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July 12, 2013

Photos Highlight Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Displaced Persons in S. Sudan

by Deborah Block

Renowned photographer Sebastian Rich has spent much of his career traveling around the world documenting the plight of people in war and conflict.  In Washington, an exhibit of his work called "Broken Lives" highlights Syrian refugees in Jordan and civilians caught in the fighting in South Sudan. 

Rich calls himself “a photojournalist in the right place at the wrong time.”  He has photographed and filmed every major conflict during the past 40 years.  He’s been wounded, kidnapped and held hostage.  But that has not stopped him from getting involved in the stories of the people he photographs.

“The pride, the hope, and the dignity that’s left, because when a refugee becomes a refugee usually they have absolutely nothing, only the shirts on their back when they cross the no-man’s land into the host country," he said. "But what struck me, what they do have left is their pride and dignity.”

Rich is known for his haunting images, especially of children, like a Syrian boy who was just crossing into Jordan.

He says he wants to remind people that anyone can become a refugee.

“In Syria, for instance, these refugees are coming from the city," he said. "They’re not farmers.  They’re politicians, lawyers, doctors, policeman, soldiers, coming to be a refugee for the first time.”

He took the photos for the U.N. refugee agency.  The organization’s U.S. representative, Shelly Pitterman, says the pictures reflect the plight of refugees everywhere.

“You see the trauma in some, the sadness, the loss, the fear that refugees around the world experience," he said.  "But at the same time, you see an element of hope.”

That hope, Rich says, is reflected in a South Sudan refugee camp, where villagers fled to escape fighting between the government and rebel forces.  He says one Syrian refugee, who came to Jordan with nothing, would not let her situation destroy her life.

“And within a few months, she had set up an unbelievably wedding dress hire business in a tin shack," he said. "Where she got the dresses from, I have no idea, but she hires out these ballgowns for weddings, and she does manicures and pedicures in a refugee camp.  That’s fantastic.”

Rich says he appreciates the refugees who let him photograph them, even in their darkest moments, like one Sudanese woman whose son died soon after they reached the refugee camp.  

“The camera is incredibly close to her face," he said. "And even after all the years of sticking my rather intrusive lens into people’s quintessential moments of terror, I wanted to back off, but she wouldn’t let me, and she said through the translator, 'I want my story told, I want my son to be remembered.'”

Rich also got the chance to do something he’d never done before - photograph refugees who have settled in the United States, like a seven-year-old girl from Sudan who is in a class learning about the American flag.

“I went to photograph her and she just held up a little bit of paper with her coloring in of the U.S. flag, and she’s got her shawl over her head, and for me, that was just a wonderful picture,” he said.

The U.N. refugee agency hopes Rich's pictures will bring awareness to the plight of all refugees, especially those in Syria and South Sudan.