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As the world struggles with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tough problems facing vulnerable populations of refugees and migrants become more complicated. Discrimination against the Rohingya community has been exacerbated by the current crisis, while Bangladesh recently announced that it would not allow more Rohingya refugees to enter the country. In mid-April, Malaysian authorities rejected trawlers full of Rohingya asylum seekers over fears of COVID-19.
Rohingya refugees in Malaysia also face an increase in xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment from Malaysians during the pandemic, and there are still questions about Bangladesh's ability to handle an outbreak in its densely populated refugee camps.
To document the COVID-19 crisis with their own eyes, British-Bangladeshi documentary filmmaker Shafiur Rahman, who lives in London, organized the Rohinyá Photography Competition. Applications are open to members of the Rohingya community worldwide between April 23 and August 25, 2020. The categories are “Rohingya Life” and “Response to the Coronavirus”, and the selection of photographs will be exhibited at the Center for Human Rights Research and Education (HRREC) in Ottawa, Canada, and the Oxford Human Rights Festival, UK.
Global Voices interviewed Rahman via email about what inspired him to create this competition and what he hopes to achieve.
Global Voices (GV): Tell us about yourself and how you ended up filming documentaries about the Rohingya community.
Shafiur Rahman (SR): It all started rather unexpectedly in December of 2016. I was in Cox’s Bazar area working on a project in the hill tracts. There had been a tremendous influx of Rohingya people in October 2016 and they were still arriving in December. What I saw and what I heard convinced me that I should do some documentary work. I went back the next month and shot a film about sexual violence. I then worked on trafficking and massacres. The films I have made have been shown in festivals and channels throughout the world.
Shafiur Rahman (SR): It all came unexpectedly in December 2016. I was in the Cox’s Bazar area working on a project in the Chittagong Hills. There was a tremendous influx of Rohingya in October 2016 and they kept coming in December. What I saw and heard convinced me that I had to do documentation work. I came back the following month and produced a movie about sexual violence. Then I worked in (human) trafficking and massacres. The films I have made have been shown at festivals and channels around the world.
GV: How did the idea of competition come about?
MR: Actually a photo competition is a documentary endeavor. We are getting fantastic images already of the lockdown and of emergencies happening in the camp. A notebook of the days and weeks in the lockdown.
MR: In truth a photo contest is an attempt to document. We are already receiving fantastic images of quarantine and emergencies in the field. A notebook of the days and weeks in quarantine.
GV: Give us some details on the two themes of the competition. Because they are important?
MR: The themes are broad so as to allow the depiction of every tiny little thing to do with the camps. The reality is of course that when you start inquiring about that tiny little thing, whatever it is, you suddenly realize it is not tiny at all. It is all connected to the deportation of Rohingya from the state of Myanmar and their experience of genocide. And in the difficult and challenging conditions in the camps, you begin to question and wonder what exactly is changing for them. For me, these images that we are collecting are redolent of their decades-long struggle for survival. And now suddenly, they are hemmed in from all sides and a virus has entered the fray. It is a nightmare.
MR: The themes are broad to allow them to illustrate every little thing that happens in the fields. The reality is that when you start to find out about that little thing, whatever it is, you suddenly realize that it's not that little thing. Everything is connected to the deportation of the Rohingya from the State of Myanmar and their experience with the genocide. And in the difficult and challenging conditions in the fields, you start to question and wonder what exactly is changing for them. For me, these images we are putting together evoke their decades-long struggle to survive. And from one moment to the next, they are besieged from all sides and a virus has entered the scene. It's a nightmare.
GV: What kind of help do you get for the competition and who are the judges?
MR: I am running the thing myself. I am working on a variety of projects but I never tire of looking at images. Prominent humanitarians and Rohingya advocates are sharing their own images in the competition in order to support and help project the profile of the context. We have a variety of people – everyone from a former diplomat who was involved in the Kofi Annan report on Myanmar to the Founder of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), who has helped rescue thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean sea and has also been a part of the response to the Rohingya crisis. Prominent Rohingya activists are also on board. Liza Boschin, an Italian photographer, reporter and documentary maker is the chief judge.
MR: I'm handling it myself. I work on various projects but I never get tired of looking at images. Leading Rohingya advocates and humanitarian activists are posting their images to the competition to support and help project the context profile. We have many people – all from a former diplomat who participated in Kofi Annan's report on Myanmar to the founder of the Migrant Abroad Aid Station (MOAS), who has helped rescue thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea and also It has been part of the response to the Rohingya crisis. There are also prominent Rohingya activists. Italian photographer, reporter and documentary producer Liza Boschin chairs the jury.
GV: What response have you seen since the launch of the competition?
MR: Well over 400 images in the first three weeks. A fascinating glimpse of everything from social distancing to no regard for social distancing.
MR: More than 400 images in the first three weeks. A fascinating look at everything from social distancing to breach of social distancing.
GV: Why more Rohingya should compete?
MR: (…) The reality is just for fun, very modest prizes and to document their own lives.
MR: (…) Actually, it is only for fun, very modest prizes and to document their lives.
GV: Do you have tips for photos – what kind of images, devices, etc.?
MR: Think of telling a story in one snap. Or look for unusual angles. Or interesting faces. Think of getting pictures in difficult situations. Or just take a selfie.
MR: Think about telling a story with a snap. Or in looking at unusual angles. Or in interesting faces. Think about having photos in difficult situations. Or that it's just selfie.
GV: What can we expect from the exhibitions and their advertising?
SF: The exhibitions will take place in two places – Ottawa and Oxford – and in contexts which promote human rights. One is a human rights department of a university. The other is a human rights festival of a university. We are also already engaging other institutions and asking them to consider staging similar albeit more limited exhibitions. A well known published photographer and studio owner will run some of the images on his Instagram account.
SF: The exhibitions will be held in two places – Ottawa and Oxford – and in contexts that promote human rights. One is a human rights department of a university. The other is a university human rights festival. We are also inviting other institutions and asking them to evaluate similar exhibits even if they are more limited. A well-known photographer who owns a studio will post some images to his Instagram account.
GV: What do you expect for the Rohingya, and how can people around the world find out about your tireless efforts to help improve the lives of the Rohingya?
MR: Genocide should not be happening and yet it is. We keep saying “never again” but it seems to happen again and again. Let us learn from the Rohingya, and put an end to it.
MR: Genocide shouldn't happen, but it does. We keep saying “never again”, but it seems to happen over and over again. Let us learn from the Rohingya, and put an end to it.
Here are some images sent:
Some great shots submitted to Rohingya Photography Competitionhttps: //t.co/MATUKFz6Vu pic.twitter.com/8FT8pDdjcH
– Noor Hossain (@KTPNoorHossain) May 8, 2020
Day 43 of trust in Campo Rohinyá.
Some great pictures from the Photography Competition Rohinyá.
All in one #Rohingya PPE – Gown, Visor, Face Mask and Rain Coat. 😁
– Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) May 3, 2020
All in an element of personal protection rohinyá – robe, visor, mask and raincoat. 😁
Photo submitted to the Photography Competition Rohinyá by Md Hossain.