected that Zura´s frequent illness could be related.

    For Farida, who already had an appointment with an MSF counsellor in the next two days in which they had both agreed to tell little Zura about her status, there was no doubt. She wanted to tell their story. She wanted to share the immense fear she felt about losing her sister, the person she loves the most in the world, the person she has dedicated her life to for the past 10 years, the person for whom she has had to forfeit her education and her childhood but towards whom, she never showed even an ounce of resentment in all the interviews I did with her.

    I think we need to give people the dignity of that choice to tell their stories or not. But of course, I get your point. That decision had to be made by Zura, not Farida. We were aware of that, and so we followed the lives of three other teenagers in Kibera, interviewing and photographing them. The decision to use the story about Farida and Zura was made only AFTER Zura had been told her status and agreed for us to use it. I am sure that whilst we were photographing she wondered what it was about, but the whole point is that the focus was not just her status, it was about their lives, how they get by every day, their dreams, their relationships, and that is exactly what we told her.

    As a former BBC journalist myself, I think it is essential to keep having these debates about what is ethical and not in reporting people’s stories. In this case, I think we went to every length to ensure that we not only followed the rules, but that the participants could make a truly informed choice.

    Maimouna Jallow
    Medecins Sans Frontieres
    Regional Information Officer (Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia,Ethiopia)
    [email protected]

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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