Jun 16 2016

Annenberg Space for Photography: “Refugee”

by Billy Kung

In 2015, the world has witnessed an unprecedented number of people forcibly displaced by wars, conflict and persecution. According to the annual Global Trends Report released on June 18 last year by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), a worldwide displacement figure close to 60 million people was recorded compared to 51.2 million a year earlier. Most distressingly however, was that the report found half of the world’s refugees are children and the situation will only worsen further.

In Los Angeles, at Annenberg Space for Photography comes a timely exhibition titled “Refugee,” featuring works by five internationally renowned photographers commissioned solely for this exhibition: veteran British photojournalist Tom Stoddart; fashion and portrait photographer Omar Victor Diop from Senegal; renowned New York Times and Pulitzer prize winner Lynsey Addario; German photographer Martin Schoeller famously known for his detailed close-ups portraiture; and Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide whose graceful and poetic documents of various indigenous people in her own country remains second to none.

As we are now halfway into the year 2016, the refugee crisis remains critical. Over the last six months, more than 2,500 people have died in their attempt to reach Europe by sea, according to the United Nations (UN); and just in the month of May when the weather was warmer, a series of deadly incidents, such as overcrowding and poor conditions of boats and rubber rafts, had caused over 1,000 deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Wars and conflicts will always force large numbers of people to flee. The present increase in refugees is also due to the fact that better medical advances have helped to decrease the infant mortality rate and raising the average life expectancy, even in some of the world’s poorest countries. However, without a clear sight of peace arriving soon in many of the areas of conflict—such as Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere—there will likely only be even a greater displacement of people, and this refugee crisis will no longer remain as a crisis, for the word itself implies that the passing moment of danger will eventually come to an end, but instead it will frighteningly become part of the fabric of the world. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres commented in an article published by UNHCR: “It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop war and build and preserve peace.”

On view until the end of August, “Refugee,” is an engaging exhibition and one that will touch the heart. Viewers have the opportunity to follow Tom Stoddart’s photographic narrative of refugees first arriving in Greece, then traveling through Croatia and Serbia and eventually arriving in Germany; while Lynsey Addario offers a hard look at the plight of the stateless Rohingya population found trapped within a predominantly Buddhist Myanmar; Omar Victor Diop looks at the Central African Republic refugees forcibly displaced to Cameroon; and Graciela Iturbide focuses on displaced communities in Colombia threatened by gang wars and drug related conflicts. Lastly, Martin Schoeller’s detailed portraiture of newly settled refugees in the United States. Also included as part of this exhibition is the joint collaboration between The Annenberg Foundation and the Annenberg Space for Photography with the nonprofit Vision Workshops as well as the UNHCR, in providing a photography and writing workshop culminating in a body of work from the displaced youths within Soacha, Colombia.

On a more positive front, we shall have the chance to witness history in the making at this year’s Rio Olympics in August as the world’s first Olympic team made up entirely of refugees, where six men and four women, from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, will compete in the swimming, track and field and judo competitions.

TOM STODDART, Lesbos, Greece, 2015: A father celebrates his family’s safe passage to Lesbos after a stormy crossing over the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Courtesy the artist and Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles.
TOM STODDART, Lesbos, Greece, 2015: A father celebrates his family’s safe passage to Lesbos after a stormy crossing over the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Courtesy the artist and Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles.

“Refugee is on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography” in Los Angeles until August 21, 2016. 

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific