Writing Reality: Reflections on Photographs of Refugees for Culture Night 2015

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
Kuir, South Sudan. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

 If this Friday’s Culture Night 2015 seeks to present new developments in the arts in Ireland, then Oxfam in Dublin have conceived a intriguing idea this year by combining two arts in one for their event: writing and photography.

The project also addresses one of the most important humanitarian issues of the day. With live readings from several of the writers and poets involved taking place in the Oxfam Book shop on Parliament Street from 6:30pm on, it promises to be a great night.

Like all of Europe, we are haunted at the moment by the Mediterranean crisis. The accompanying news reports deliver the facts and figures, and prompt many questions. At some point, however, we can also get a little media-fatigued looking at the images on our screens. In the deluge of the visible, essential humanity can become invisible.

“Make Them Visible*,” is part of a campaign organised by Oxfam Ireland as part of “EUsavesLIVES” in collaboration with the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection,” explains Alice Dawson, of Oxfam Ireland. “It seeks to bring a broader and clearer awareness of the global homeless.

For the Culture Night project, Oxfam sent fifteen Irish writers fifteen different photos of refugees or displaced people from Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, and asked them to write a piece of short fiction, personal reflection or poetry inspired by the image.

I was honoured to be asked to participate in the project. Having worked for almost a decade as a press officer and editor in UN peacekeeping operations in Central America, Africa and Asia, the issue is one close to my heart.

When I received the photo from Alice Dawson in Oxfam Ireland a few weeks back, I was deeply moved. Taken by the exceptional field photographer Kieran Doherty (named earlier this year by TIME Magazine as “one of nine Irish photographers to look out for”), it is a portrait of a young woman (see top right) displaced by one of the most violent and relentless conflicts on earth: South Sudan.

Oxfam issued a clear and fair description of the material and the work to be produced by participants: “The written pieces, poem or prose, are purely fictional, imagined by the authors in response to the image. They do not depict the real life, experiences or opinions of the person(s) pictured. In some cases, the author responded with a personal, non-fiction response. In these incidences, the piece reflects the experiences and opinions of the author alone and not the person(s) pictured.”

All the same, it takes a masterful writer to accomplish such a task well. There is a dilemma when writing about something as powerful and as undeniably personal as the photograph of a real person.   If a picture tells a thousand words, should the photo not tell the story by itself? Images of any kind – especially of people who are in situations that are vulnerable – require a sensitive and careful approach. Initially, I thought to give an imagined female voice to what I perceived, a young woman in deep distress, through accurate fact and careful imagination.

But words themselves, like “accuracy,” “fact” and above all “imagination” become volatile and blurred in this challenging context. I researched the harrowing history and current plight of this, Africa’s newest nation. I trawled Kieran Doherty’s stunning website to view every last image of his South Sudan work. My head filled up with the photos I had taken myself along the Eritrea-South Sudan border over a decade ago – when my first visit to a refugee camp left me deeply humbled and disturbed.

Only after working and re-working a dozen drafts of the piece, and hating each one more than the next, did I realise how challenging it is to bring home an idea in words that is already a story in visuals. I printed out a large version of the photo and hung it on my wall for a couple of days.

Also working on pieces for the project were writers and poets as diverse as Colum McCann, Ella GriffinEoin McNamee, Kate Kerrigan, Belinda McKeon, Gerald Dawe, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Theo Dorgan, Rita Ann Higgins, Helen Falconer, Jan Carsen, Michael Harding, Bethany Dawson and Gavin Corbett. A truly fine group of artists – and each with a different take on their respective photograph.

Eoin McNamee is the author writer of six novels; his latest, Blue is The Night won this year’s Kerry Group prize at Listowel. His work has often focused on conflict – albeit one significantly closer to home – and here he has written a grave, minimalist, piece that reflects on the awful significance of life’s tiny details. Three refugee men are in the frame; he deftly gives an unsentimental, memorable voice to each. One of them stands with an infant in his arms; his shirt is torn. Where is the spouse whose hands might sew the rip?

