Search for Sanctuary is an intimate portrait of one Eritrean community living in limbo in Ethiopia. The aim was to construct a photographic project that measured beyond their status as refugees and focused on them as individuals, to merely use the label of a refugee as a smoke screen in order to show the community, their interactions, and the efforts taken by parents to provide the best possible environment for their children.
I wanted to look past the initial images that we have come to associate with the refugee crises, those that focus on people as refugees and the sheer numbers involved. I wanted to understand one displaced community in a part of the world, forgotten by the rest, and to capture photographs not of refugees but of a community. A community is not given; it is an achievement, it is a universal need of the human experience, to belong with others. This is a story worth telling.
I replicated the journey taken by Eritreans from the camps in the north down to Addis where Eritreans often are pushed into segregated communities on the edge of the city. This project took route around one community in such a place. I was given the freedom to focus solely on this one community by the NGO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who work closely in the region and who funded the project. The community had been built from nothing and every day taking in dozens of people who had survived the journey. Unaccompanied children who had somehow made it were taken in as their own children. There was a remarkable sense of belonging.
One building within this community of shanty houses and muddy roads become my focus because it was central to life. The building operated as a church, school, restaurant, cinema, concert hall, playground, and wedding venue and on and on.It embodied their spirit. The photographs are predominately images from within this one building. I found it an important focus point because it symbolised what they had achieved. They had secured a safe and loving environment for the children and an incredible support network against the backdrop of uncertainty and prejudice. They had created a sanctuary.
Solomon has been at Hitsats camp since 2003. He has been waiting to hear from the UNHCR about his asylum application for 15 years.
Eritrea is one of the forgotten horrors of the world, often referred to as the North Korea of Africa. A silent, oppressive dictatorship where religion is not allowed and those caught in possession of the bible are sent to torture camps. Eritrea is also one of the fastest emptying countries in the world; thousands of people enter neighbouring Ethiopia each month. The UN camps near Aksum in the north are often the first stop, which are plagued by high temperatures and a lack of food. Eritreans often leave the camps for the capital, Addis Ababa, where they face a different landscape of threats: discrimination, segregation, and laws that forbid them from working. This environment forces many to lose hope and risk the perilous journey up Sudan, and through Libya for the shores of Europe. Ethiopia has to be challenged on its treatment of Eritreans. It is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and receives to close to 4 billion dollars a year in aid. Diplomatic pressure must be applied to change laws and attitudes. A path to citizenship and the right to work are two straightforward ways that will allow Eritreans to build a more secure future and fairer future in Ethiopia; this, in turn, will contribute to reducing the number of refugees risking their lives to get to Europe. Eritrea needs greater representation not just in the media but also on the world stage.
The place of sanctuary, a look into the main building of the community living on the outskirts of Addis Abba. It is being used as an afternoon music lesson for younger children. This photograph was taken from outside through some barbed wire put up to protect the community from xenophobic attacks. Fear of the other is deep-rooted in Ethiopia.
The young adults look after hundreds of children in the day when the parents cannot. The bond between them was remarkable to witness.
A Sunday morning and like most Sundays it is being used to host a wedding for two recent arrivals from Eritrea who meet in the community. There was a great deal of joy and dancing on display.
Eritrean refugees are treated as second-class citizens in Ethiopia, they face discrimination and are not allowed to work. This environment pushes many towards the deadly journey up South Sudan, through Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea for the dream of Europe. If we are to find a long-term, viable solution to the global refugee crisis more attention and resources need to be concentrated on countries outside of Europe at the starting points of mass displacement.
The portraiture of the children was shot in the building. It was designed around masks and art. A mask removes individuality; the plain mask represents the stereotypical, impersonal images produced en masse of refugees. The children created their own photograph, decorating over the plain white masks with complete freedom, adding personalisation to each image, and this allowed space for greater self-representation. The interactive nature of the portraiture allowed for the process of documentation to be slowed down. It also simply made sitting in front of a large camera less intimidating and more fun. In turn, I find these little things help to reduce the emotional barrier that exists between the photographer and the subject.
This then allows for a more honest and trusted image. The children’s characters are pushed closer to the fore. I find their eyes define many of portraits, a glimpse of their personalities and also some of pain hidden underneath the surface.
Search for Sanctuary is an intimate portrait of one Eritrean community living in limbo in Ethiopia. The aim was to construct a photographic project that measured beyond their status as refugees and focused on them as individuals, to merely use the label of...