"It was probably 10 years ago. I asked my parents to show me the papers for the property they say they had to leave behind in 1991," said Mohammed Salim Khan, a 28 year old Kutupalong Registered Camp resident.
What the parents showed him was not nearly enough. "It was, I think, two old pieces of paper and that's all my educated father had to show for the life my parents lived in Myanmar," he recalled. That was the moment Khan decided he would fervently document their lives in the world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Khan is one of the many born in the camps to persecuted Rohingya parents who fled Myanmar in the early 1990s. He claimed he never set foot on Myanmar soil and continues to live a refugee's life, or that of a Forcibly Displaced Person's (FDP).
Ten years after the conversation with his parents, Khan is a Rohingya photographer and his commitment to document Rohingya life did not falter. "You see, the root of our people's trouble is documentation, or the lack thereof," he said.
So Khan decided to keep a digital record of life events by taking photographs. He maintains a digital archive, in case his phone or his personal computer are to be seized for any unprecedented reason.
The digital safehouse for Rohingya life will continue to exist for his two children and for the generations to follow, "even after I die, the documentation through photography will exist," Khan explained. This is paramount for a community who continues to live under the weight of persecution and a lack of sense of identity.
With scores of foreign journalists and documentary filmmakers venturing inside the camps, Khan started to work as a translator and stringer for some of them. He also followed closely how the professionals take pictures.
Photography became more important to him. Now a photographer, Khan regrets that he did not take pictures of his parents, both of whom passed away several years ago. He lost his mother to kidney stones and limited access to healthcare. "That was upsetting, to be unable to help her," he said.
Last year, Khan came to know on social media about a Rohingya Photography Competition (RPC) to be held in the camps. He was instantly interested. The announcement stated the instructions and criteria for the competition.
"I followed all of it, and I worked with confidence. In the end, I won one of the prizes under the category 'Rohingya Life,'" he said. This competition was a very first of its kind.
"This initiative is a first for us, it was where we were identified as photographers. The word 'photographer' was used for us for the first time. 'Exciting' does not even begin to capture the emotion," Khan added.
RPC is an initiative by a UK-based documentary filmmaker, Shafiur Rahman. "I had been going to the camps regularly since December 2016," Rahman told The Business Standard over email. "When the lockdown came, this was no longer possible. The pandemic created a lot of fear. The projections for the Rohingya camps were dire."
And so "I thought that this was the time for Rohingya youth to document their own lives during this critical period," he added.
Last year, RPC had 58 participants, including four female photographers. This year, it has 76 with eight female photographers and over 2,000 submissions that three judges - Liza Boschin, Shahidul Alam and Natasha Hirst - have to sift through, study and judge.
This year Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa and the Oxford Human Rights Festival, Oxford, England are sponsoring the competition. Winners will be announced in late September or early October, Shafiur Rahman confirmed.
Documentation through photography
"I don't know if you remember but there was very heavy rainfall at the end of July this year. I came to know about flooded houses in camp 3 area," said Haider Ali, a 25 year old Kutupalong Registered Camp resident.
On the third day of rain, Ali attempted for the second time to go to the site and take photographs to document the impact. He found children swimming in water to make crossing from houses to dry land. Some were almost neck deep.
"I spotted a girl, maybe 10 years old, she was under water from her neck down," Ali recalled. "I captured the moment first on my camera phone and then went in the water to help her."
Later when Ali asked the girl why she was in the water in the first place. She said she was trying to go see if she could fetch some clean clothes from her house. "And said she had not eaten anything that day; it was 5 pm in the evening," Ali recalled, "can you imagine?"
At first, people either left their houses for dry land or they climbed onto their tin rooftops to stay dry. But the rain was relentless. Later, residents had to swim or wade through water and take shelter in a school located on a nearby hill in the surrounding camp, Ali explained.
Ali estimated around 10,000 people were affected by the heavy rainfall.
"You see, now I have a picture to show you of the flood and the rain and the girl," Ali said, "you can see for yourself, we can have a proof of life."
Ali estimated that there are 200 Rohingya photographers in all the camps combined in Cox's Bazar. Some have training, some do not, he said. Several of the non-government organisations, even individual professional photographers in some cases, that work in the camps have provided photography training workshops.
