Greg Constantine: photographing Burma’s ‘Nowhere People’

Greg Constantine: photographing Burma’s ‘Nowhere People’

KÜBRA GÖKÇE
Weekly Zaman
December 10, 2012

‘Stateless people are some of the most forgotten people in the world today. Statelessness is a complex issue that many people in the world today don’t even know exists. Many people can’t even fathom that a government would intentionally deny an entire group of people citizenship, that governments would use citizenship as a tool and in some cases a weapon to exclude and marginalise’
Greg Constantine is an award-winning photojournalist from the United States who is currently based in Southeast Asia. Since beginning his career as a photographer, he has worked on numerous projects, including “Moments from Modern Day Edo” (about Tokyo), “A Matter of Exposure” (about North Korean Refugees) and “The Road to Re-Entry” (about formerly incarcerated women in Watts, Los Angeles).
For the past six years, he has been working on a long-term project titled “Nowhere People”, which documents the impact that statelessness and the denial of citizenship has on ethnic minority groups around the world. He especially focuses on the struggles of the Rohingya minority ethnic group in Burma, who have been stripped of legal citizenship by the government and whose situation he describes as one of the “darkest and most dire”. With an aim to highlight the issue of global statelessness, his work has been widely published and exhibited in many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Kenya.
In an interview with Weekly Zaman, Greg Constantine speaks about “Nowhere People” and explains how the project today serves as a reminder of the existence of the millions of stateless people who he describes as “the most forgotten people in the world today”.
I’d like to ask about your personal history before we talk about your project. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography?
I’m from the US and started my career as a photographer about eight years ago. I work primarily on long-term, self-assigned projects. My first project focused on North Korean refugees, many of which were children who were stateless. After living in Tokyo and then Los Angeles, I moved to Southeast Asia in late 2005 to begin work on my project “Nowhere People”.
Your work “Nowhere People” has been exhibited in several key cities around the world and also came to London’s Royal Albert Hall last November. Can you tell us about “Nowhere People”?
Originally, “Nowhere People” was going to be about one to two years long and focus primarily on stateless communities in Asia. I self-funded the project from 2006 to the end of 2008 because it was next to impossible to find anyone willing to provide funding. Slowly, the project started to receive attention. My work on statelessness in Asia was featured in a huge photo spread in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times as well as some other really important regional magazines, which I think are crucial to the success of this project reaching important audiences.
After about one-and-a-half years of working on the project, it became clear to me that this was a global issue, so I decided to expand my project beyond Asia. I’ve collaborated with the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] three times since 2008 [in Kenya, Ukraine and the Ivory Coast]. The UNHCR played a very important role in helping me to expand the project. Since then, I’ve managed to continue the project through grants. In late 2010, the UNHCR and UPS sponsored a large travelling exhibition of my “Nowhere People” project, and it is this exhibition that has travelled to all these key cities around the world.
What drew you to the issue of statelessness?
For one, no other photographer had really dedicated any length of time specifically on this issue. It really was uncharted territory, which was an opportunity for me. I also felt the issue of statelessness and the denial of citizenship touched on many themes that are fundamental to the way we live today — that are fundamental to the way societies are administered, function and operate. Statelessness, and particularly the deliberate denial of citizenship by a state or people in power, challenges many of our definitions of identity. It exposes the power of the state over who belongs and who does not belong. It challenges the principles of an open and democratic society. It also challenges the fundamentals of who has the right to have human rights, if that makes any sense.
Besides all of this, history is a huge element of the issue of statelessness. To understand why many people are actually stateless, you need to understand how they became stateless; you need to learn the history, understand the history and, unfortunately, many of these histories are forgotten. …
Stateless people are some of the most forgotten people in the world today. Statelessness is a complex issue that many people in the world today don’t even know exists. Many people can’t even fathom that a government would intentionally deny an entire group of people citizenship, that governments would use citizenship as a tool and in some cases a weapon — like in Burma — to exclude and marginalize people. So, I’ve been motivated to help shed light on the plight of many of these communities and also try to expose their stories to a wider audience.
You focused in particular on the issue of the Rohingya from Burma. Who are the Rohingya and why did you decide to write a book about them?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group who have lived in the Rakhine State — or historically known as Arakan — in western Burma for generations. Today, they primarily live in the isolated townships of North Rakhine. They have been one of the most oppressed minority groups in the world for a very long time. Over the past 40 years, successive Burmese governments have claimed that the Rohingya are not from Burma but are migrants from Bangladesh and, even though during British colonial times there was a migration of people from the Indian subcontinent into Burma, the Muslim community [in] Rakhine have lived in Rakhine for centuries. Still, the Burmese authorities have done just about all that they can to exclude the Rohingya community from belonging to Burma. The Rohingya are denied most social, civil and economic rights and have been subjected to any number of human rights abuses. Rohingya have fled the abuse in Burma for decades. In 1978, 250,000 Rohingya fled Burma after a crackdown by Burmese authorities and the same thing happened again in 1991, when another 250,000 fled a crackdown. Right now, it is estimated that up to 300,000 Rohingya live in Bangladesh, most as unrecognised refugees.
