A devastating fire ripped through Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on a hot summer day in March 2023. The fire which was attributed to a ‘planned act of sabotage’ left nearly 15,000 Rohingya refugees homeless and set ablaze 2,800 shelters including Azimul Hasson’s house which he shared with his parents, two brothers and a sister.
The 21-year-old watched helplessly as the deadly fire consumed his home and those of his friends and relatives. “The fire was big and had set ablaze many shelters. People were crying and running,” said Azimul, remembering the day. He wanted to act but didn’t know what to do. Azimul then did what he knew best. He took out his phone and started taking photos and a video of the billowing smoke and destroyed shelters which he posted on his Instagram account where he has 3,000 plus followers.
“I took some photos, not many, because I was terrified,” he added. Azimul and his family later shifted to another site where they constructed a fresh shelter made with bamboo, thatched material, tarpaulin and tin sheets.
Omal Khair, a resident of the same camp, and a budding photographer like Azimul, took photos of the fire’s aftermath. Her photos, posted on Instagram where she too has over 3,000 followers, revealed destroyed structures and people labouring to reconstruct their shelters. Her own house was mercifully spared from the fire.
Hasson, 21, and Khair, 20, are Rohingyas refugees who along with their families fled mass killings and persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar in August 2017, crossing over to neighbouring Bangladesh where they now live.
Hemmed in by the barbed wire fences of the refugee camp where they share space with an estimated 600,000 plus refugees in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Hasson and Khair’s window to the world beyond is through Instagram and their way of telling the world that they exist, through photographs of everyday life in the camps.
When I speak to Hasson on a video call, his eyes show fatigue and the longing to escape his confines. “I feel as if we are trapped in a cage. I want to go back and live in harmony,” he says. True to his words, Azimul’s photos are often of barbed wire which runs around the camp, and which Azimul hopes to escape one day.
Azimul sends me a recently taken photo where dozens of empty cans, buckets and aluminium pots are lined up against each other. “We have a shortage of water in the camp and therefore we must constantly store water,” he explains and adds, “I want the world to see what I see through my eyes.”
When I speak to Omal, it is late at night and she looks tired after studying through the day. Omal was studying in Class 10 when she was forced to drop out and flee Myanmar. In the absence of formal schooling, Omal tutors herself in maths, English and social sciences by studying online. Omal too wants to return. “I miss my home so much”, she says, but admits that “Rakhine state is still not safe for us.” Omal’s images are most often of smiling and hopeful faces of girl children with captions expressing their desires and aspirations such as becoming a doctor and her concern about the lack of formal education in the camps. In a striking photo, a young Rohingya woman is seen sitting on the ruins of her house destroyed by a fire which broke out in March 2021 while her toddler rests its head on her lap, holding on to a UNICEF bag.
Omal, Azimul and Dil Kayas - another Rohingya refugee photographer - who could not be reached for the story were introduced to photography in 2018 through a training programme conducted in the refugee camps by Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation which works with Rohingya refugees and Doha Debates, a platform that hosts debates on current affairs.
Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights said the trio had emerged as the most exceptional participants during the initial training. “They’ve since amassed online followers, published their first book, and had a major art opening in Doha. Their work is extraordinary and powerful, and also a testament to the fact that Rohingyas are more than genocide survivors. In this case, they’re photographers, artists, authors, and more,” Smith said in an email.
Omal and Azimul capture the hardships of refugees through their images, but the focus is also on everyday life - whether children laughing with abandon, the sobriety of a funeral procession, fires erupting in the camps, refugees performing odd jobs, or mourning crowds observing Rohinga genocide remembrance day. They also shoot Rohingya cuisine and rituals like applying thanaka, a paste made from tree bark, and even occasionally caption their photos in Burmese script.
While the two are not paid for the content they post on Instagram, they receive requests for photos through which they earn some money. “Sometimes journalists contact me for stories for which they want photos. I take photos of life in the camps, the suffering of my people, the shortage of water and the lack of education,” Azimul says.
Both use smartphones rather than cameras to shoot images to avoid attracting attention from security personnel. Azimul uses an iPhone which he purchased with his earnings while Omal uses Samsung Galaxy A51 given to her by Fortify Rights.
Despite owning a good quality phone Azimul rues the lack of a camera. “Sometimes, my photos captured with a phone are not of good quality. A camera would have been convenient but unfortunately as I’m surviving in a cage and trapped, using a camera would bring trouble for me. But I hope I can do it one day,” he says.
The duo’s photographs have been compiled and published in a book titled ‘A Chance to Breathe’, published by Fortify Rights and Doha Debates.
Even as their work was being exhibited in Doha and Bangkok, with the help of Fortify Rights and Doha Debates, none of the photographers could physically attend the exhibitions because of restrictions on their movements as refugees.
Their journey as young and rising photographers with a growing social media following hasn’t been smooth. Omal explains that it was especially difficult when she started photography as a 16 year old by participating in the media training organised by Fortify Rights and Doha Debates.
In the early days of her photography, Omal encountered both online and offline harassment.
She prefers not to dwell on specific instances of harassment but says she is at the receiving end of comments as a hijab wearing woman working outside her home. “Traditionally, Rohingya girls who reached adulthood were discouraged from venturing out alone to work. Those who did, faced criticism, and were accused of not adhering to Islamic rules, despite Islam allowing females to study and work while wearing a hijab.”
Omal says she took time to explain her purpose to her critics: documenting the suffering and dire conditions faced by Rohingya refugees. “Over time, more people understood the importance of my work and now I receive encouragement and appreciation,” she says.
Omal lives with her mother and two siblings in a cramped house in the camp. “My family members appreciate my work and support me but it is challenging to live in this crowded and unsafe camp,” she says.
Both Omal and Azimul want to become professional journalists and spread the message about injustice to their community and hope to receive scholarships which would allow them to study and travel.
Despite a modest following on Instagram, the two refuse to feel discouraged while desiring more followers.Omal wishes for “millions of followers” while Azimul is content that his followers like both him and his work and wants “more and more” in future.