In her striking black and white portraits, Dhaka-based photographer Shahria Sharmin reveals the silent strength, resilience and dignity of people who are in the midst of horribly inhumane circumstances. Slightly blurred by movement, the images feel as if they are from another time, yet the reality is they belong to our contemporary world. We are confronted, in our age of technology, by the materiality of these photographs made arduously with a box camera, and the sensitivity of the photographer, and the cooperation of the people in front of the lens.
Located in the south of Bangladesh, Cox’s Bazar has one of the world’s largest concentrations of refugees in the world. Fleeing a wave of brutal violence that started in 2017 in Myanmar, there are now around 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh seeking shelter from genocide. Over the course of several trips, Sharmin met, interviewed and photographed many inhabitants of the camps of Cox’s Bazar.
Unlike many others who are documenting the plight of the Rohingya people, Sharmin’s photographic process is slow and cumbersome. Reminiscing on her arrival at the camps, she describes herself as “a woman, carrying a very large wooden box camera, nervous, not so sure why she was even there and looking completely lost—not a familiar site at all.”
The photographs in When Home Won’t Let You Stay are imbued with compassion. Sharmin’s attention to composing these photographs gives a presence to people who have been stripped of choices, their homes and basic human rights. Having faced the worst fates humans can endure, between harsh conditions in refugee camps and witnessing the execution of family members, the Rohingya people confront Sharmin’s lens with an underlying sense of sadness, defiance and an ineffable anger.
Stark contrasts create beauty amidst the most difficult conditions one can imagine. The people Sharmin photographs stare back, wordlessly expressing the brutalities they have endured. While families and individuals could have forever lost their stories of suffering, their eyes and postures speak towards a resilience of the spirit.
The threats that these violent conflicts of territory impose burden the future; a looming sense of irrevocable loss confronts the viewer, imploring us to bear witness, whilst also drawing attention to the presence of each person photographed.