“The job is observation and record. To twitch aside the murderous cloak of politics and pick out a detail – a man’s pink shirt, a woman’s hands – and write it down,” says McNamee. “To bear witness to another’s suffering is not the same as to suffer and the words are paltry. The only consolation is that once something is written, once it is said, it cannot be unsaid. And the unsaid is the enemy.”

Belinda McKeon (novels, Solace, Tender) found inspiration in the writings of Alberto Manguel. “’Maybe this is why we read,’” she quotes, from Manguel’s A Reading Diary. “’And why in moments of darkness we turn to books: to find words for what we already know’”.

“In this case,” she suggests, “what we already know is NOT the story of these people, who they are, what they feel; rather what we know is that these people are our fellow citizens. We are on earth, at the same time, for our one, short span. And we know that it is our duty to send what help we can, and to do more than that. As this campaign makes clear, we know that we should not and cannot look away or pretend not to see. We see them. And they see us.”

In order to try and see things more clearly, author Ella Griffin whose most recent novel is The Flower Arrangement,  shifted things to a personal perspective, and took her story home: to South County Dublin. Armed marauders had burned down the village of the woman in her photo, killed her husband, and forced her to run from her home with her children, bringing with her “nothing but tears”.

“I tried to imagine that horror in an Irish setting,” she says.

The resulting story, which could be set in any Irish city suburb, is viscerally violent and affecting – and due to the geographical metamorphosis, rings true.

Recently, Thomas Morris (We Don’t Know What We’re Doing), in an online “tips on writing” piece, recommended that a writer delete their first and their last para as a matter of course to reveal more about whatever they’ve written. It wasn’t until I was right on deadline that I admitted to myself that I didn’t, as it were, know what I was doing, and deleted each and every para.

ERITREA-PIC-Helena-MulkernsI took a walk on Sandymount Strand, and while breathing in the early Dublin evening, remembered the face of a little girl that I had photographed once in Eritrea, and finally got my story. Then I went home and gut-wrote in one night. Again, to achieve this, I had to literally turn the angle of the piece around 180 degrees (with apologies to Kieran Doherty, who thankfully liked it). I interpreted voice of the photographer, the initial observer of the subject.   In the story, like most people safe and sound in the European sphere, he is confronted by the crucial question: are the refugees invisible, or are we just blind?

Just a few weeks ago, the stark obscenity of a three year-old lying face down on a Mediterranean shoreline shocked us all. The importance of that image goes without saying, but must it take something as horrifically extreme as Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body in the surf to bring home the dangers of this crisis? What about the subjects of tens of thousands more photos, each and every one of them depicting a human being with their own individual tale?

In the broader arena, while the crisis in Europe highlights just one group of refugees, many of us are unaware that there are now almost 60 million refugees or displaced people worldwide, the largest number since World War II. Oxfam has said that were these refugees to set up their own country, it would be the twenty-sixth most populous nation on the planet.

Ultimately, this is the power of the “MAKE THEM VISIBLE” event on Friday night. It dares to ask artists – in this case writers – to adjust their focus and provide new interpretations of a given version of reality – in this case one delivered by photographers. The results will hopefully help highlight the reality of our refugees and displaced people – and make them as visible as possible so that viewers can, in turn, pose questions to themselves.

Helena Mulkerns
Helena Mulkerns

(c) Helena Mulkerns

The MAKE THEM VISIBLE event takes place this Friday, 6:30pm in the Oxfam Book shop on Parliament Street Dublin.

*The written pieces, poem or prose, are purely fictional, imagined by the authors in response to the image. They do not depict the real life, experiences or opinions of the person(s) pictured. In some cases, the author responded with a personal, non-fiction response. In these incidences, the piece reflects the experiences and opinions of the author alone and not the person(s) pictured.

Donations are needed to help refugees in crisis right now – to do this, visit and make a donation to Oxfam’s Refugee Crisis Appeal at: www.oxfamireland.org

Don’t miss the free photo exhibition, and live talk by photographer Kierán Doherty – titled MAKE THEM VISIBLE – that will take place at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on 12 November 2015 – for full details check back to the Oxfam Ireland website: www.oxfamireland.org

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