Distress signals

By Thy Phu Posted June 4, 2013

Figure 1. Protest by Refugees at a Camp in Hong Kong.

Medium refugee camp 1

During the late 1970s to 1990s, waves of boat people fled from the aftermath of Cold War proxy conflicts in Southeast Asia. They ended up at camps much like this one in Hong Kong. Makeshift dwellings, the camps resembled prisons, complete with barbed wire and armed guards. As part of the procedure of documentation, refugees were inspected. They were assessed. They were also photographed.

For example, during the so-called Indochinese refugee crisis, the UNHCR snapped ID photos to be included in asylum claims.  Such refugee ID photos typically feature frontal shots of people who are alone or accompanied by family members. They clutch a hand-written sign indicating the date and boat they arrived on as well as the birthdate of the head of the family. The photos capture their destitution and desperation.

There is another familiar context in which the plight of refugees is made recognizable to distant viewers. Think of newspaper stories about this crisis. The photos accompanying these stories likewise portray refugees as passive and abject—reduced to being just human, as Hannah Arendt might say.

Figure 2. UNHCR Refugee ID Photo.

Yet seldom do images consider how refugees actively participate in the photographic encounter. The work of diasporic art photographer Binh Danh envisions this possibility. Traveling decades later to Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp on a Malaysian island where he and his family had once stayed, Binh Danh begins his project by salvaging and photographing the remnants of the camp, including tattered documents that have been long discarded. 

Though ex-refugees have urged Malaysia to build a memorial to the boat people who stayed at the island, instead of developing it for tourism, the site is still neglected. The site is remarkable not for what it shows of the events that unfolded during the time the camp operated, but rather for what it does not show. When ex-refugees make this pilgrimage, they find that what they see before them fails to measure up to the image they carry. Binh Danh’s re-photography project discloses this disconnection.

Figure 3. Remnants of the Pier at Pulau Bidong, from Binh Danh's Pulau Bidong Project. 

Another powerful exception to the visual cliché of refugee victimhood is presented by this photo of distress sounded from behind the bars of the Hong Kong camp. Capturing the assemblage of bodies mobilized to voice poignant dissent, the photo focuses on a rare scene: refugees’ active participation in the photographic encounter. Drawing on the collective gathering of the bare life of bodies as the source of protest, the refugees stage a poignant photographic opportunity. This photo bears witness to collaboration between camera and a self-aware collective.



Figure 1 courtesy of the Paul Tran Collection, Southeast Asian Archive, The University of California at Irvine. Selections from the Pulau Bidong project (Figures 2-3) can also be found at the Southeast Asian Archive at UC Irvine. For more on Binh Danh's work, see binhdanh.com.