Through their project "The Power of Faces," Daniel Farber Huang and Theresa Menders photographed refugees across the world to provide them with physical family photos they otherwise may not have. We sent them instant cameras to aid them in their project. Check out our interview with them here.
Hi Daniel and Theresa, welcome to the Lomography Magazine! Please introduce yourselves a little to our community and tell us about your background.
Theresa: Great to be here with you. We're documentary photographers focused on raising awareness of humanitarian issues around the globe and very heavily involved with the Global Refugee Crisis. We're also husband and wife. For years, we’ve worked to raise awareness of women’s issues, children’s issues, and the alleviation of poverty around the world. We’ve worked on projects in the Republic of Vanuatu, Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, India, China, and more recently, Greece, Turkey, Mexico and Bangladesh.
Daniel: We work to raise awareness of issues, people, and ideas that warrant attention and reach people, organizations, and perhaps, nations who can help. We like rough light because that means where we are standing (or crouching) isn’t staged or often seen by the rest of the world. This can be inside refugee tents, squats and shanties, housing projects, and other overlooked places where people still hope and work towards a kinder future. When the light is poor or harsh, it’s often coming from a soiled window or bare LED bulb and we have two choices — either spend precious moments focused on our equipment or spend the time making a stronger personal connection with the person living there.
We strive to show people who happen to live with poor illumination in their best personal light – with courage, beauty, dignity and grace – whatever their circumstances. Being welcomed into a stranger’s home with our cameras implies their trust that we will show them truthfully to the world – not better nor worse than their reality dictates. It’s our duty to the broader world to show what we see in a true and accurate light.
Your current project The Power of Faces is bringing attention to the actual individuals who are forced to leave their homes. It forces the audience to look directly into the eyes of those who normally are depicted simply as an anonymous, faceless crowd of people. What sparked the idea of this photography project and how do you go about executing it?
Theresa: The United Nations called the Global Refugee Crisis “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.” Over 70 million men, women, and children have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. That equates to one person becoming a refugee every two seconds. Every. Two. Seconds.
In early 2017, we were documenting the refugee crisis on Chios Island in Greece, where thousands of people were living in plastic tents during the frigid winter at the Souda Refugee Camp. Although living conditions were terrible and people were suffering on numerous levels, we were surprised at how so many individuals were warm and welcoming to us. We were there to learn about the situation. The message refugees wanted us to share with the rest of the world was that they were not terrorists and just wanted to find safety. That refugee camp was literally along the shore of the Aegean Sea, which many people crossed from Turkey in overcrowded inflatable boats. Many refugees had lost their documents, identities, and history, and if their boats capsized or they drowned crossing the ocean, in many ways, there wouldn't be any record they existed, which is so fundamentally wrong.
Even though many people had their own smartphones, people often asked us to take their picture, not necessarily knowing what we may or may not do with their image afterwards. But they knew we were empathetic to their plight. We realized that having your photo taken by a third party can be validating. It shows someone else cared enough to recognize them. It shows they matter as individuals, and that is always important.
With your background of documentary photography, why did you choose the form of portraiture for this specific project (as opposed to documenting the refugees journey for example)?
Daniel: We document everything we can around this issue, actually. We have thousands of images documenting the horrific living conditions men, women, and children are subjected to, and the constant struggle refugees are facing. Over time, the news media has slowed on covering this major global issue and the public may grow numb seeing the heart-wrenching images.
The public response to The Power of Faces has been overwhelmingly positive, and we believe it is uplifting in its own way. There can be a tendency for some people to confuse another person living in a bad, dirty, or dangerous situation to be a bad, dirty, or dangerous person, and that’s simply not the case. By taking proper portraits of displaced people against our colorful backgrounds, we intentionally crop out the context of the refugee camps to show them as individuals, not merely their label as “refugee.” We also believe that if people can take a moment to look into a stranger’s eyes, perhaps they will fear that stranger less. We hope these portraits may help spur new people into action to address this crisis, as well as re-energize those people who are already helping however they can.
Tell us a little bit about your experiences and achievements so far with The Power of Faces.
Theresa: Our goal is simple. We want to raise awareness of the refugee crisis as broadly as we can so that nobody can say, “I didn’t know.” We’re actively going around the U.S. with exhibits, presentations, and photographer talks as well as publishing articles and online galleries. The Power of Faces has been exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Amnesty International in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, the Middle East Institute (a non-partisan think tank) in Washington, DC, numerous universities and colleges, non-profit galleries and other institutions. We hope to contribute positively to the public dialogue about refugees and share information so people can have an informed conversation to address this crisis.
