“This is our documentary on the crisis we are facing”: Rohingya smartphone photographers | global development

TA budget smartphone camera has become a way for many Rohingya stuck in refugee camps in Bangladesh to tell their own stories, and take pictures of their lives in the camps, which became the largest in the world when 700,000 people fled Myanmar’s army five years ago. They join 300,000 people who have already sought asylum across the border.

These photographers, under the age of 30, are building a record of culture and traditions they fear will be lost far from home, and have honed their skills during floods, fires, and other all-too-frequent moments of crisis.

Their photos have been featured in international media and photography competitions. Sahat Zia Hero, one of the growing numbers of Rohingya Last year the photographers published a book about his work called Rohingyatography and he followed it up by helping create a magazine that publishes photos of others he meets in the camps.

Zoda, 40, stares at the burned remains of her home after the largest camp fire, in March 2021, when 50,000 people lost their homes.  The smoke and heat were still so intense that she couldn't go down to the exact place where she lived.  Photo taken by Sahat Zia Hero.

Zia Al-Batal Square

  • Zoda, 40, stares at the burned remains of her home after the largest camp fire, in March 2021, when 50,000 people lost their homes. The smoke and heat were still too intense for you to go down to the exact place where you live.

Until 2012, she taught at Sittwe University in Rakhine State. I had to apply for papers and permits from the government to show up at the checkpoints where they were only checking Muslims. Even at university, I was discriminated against by students and even teachers. The Rohingya hated us.

When the riots occurred, the violence meant that Rohingya education had to stop. When I returned to my village, I was held for three days and beaten by the police. I didn’t leave after that. I supported my dad by fishing, but I also bought a smartphone and a computer and that was when I started shooting. It was illegal to have it, but I used it in the jungle, and I learned about it from YouTube videos I streamed using Bangladeshi internet at the border.

Rohingya refugees try to put out a fire that broke out in Kutupalong in July 2021 using pieces of wood and bamboo.  Zia Al-Batal Squares's photo.
A wide view of massive flooding in the camps in July 2021, a few days after a fire broke out.  Zia Al-Batal Squares's photo.
Rohingya refugees cross a river inside the camp over a destroyed bridge.  Zia Al-Batal Squares's photo.

  • Clockwise from top left: Refugees attempt to extinguish a fire in Kutupalong using bits of wood and bamboo, July 2021; Camp floods a few days after the same fire; Rohingya crossing a river inside the camp

We are refugees because of the genocide perpetrated by the army, and now one million Rohingyas live in refugee camps. Our aim is to shine a light on our crisis, to show the international community that even without publicity, genocide and persecution continue.

Living in the camps is difficult, especially without education and freedom of movement. The camps are crowded. There is no safe place for the Rohingya now.

The Covid-19 lockdown has stopped international journalists from coming to the camps, but this has encouraged Rohingya photographers to tell their own stories. Taking and sharing photos feels like a duty to my people, and a way to use my passion to improve them. It is the best language – it speaks more than words and shows the truth. I want the world to see the Rohingya people as human beings, just like everyone else, with our hopes and dreams, sadness, happiness, and sadness.

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While escaping by herself, Ishrat Fori Imran used her phone to capture their escape and carry everything they could through the jungle from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017.

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  • While fleeing along with hundreds of thousands of other people in 2017, Isharat Fauri Imran used her phone to capture their escape, carrying everything they could through the jungle.

I never touched a smartphone until I passed my school exams in 2017. My brother gave me a smartphone to call my sister in Malaysia, but I thought why not start capturing some memories, moments, and the beauty of my surroundings. I can keep it inside my phone as a history for posterity. Instead, only a few months later we had to leave our house due to army attacks and I took more photos as we ran through the woods.