As for my book, all of the work I have done on the Rohingya over the past six years has been done in Bangladesh. Their situation in Bangladesh, just like in Burma, is fluid. It changes, and I believe their story is one of the most serious cases of human rights abuse in the world today and one of the most extreme cases of protracted statelessness as well. To tell the story of the Rohingya the way I felt it needed to be told required me to spend years on the project. … The book form permits me to tell the story the right way, the way the story deserves to be told, the way in which I think people will have a much better understanding of how complex and tragic the story of the Rohingya is.
You’ve been photographing the Rohingya Muslims for about six years now. Do you see a change in their situation and have they benefited from the recent reforms in Burma?
In the six years I’ve been photographing the Rohingya in Bangladesh, their situation has not improved at all. And the stories Rohingya have told me who have come out of Burma have not improved at all, either. Their situation has deteriorated. In Burma, the abuse they face at the hands of the Burmese security force, called Nasaka, has gotten worse. Not only have poor Rohingya fled North Rakhine in the past few years, but middle class Rohingya from North Rakhine have fled as well. Restrictions on the right to get married and the complications that come with these restrictions have gotten worse. Land seizure has gotten worse. The inability to travel freely has left Rohingya in North Rakhine destitute, with no other choice but to leave their homeland for Bangladesh. In southern Bangladesh, the Rohingya face growing intolerance, as was evident in the violent crackdown against them in 2012.
Bangladesh is a poor, overpopulated country with limited resources. Yes, this is true, but the neglect the Rohingya have faced in Bangladesh is a huge part of the larger story. And even though people criticise Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya, one thing everyone needs to keep in mind — the international community, EU, USA, ASEAN, etc. — is that the root cause of the plight of the Rohingya rests with the abuse and exclusion they face in Burma. Have the Rohingya benefited from the recent reforms in Burma? Absolutely not. And a lot of other people in Burma have not benefited from the reforms as well, so the big question to many would be how can these reforms be considered legitimate when an enormous percentage of the population in Burma, including 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine, have not seen much benefit from them?
What makes the Rohingya different from other stateless populations around the world?
For me, since I started my project “Nowhere People”, I’ve documented many groups of people who are stateless but, of all the groups, I think the outlook for the Rohingya has always been the darkest and most dire, specifically because there seems to be so little hope for solution in sight for them. One thing people need to recognise is that most stateless people are not refugees. They have never left the country of their birth but, mostly because of discrimination and intolerance, they are denied citizenship and the right to belong to their country of birth. Statelessness is often inherited from one generation to the next, so, in many places, generations of stateless people exist in their own countries, unrecognised, denied most fundamental rights and unable to belong to the larger fabric of society. The Rohingya is one of the only groups of people in my project who are also refugees. Successive Burmese governments, and specifically the Burmese government force called Nasaka, which is only found in the Rakhine State and nowhere else in Burma, have made life so miserable for the Rohingya, whether it be through abuse, extortion, forced labour, arbitrary land seizure or radical administrative measures like restricting the Rohingya’s ability to travel freely or restricting their ability to get married. They have no choice but to flee Burma to other countries, mostly Bangladesh.
For the billions of people on this planet who do have birth certificates, an ID card, a passport — can you describe the pain stateless people feel?
The situation for stateless people is different all over the world. Their histories are different and the reasons why they have become stateless and continue to be stateless are different as well. But they do share some commonalities. Probably the biggest pain stateless people feel is this sense of paralysis for not being able to go about their lives like other human beings, this sense of having almost no control over their futures. Yes, stateless people are amazing in their ability to find ways to exist and make it from one day to the next, but, overall, the obstacles that have been built up in front of them are often too much for them to overcome, and I think this gives stateless people an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Being denied the ability to have vital documents, being denied the ability to have or pursue and educations, being denied the ability to own land or be legally employed or travel freely are all obstacles stateless people are faced with every day. More importantly, it is the sense of not belonging that is painful for stateless people. To be born in a place — the same place as your father and his father — and be denied the right to actually belong and be recognised by that place is also painful.

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