Daniel: Most refugees have lost all their personal possessions, including their treasured family photographs. We believe having a physical photo of family or friends can be a special thing to hold in one’s hands and can be a great comfort in times of need. A major element of The Power of Faces is our ability to not only take photos, but to give physical photos to the people we meet. Over the course of working in camps in Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and Bangladesh, we have distributed thousands of physical photos to displaced people to keep for free. Some people give us permission to share their photos to the wider world, and we use those portraits to raise
We used the Lomo'Instant Wide in the Balukhali Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in April 2019. We chose this camera because we knew we would be operating in the camps without electricity, which meant we could not use photo printers or computers to print photos. The Lomo'Instant Wide's large format was ideal for our portraiture, as we often take group
photos of residents. And we also wanted to give people a substantial photo worth keeping so the larger dimensions made these more of a photo worth keeping. We gave out Lomo'Instant Wide prints to the people in the camps and also took digital photos for publishing purposes.
Did you use studio strobes or the onboard flash for the photos? Could you tell us more about your light set-up, and how is it working for portraiture in particular?
Theresa: When you’re doing the type of portraiture we’re doing, it’s almost impossible to know in
advance where or when you’ll be working. We set up impromptu studios with our backdrops wherever is best, but that may be against a chain link fence, next to the latrines, strung between two trees or inside a hut. So being able to be fast and flexible is incredibly important.
In Bangladesh with our Lomo'Instant Wide, we relied on the onboard flash to throw catchlights
into the eyes, which made a meaningful difference. On our next trip, we’re adding the Fritz the Blitz flash for more versatility. We think it will make the photos we give out even better.
How do you like working with it now? What are its advantages for your project?
Daniel: In Bangladesh we were working in 100-degree weather under the blistering sun, standing on loose dirt that blew up fine sand into all our gear. We have to carry everything we use in our work, so weight and efficiency are incredibly important to us. We pushed our Lomo'Instant Wide as hard as we could, printing hundreds and hundreds of photos each day, nonstop. Having to bring only the Lomo camera body, film packs, and spare batteries was exceptionally helpful and allowed us to work fast, which meant that we could serve as many people as possible each day.
Do you have a favorite photo / story of the project that you would like to share with us?
Theresa: There are so many people we’ve had the privilege to meet and interact with as a result of this project. If even for a few minutes, we’ve been able to come into contact with hundreds, probably thousands, of individuals and take a pause to make eye contact, take a deep breath, and help them feel at ease having their photo taken. Through our body language, demeanor, and tone, people come to understand that we recognize them as individuals and that we want to serve them with respect, and also to provide them with beautiful photos of themselves and their family or friends. So it can be a really lovely dynamic that crosses language barriers.
We also recognize the trust we are being given from the people who give us permission to share their portraits with the wider world to raise awareness, and we take that responsibility very seriously. There are so many stories that deserve to be heard.
Daniel: We met one young man, Mohammed, in early 2017 in the Souda Refugee Camp on Chios island in Greece. He was living in a small plastic tent with nine other people during the frigid and wet winter. Mohammed was originally from Iraq where he lived with his parents and brothers. He began receiving death threats from ISIS because he was working at a multinational company and ISIS didn’t approve. One day, he and his brother were attacked by that group. His brother was shot and killed and Mohammed was injured in the attack. Afterwards, they continued to pursue him, so Mohammed had no choice but to flee his homeland to save his life. After he left, that same gang set his family’s home on fire and his family had to go into hiding.
Mohammed’s asylum application has been repeatedly denied and he is currently appealing. It is frustrating for us to see how little progress is being made (that is, no progress) on his ability to move forward with his life. And we cannot even begin to imagine the frustrations and heartache he has experienced. He has been in limbo for years, and likely will continue to be for years more. We are still in contact with Mohammed. We have reunited multiple times during our return trips to Greece and communicate regularly online. Mohammed is a beautiful man, intelligent, articulate, and still hopeful for his future.
What are your plans and hopes for the project moving forward?
Theresa: It’s unfortunate but this crisis will take years, possibly generations, before it is resolved, whatever “resolved” means. Our intention is to continue this project by going to more refugee camps around the world and giving more photographs for people to keep. We want to get closer the on-the-ground situation surrounding Syria, perhaps going to camps in eastern Turkey or Jordan, as well as regions in Africa and Latin America. We want to keep this crisis in front of people so we can collectively work to address this issue.