Ishrat Fauri's cousin Imran the Younger performs ablution outside his shelter in preparation for daily prayer
A young Rohingya girl holds her brother as she looks at the camps that have become her home.  This image won the 2021 Oxfam Rohingya Art Contest.
Monsoon rains prevent Rohingya children from going to school and most spend their time playing outside instead.  Ashharat Fawry Imran found 7-year-old Qozoli underwater and sheltering from torrential rain outside her tent.
A Rohingya boy enjoys the monsoon rain and dances as he bathes in the flowing waters of a shelter.

Now I take pictures because it gives me joy – it can change my mood from sad to happy. If I ever feel depressed or anxious, I pick up my camera, because in that moment when I take the photo, I am completely focused on the subject and not on my depression. I really can’t express the joy I feel when sharing those photos with others, especially when they appreciate them.

I take pictures of whatever interests me – it doesn’t matter if it’s animals, people, nature, foods, or something else; I just took the picture. Whatever my eyes see, so does my camera.

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Rohingyas return from aid collection points with heavy bags of supplies to their shelters

Ro Yassin Abdel Moneim

Rohingya lifestyle, our cultural traditions from Myanmar, and our creativity – I wanted to capture that, which is why I started taking photos and videos from inside the refugee camps. It’s my passion to tell the world about our lifestyle, so wherever I go camping, I use my phone to take pictures.

I take pictures of Rohingya children, shelters, artwork, flowers, cultural traditions and also the crises we face in the camps, such as landslides, floods and fires. Although some other Rohingyas do not like to have their photos taken for their privacy, most of them are really interested in photography and what we do by sharing it with the world.

Eight members of this family of 12 have contracted dengue fever and are recovering at their shelter.
Rohingya workers help maintain infrastructure and hygiene in the camp by carrying out vital tasks such as garbage removal
Some Rohingya children are unemployed next to a sewage system near their shelters designed to help keep water out during heavy rains.
The only banyan tree that towers over it and provides shade for the surrounding shelters can be seen for miles.  Most of the trees were cut down to make space for the camps when 700,000 Rohingya arrived quickly in 2017.

  • Clockwise from top left: A family recovering from dengue fever; Rohingya workers remove rubbish to help maintain camp infrastructure and hygiene; A lone banyan tree can be seen for miles. Most of the trees were cut down to make space for the camps in 2017; Concrete drainage system designed to help drain water during heavy rain

I am a genocide survivor. I live with my family and we suffered without freedom, living in an uncertain future for nearly five years in refugee camps having already faced decades of discrimination and violence in Myanmar.

People can’t always express their feelings, and filming takes courage, but this is our documentary about the crisis we face in these camps.

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A group of Rohingya children play in the rain as water flows outside their shelters in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Raw Anamel Hassan

Photography helps us let people know how we are suffering. I take pictures of people still suffering as they live a life of refuge here. I take pictures because I think it can help others understand what those pictures are about and what they want.

A group of Rohingya students in Myanmar school uniforms demand justice on the fifth anniversary of the 2017 massacres that sent 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.  Photo by Anamel Hassan.

I am happy to take pictures, and when I want to raise a problem that my community faces, I always choose to take pictures over writing because it has a stronger impact on my viewers.

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A Rohingya man carried his sick mother to a clinic in the camps.

May Khan

I don’t remember exactly why I got into photography, but I loved it since I was young, even though I started in 2017 with a small mobile phone. I even started making short films too.

A group of Rohingya boys playing in a stream next to their shelters after the rain

I like to take pictures and do it as much as I can, especially in nature and on the street, but I have to be careful because of the rules inside the camp – I don’t always feel safe taking pictures here. Most people encourage me, although the reaction is mixed and some wonder if it has any benefit to me in building a career.

These photos capture memories and testimonies, recording our lives for decades and eras to come. A private photo can help ease clutter and reveal the unknown. It helps me mentally and economically too, and I can use it to really capture our community. I think these photos will be part of our history.

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A group of fishermen return home after searching for a catch near the camps in Cox's Bazar.

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