Ali included, several of the Rohingya photographers, took part in various such photography workshops.
"Rohingya need to find self-expression. Their story is usually told by others. And I am glad that the photography competition has inspired many to start documenting their lives," said RPC organiser, Rahman.
"The level of the pictures submitted this year is even higher than the last from what I have seen so far," said Liza Boschin, Italy-based photographer, documentary maker and a two-time juror of RPC. "There are some very talented photographers living in the camps. I see an exceptional eye for portraits and telling of everyday life stories," Boschin commented.
Joy, dreams and reality
There is an Instagram account under the name Rohingya Photography, where photo submissions are uploaded. "Every time my photo gets published, the more happy I feel," said Salim Ullah Armany, a 32 year old Kutupalong Registered Camp resident.
"I remember hearing how photos can speak, when I was a school student. I wondered how that would be possible," Armany said, "but with time, I can see, it is true, photos do speak."
Long before taking part in the RPC, Armany had vested interest in photography. He built on it. It was a photography workshop by Internews, an international non-profit organisation, that pushed him deeper into the craft. "I realised the more I take photos, the more good I feel," Armany said.
And soon he had a commendable collection. "I was thinking of how to publish this," Armany recalled, "and that is when I heard about the RPC."
Armany was not able to participate in the first competition held last year, because he failed to get hold of the organiser's contact information, he said. But this year, he is very excited to take part.
Haider Ali, too, is a first time participant in the competition. "If I had a country, I am sure I would have pursued a career in photography," Ali said.
When Ali was in the third or fourth grade, he said, he saw a person taking a photograph for the first time. A foreigner was visiting his camp, who came in with his own security personnel, "which is a common thing we see," Ali added. They took a photograph, the policeman held out a phone and took a picture of the foreigner. "That's the moment I understood what it means to take a picture," Ali added, "and I was hooked on the idea."
Armany, Ali and Khan, all three use camera phones for their photography. They share a collective desire to improve their skills, own a camera someday and become professional photographers. "There are limitations using a phone camera, you cannot capture certain images or moments the way you want to with it," Armany explained.
But their dreams are full of strife.
"Full time careers are not possible in any area of life in the camps. That is a prerequisite to develop a career or a profession," Rahman explained.
In the near future, "we are publishing a book soon. And, we will carry on showing the work of Rohingya refugees in whatever [scope] way we can," Rahman added.
Khan recalled how he had to give up on an opportunity due to the lack of identification card. Through his affiliation with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Khan had the chance to go and study photography in Chittagong. But, ultimately, the dream deferred.
Female photographers, although doubled in number in this year's competition from four (2020) to eight, have more limited access to the competition.
"There was a ban on 3G and 4G internet in the camps. That affected how easily people could submit photos, and interestingly, it affected women photographers in particular as they could not go to internet shops to upload the images," Rahman recalled.
Doc Sabba, exposure and outreach
Doc Sábbá is a monthly Art Zine publication featuring the work of Rohingya refugees, including photography, paintings and words. The title, Doc Sábbá, means 10 pages in Rohingya language.
"The aim is to harness the creative energies of Rohingya refugees in the camps and secondly, to increase the visibility of the creative work being undertaken by Rohingya refugees. Opportunities for education and work are extremely limited in the camps of Bangladesh," explained Rahman.
According to the organiser, the Zines are printed. They are also available digitally. The printed Zines will now be held by the University of Salford Zine library in England. It is hoped that the Zine will also be stocked by other libraries.
The exposure for the Rohingya photographers garnered by the Doc Sabba Zines and RPC has been exceptional. "No one knew my name, nor my work," exclaimed Armany. "And now people know about me. I remember just recently a friend asked me, 'aren't you featured on doc sabba? I think I saw your name."
"It is through this photography that we can tell the world of our stories, and reach places much, much beyond these camps," said Ali.
The photographers said they have also noticed a growing interest in the craft among younger people in the camp. "When the photos get published, Rohingya youngsters see it, they feel inspired and in turn, they too want to take photographs and get featured [on such platforms]," said Armany.
All three photographers gave the captions for their photographs featured in this story.