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‘No Place on Earth’: Patrick Brown on Photographing Rohingya Refugees

Award-winning book documents the survivors of the Rohingya genocide

A family of Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar after a wave of violence last fall.

Patrick Brown/Panos Pictures/UNICEF

Patrick Brown has been photographing in tough environments his entire career, but nothing could have prepared him for when he began documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017. “I was taken back by the pure scale of it,” he says. “A hundred people turn into thousands and then thousands turn into hundreds of thousands of people.”

No Place on Earth is an expansive collection of Brown’s photographs that shed light on the devastating conditions of the Rohingya Muslims — who fled persecution in Myanmar for Bangladesh. A winner of the 2019 FotoEvidence Book Award, the book features essays by journalist and Rolling Stone contributor Jason Motlagh and human rights campaigner Matthew Smith.

“The book is powerful and personal and resonates with people who spend time with it,” Motlagh explains. “Our concern is that the persecution of the Rohingya has all but faded from the news, despite the miserable conditions they endure and the total lack of accountability for the genocide. The book is a small but fierce testament to what happened, is still happening. And we hope it circulates widely to remind people about the brutal cost of inaction.”

For Brown, the book serves as a testimony to the Rohingya and what is hopefully the beginning of change for them. “That’s where the power of photography has really got its strength,” he says. “It communicates across many unspoken boundaries and it produces its own language and its own literacy. And that’s the beauty of photography, however shocking and horrible the images are. These people have names. They have brothers. They have sisters. Mothers, fathers, grandparents. And they’re innocent. They’re innocent in all of this.”

When did you begin photographing the Rohingya people?
I started early September 2017 and now I’ve just done my last trip there. So I’ve been in Bangladesh for eight months in total — a long, long time in the refugee camp.

Tell me about the experience.
I was totally overwhelmed with what I was seeing, what was in front of me. It was something I was not mentally prepared for. And then as things progressed, I just started to talk to people and learn their testimonies. It was just purely horrifying.

There’s actually a period of time where people are obviously very concerned about trying to get a shelter, trying to get food, trying to get the basic necessities of survival. And then from there, trying to figure out what the next move is. Aid agencies are slowly making a presence, trying to get some organization. Now, the cities are 1.2 million people — more densely populated than Manhattan.

Patrick Brown - No Place On Earth

The physical evidence of atrocities is overwhelming among survivors in the refugee camps. Momtaz Begum was treated for burns to her face and body.

How did you approach photographing them? 
There are no simple guidelines. Every individual — regardless if in you’re in New York or Bangladesh or London — everybody is different, and some people are very welcoming and relaxed and are very open individuals. And some people are very cautious and understandably so. Many people I didn’t photograph because they didn’t want to be, but I still wanted to share their story.So there isn’t one narrative they all fit into that pigeon hole.

But what I can tell you is the people I did photograph, and their testimonies I took, I saw them repeatedly. I really wanted to make sure that they were fully aware of what I was doing and what I was trying to achieve.There was one person. She said, “Look I might be illiterate. And I know there’s a bigger world out there. There’s more people out there then there is in this camp, but I did nothing wrong. Why should I hide?” It was really an incredible revelation to me, because suddenly I had been able to give this person a voice, and that’s when the reality really hit home for me.

What was the genesis of the book?
I never really went there with a purpose to do a book. That was never my objective. My objective was to document what was happening, try to show the world what was coming about.And then Svetlana [Bachevanova], the publisher of FotoEvidence, suggested that I should enter the award. And to be quite frank, I put my edit forth and that was the end of it for me. I just carried on doing my project in Bangladesh.

And then I received a phone call from Svetlana saying that the judges had accepted my entry and would like to publish it. I was still shooting in December 2018 and it went to press in March. It was a very compressed period of time — we did in 6 weeks what usually takes about 6 months. And now it’s the document that people can hold and it’s a document that people can use in swaying opinions. It has its own life.

It’s a beautiful book. 
It’s a bit difficult for me. I’m honestly very emotionally attached to it. I understand where the compliment’s coming from, and I take it wholeheartedly. But it’s a book for the Rohingya. Hopefully it will be a very small wheel in making some progress for the them.

What do you hope No Place on Earth achieves?
The more people are aware of what transpires in a very small part of the world, it’s the only way we can move forward, as a group of people…as a species. And especially in this political climate that we have today, it’s something that needs to be talked about a lot more. The pictures I made over there, the people are being listened to, they are being seen, and people are talking about them, who they would not normally be talking about.

When you actually sit down in front of somebody and they tell you, its incredibly humbling that somebody entrusted me for you to tell the world what happened to them and what happened to them was the worst day of their life. They entrusted me with this information that you would do the right thing, to try and tell the world what has happened to that individual. And that is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. And hopefully this book will be their voice. And it is their voice. Hopefully it will be powerful and things might change for them.

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