Art Bringing Awareness to the Refugee Crisis
By Veena Nesarikar (‘22)
Refugees in Greece and Tijuana, Mexico
Courtesy of Huang + Menders Photography
In the modern-day, the number of refugees is at an all-time high. Millions of refugees have fled their home countries in search of a safe haven.
The United Nations claims, “An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018.”
Although it is a major issue in society, many people do not know a lot about it. In order to make this subject more apparent to ordinary citizens, photojournalists Theresa Menders and Daniel Farber Huang started up The Power of Faces project. On this project, they work with their children, Celeste, 15, and Alexander Huang, 16.
Recently, there is a Power of Faces exhibit on display at the Princeton Public Library. It was on display from September 13 through November 30. Most of the photos on display at the exhibit were taken by Celeste and Alexander from Greece and Mexico camps.
The Huang family has been traveling to different countries every year since 2017 to work on The Power of Faces collection. They travel to multiple refugee camps and take pictures of the families at the camp.
In an exclusive email interview, Celeste said, “We work to put a human face to the Global Refugee Crisis. We intentionally crop out the context of the refugee camps because we want to focus on the individuals, not merely their label as ‘refugee.’”
So far they have visited camps across Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and Bangladesh. They usually take two to three trips every year and are currently planning to go to the Tijuana-U.S. border in December to document Christmas at the refugee camps there. In the next year, they are hoping to travel to Colombia and Jordan. Their main purpose with The Power of Faces is to raise public awareness of the refugee crisis.
“As teenagers, it’s easy to take a few things for granted, like education, safety, family and the promise of a productive future. This same dream was shared by many other young people around the world before their lives were interrupted and they had to flee their homes for their safety,” said Alexander, “Their lives were interrupted by war or persecution and now millions of people find themselves living in plastic tents on the dirt.”
Their travels have provided them with firsthand knowledge on what goes on in the camps. Alexander recalled that in the Barretal Refugee Camp in Tijuana, Mexico, people lived in very close quarters because of the surplus of people there, and how it did not have good sanitation or medical services. They had to wear surgical masks and gloves due to the high risk of infection and disease that could easily spread. Infections such as typhoid, tuberculosis, and cholera are just a few examples of diseases to which the refugees in the camps were exposed.
Although traveling to areas such as that is dangerous, they still continue their work due to their passion for the cause.
Celeste said, “The vulnerable people detained here were under constant threat. The camp was located in an area plagued by severe local crime. The problems the world is facing can seem overwhelming at times, and very often they are. But, we try to remember that helping even one person can make a difference.”
No matter any apparent obstacle, they still choose to continue their work. Even though there may be a language barrier at times, they find a way to manage.
Daniel Farber speaks some German and French, Alexander and Theresa Menders speak Spanish, and Celeste speaks both Spanish and French. They also work with translators that speak other languages such as Arabic. If none of these languages can be used, they use Google Translate, which has proven to be a useful tool for them.
Once they set up their equipment and cloth backdrop, they start taking pictures of as many people and families as possible. Once their pictures are taken, they print a copy for each family.
“Most refugees have lost all their material possessions, including their treasured family photographs. Having a physical photo of family or friends to hold in one’s hands can be a great comfort in times of need, so we bring photo printers and instant cameras into refugee camps and give people proper portraits for them to keep,” said Alexander.
One of the things that they strive for with their work is to preserve and showcase the individuality of the people they meet at the refugee camps. They don’t want people to focus on the circumstances they are in, or just think of them as victims, but truly as people.
“It is easy to forget the stories behind the overwhelming statistics. We show people with their inherent courage, beauty, dignity, and grace,” Celeste noted, "Someone once asked why we are so committed to raising awareness about this crisis, and the reason is because we don’t want anyone to say they didn’t know. We’ll work on this global issue as long as it takes.”