INTERVIEW with documentary photographer, Gabriela Bulisova
“A single refugee is a tragedy; over four million refugees is a statistic….”
Gabriela Bulisova, Guest
Today is World Refugee Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. It is with great honor that ChiqClicks bring to you an exclusive interview with Gabriela Bulisova, to discuss her work in advocating the plight of Iraqi refugees in her project Guest, on Iraqi refugees in Syria and The Option of Last Resort, on Iraqi refugees in the United States.
1. Describe yourself in one sentence
I uncompromisingly believe in the power of compassionate and concerned photography; photography offering not just a voyeuristic view into lives and struggles of others, but inspiring an active response in those confronted by such photographic images.
2. How and why did you start using photography as an advocacy tool for marginalized people?
In 1995, I traveled around areas of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia, which, a decade after the catastrophic accident, still suffered from the poisonous radioactive release. I was just a young observer, a total stranger to people I met, but people wanted to talk to me. They needed someone willing to listen to their grievances, their stories, their cries for help. Those encounters imprinted indelible memories and became a force for an inspiration to ”do something meaningful.” A couple of years later, a friend handed me a camera — an old analogue Minolta — and I knew that was ”it” — that was the tool I needed to start telling stories on behalf of people who could not tell them themselves. My first project with a camera in my hand took me to Iraq (2002) with Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose mission was to break the UN sanctions and deliver aid to orphanages, hospitals, schools, etc. Then, a year later, I went back to Chernobyl contaminated areas.
3. Your projects Guests and The Option of Last Resort, features Iraqi refugees in Syria and the United States. Is there a particular reason why you choose to highlight Iraqi refugees over other refugees?
The decision to work on a project about displaced Iraqis was a personal one. From the beginning of my engagement with the project, I consciously and specifically intended to focus on the struggle of Iraqis, although I know full well that many other millions of displaced persons around the world are enduring the same or similar hardships. One can easily get overwhelmed by all the injustice and destitution around the world and become passive or paralyzed. I often respond to projects/stories intuitively — I know when it is the ”right” one.
I was, I am, very upset by the US waging war on Iraq. There is so much to say about the criminal wrongdoing, about all the innocent civilians killed and wounded, about the physical, emotional, and psychological toll. We cannot even begin to foresee what the long-term consequences and the aftermath of this conflict will be.
But the matter of displaced Iraqis is perhaps the single most under-reported, understated consequence of the war. We, who initiated the conflict, have a fundamental responsibility to these people…especially, especially (!) if these refugees were targeted with assassination and had to flee their homes because they helped the United States, because they were affiliated with the US Army, the US government, or US businesses. We have direct responsibility to these people!
4. What’s the significance of the title for your projects, The Option of Last Resort and Guests?
For Iraqi refugees in the United States, the State Department considers resettlement in the US “the option of last resort.” In fact, the US has only admitted a trickle of refugees whose lives are threatened because they helped the United States.
In the case of refugees in Syria, the Syrian government does not afford Iraqis who fled their country refugee status and instead considers them “guests,” a designation that prevents them from working or attending school.
5. In your exhibition in Women in Photography, you said:
“When I meet, interview, and photograph those living daily in unimaginable hardship and despair, I am often overcome by my own inability to do more to respond. But the dignity, resilience, and persevering humanity of these individuals leaves me with no other choice but to cling to the belief that, with pictures, one can ultimately alleviate pain and rally support for social justice.”
In relation to your photographs taken for these projects, how has it alleviated pain and been used to rally support for social justice (or how do you plan to use it for those purposes)?
Everyone working in this field is confronted on a regular basis by the fear that our work is not prompting enough change. Ultimately, I feel the only answer to this is to press forward and continue trying to do all we can to reach others and build a consensus for social justice.
In the case of my projects with Iraqi refugees, I have given talks, hung exhibitions, participated in panel discussions, and published photos. I collaborated with several members of Congress and NGOs on an event at the US Congress specifically addressing the need to help displaced Iraqis. There is much more to be done. Perhaps, little by little, by refusing to give up, we will raise more awareness about this important and timely issue.
6. Do you plan on covering Iraqi refugees in other countries?
My hope is to go to Iraq to photograph people who became known as internally displaced persons (IDPs) — people who, due to violence waged against them, became refugees in their own country.
7. How do you gain access to these areas?
First, lots of advanced research and preparation. Second, reliance on a local ”fixer” — someone who knows the issue, speaks the language, understands what I am after and why I am there. Access is often the hardest thing to obtain, and much depends on the actual timing of a project, on people’s willingness to meet, and their readiness to share their life stories.
8. The National Press Photographers Association has a code of ethics guideline. In your experience photographing marginalized people – what do you think is missing in that guideline (or should be emphasized more, in relation to your field of work)?
I think all of these guidelines are extremely important when photographing marginalized people – people who often encountered deeply upsetting personal tragedy or trauma. But I think point 4 especially needs to be emphasized:
Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
9. What camera equipment do you use?
Canon EOS 5D
9. Having concluded a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, St. Mary’s City, MD where you taught photojournalism, and also teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD – What is the most important thing you tell your students?
Here’s what I emphasize:
Respect. Compassion. Patience. Dignity. Sensitivity. Endurance. Curiosity. Passion. Uniqueness of one’s vision. The importance of conducting research, seeking truth and accuracy, and striving for integrity.
One ought to keep looking and seeing and watching and listening and thinking and feeling. One needs to remain open and flexible and understanding. Prepare for a long-term commitment: expect go back, again and again and again. And, of course, one needs to adhere to the NPPA code of ethics guidelines (which we collectively read out loud in the very first class).
10. With DSLR cameras becoming more and more affordable, many up and coming photographers are self-taught. As a holder of a degree of Master of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging, what do you think are the advantages of studying photography formally?
I think it very much depends on the person and, also, what the objectives are for wanting to obtain MA or MFA. I needed guidance, structure, space and time. I knew I wanted to go into teaching. I have no regrets for spending two additional years within an academic institution (except for acquiring disturbingly large student loans, but that’s a different story).
Yes, there is an amazing pool of creative and dedicated autodidacts, self-taught photographers, who learn by doing it, by throwing themselves into the work. They are unafraid to try new styles and approaches, to apply their own vision and ways of seeing and telling. Why not? What matters is not the degree you hold but your commitment to do good – to be compassionate and concerned. What I am also seeing is a tendency to go out and try and then, later on, go back to school to obtain a degree.
11. Who are the other women photographers that inspire you?
This would be a long list…sigh…here are just a few names of amazing and inspiring women photographers: Alexandra Boulat, Susan Meiselas, Lynsey Addario, Stephanie Sinclair, Andrea Bruce, Carol Guzy, Melina Mara…to mention but a few.
In 2010 alone, these projects have been exhibited in Photoworks Gallery (Glen Echo, Maryland), Amnesty International Human Right Art Festival (Silver Spring, Maryland) and the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts.
Bulisova who is a native of the former Czechoslovakia, has also received numerous awards and grants such as the CANON “Explorer of Light” Award for Chernobyl “Half-Lives, Half-Truths” photo project, (2004), Trust for Mutual Understanding Grant, The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop Juried Exhibition, Washington, DC (Best of Show), amongst many others.