Jul 16 2015

Saiful Huq Omi: “The Photo Activist”

by Billy Kung

Saiful Huq Omi is a young Bangladeshi photographer who has, since 2005, emerged to become one of the most dedicated documentary photographers in the field. His work covering the plight of the Rohingya refugees from 2009 onwards has helped immensely in drawing attention to perhaps one of the most persecuted and abused Muslim ethnic minority group in the world today.

Born in 1980 in Bangladesh, the Dhaka-based Omi grew up in a family surrounded by political activities. His father was a professor at the University of Dhaka and during the height of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War—which lasted for eight and a half months—the university was at the center of many political activities. Stories of the war and the loss of some of Omi’s immediate family members had been sown deeply into the mental fabric of a young child at an early age. Over a recent telephone conversation with me, Omi relayed how his parent’s teachings had always placed an emphasis on the value of social justice, and never on the importance of having a house or other material needs. In 2005, after he finished his Masters in Engineering he decided to take up documentary photography. When asked why he chose documentary photography and not commercial or advertising photography, his reply was: “I want to tell stories through my pictures and hopefully they can bring about changes. I am more of a ‘photo activist’ than simply a photographer.”

In truth, Omi’s interest in photography began during his time as a university student before he took the leap which turned into a full time dedication in 2005. His early project titled, “Heroes Never Die: Tales of Political Violence in Bangladesh: 1989-2005” won him the All Roads National Geographic Award in 2006. Three years later, in 2009, he began his long-term project on the Rohingya refugees upon an invitation from a member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit Kutupalong, one of two camps in the south-eastern district of Cox’s Bazar that was holding more than 32,000 Rohingya refugees. “I started going there every day, and not really taking any photographs. Initially, I just wanted to observe and talk to some of these refugees and listen to their stories as much as I can,” said Omi as he recounted those early days. “A number of my extended family members became refugees in 1971 after the war, so I can really empathize with some of their stories.”

The Muslim Rohingya people reside in the Rakhine state of present-day Myanmar. Originally of Bengali descent, the Rohingya population settled in the country at least a century ago, although some researchers speculate possibly far longer. However, in 1982, when General Ne Win’s government enacted the Citizenship Law of Burma, the Rohingya people were denied their citizenship rights and almost overnight they were thus stripped of their nationality and rendered stateless. In the eyes of the Buddhist dominated population this further reinforced the already existing notion that the Rohingya people do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis. Furthermore, with this government policy, which borders on the bizarre, to qualify for even just a second-class citizenship, the Rohingya people are forced to provide proof of family residency for at least the past 60 years. The minority group also face further discrimination as they are not allowed to vote and barred from entering professions such as medicine and law.

Sectarian violence against the Rohingya began in the late 1970s but gained international media attention in 2012 following the Rakhine State riots which left tens of thousands of Rohingya being displaced in Myanmar, and many more thousands forced to flee. It is not difficult to comprehend why the Rohingya would desperately seek a way, by any means possible, to leave the country—when their own government decidedly isolates this ethnic minority, denies its members of their citizenship rights, forcing them into refugee camps, turns a blind eye as ethnic violence targets them and ultimately pushes to drive them out of the country. Even if escaping Myanmar requires paying human traffickers to smuggle them on boats at extortionate prices to countries that may deny them entry, they are still willing to take that risk. Migrants often travel first to Thailand by boat, and then continue overland to northern Malaysia, while some go further south to Indonesia via the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman sea.

In May of 2015, as hundreds of Rohingya refugees desperately attempted to reach Malaysia, the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, insisted that they stay away. In a public statement, as reported in several news outlets including The Guardian and ABC News, the Deputy Minister stated: “I would like them to be turned back and ask them to go back to their own country.” The problem, he fails to recognize, is that the Rohingya have no country to call their own.

When Omi began photographing the plight of these dispossessed people, little did he know then that this was the beginning of a six-year-long photographic project, which took him to Malaysia, Thailand and Bradford, England. The resulting work is a powerful testimony to the hardships and desperation the Rohingya were confronted with on a daily basis. In the opening image for this blog post, a large number of refugees sitting in broken boats were being pushed back to the sea by the Bangladesh Border guards after their failed attempt to land in the dark of the night. The photograph is heart breaking. The central figure in the frame is desperately scooping water out of a rickety half sunken boat while other refugees looked on helplessly. The act portrayed in the image carried an almost comical futility bordering on the absurd, and when it was discovered later that 132 died after this picture was taken, I was almost overtaken by a sense of irrepressible indignation.

On one occasion while working inside the camps, Omi was asked by UNHCR to conduct a project to teach photography to teenage refugees and he gladly accepted. “I came from a family of teachers and I have heard stories from the children that touched my heart, but I did not know at the time that this experience would plant a seed in my heart for something to follow up on,” he explained over the phone.  In 2012, that seed took on the shape of the beginnings of a photography school in Dhaka, called Counter Foto, and it has since published the first photo periodical written in Bengali. Courses range from basic to advance, it has a one-year diploma program, and an international master class as well as workshops conducted by working professional photographers and artists in their chosen fields. It has become such a success that Omi said in just two and a half years the school has taught over a thousand students spread across three campuses, two in the area of Dhaka and a third in the port city of Chittagong. A fourth is in the planning stage to start in Kolkata, India. A photography festival akin to the annual Visa pour l’Image Perpignan—albeit on a much smaller scale—is scheduled to take place in November of this year.

In addition to being a still-photographer, the multi-disciplinary Omi has also worked as a producer and director for film and television. In 2012, he worked with Al Jazeera TV and produced a television documentary on the Rohingya titled “Hidden Genocide”, directed by Phil Rees, which had garnered much praise and recognition internationally after being aired in January 2013. In the meantime, however, the problems concerning the future of the Rohingya continue unabated. It is disconcerting to discover that as a model of political courage and a well known democratic voice of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi—daughter of the late General Aung San—has resolutely refused to address the issue notwithstanding thus only further exacerbating the isolation of this group of neglected people.

After the June violence in 2012, a large number of refugees started to come to Bangladesh. In mid June, 137 of them were caught by the Border Guards of Bangladesh as they were trying to get into Bangladesh during the Dark Nights. In the next morning, they were pushed back to the sea, using these broken boats. 132 of them died within hours of the push back on the sea as their boats were sunk. Courtesy the artist.
After the June violence in 2012, a large number of refugees started to come to Bangladesh. In mid June, 137 of them were caught by the Border Guards of Bangladesh as they were trying to get into Bangladesh during the Dark Nights. In the next morning, they were pushed back to the sea, using these broken boats. 132 of them died within hours of the push back on the sea as their boats were sunk. Courtesy the artist.

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.