OWhen photographer Ehsan Hazaveh takes portraits of former refugees in New Zealand, he doesn’t click and go – in some cases the process can take 10 months, and the subject of the photograph has almost as many influence the final images and accompanying text as it does.
It is a deliberately collaborative affair, born out of frustration with how often people speak out on behalf of refugees and are “represented as silent actors and victims”.
The Wellington-based Iranian photographer’s latest series, Here We Are, captures people at home and at work and will be exhibited in the New Zealand capital ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20.
“We have doctors, a Pulitzer Prize winner, cleaners, caregivers, teachers – a whole range of people,” says Hazaveh. “When you put all these people together, [viewers] start thinking about the wide range of abilities and abilities – each of them brings something valuable.
Hazaveh speaks of the term “refugee” as an experience that happens to someone, rather than an identity, which can be used as a foothold for narrow and biased perspectives of those who are marked as such.
“The most important thing in my head that I’m fighting against [for]it is to detach the idea of refugee from a person, because being a refugee is an event.
Hazaveh arrived in New Zealand from Tehran to study for his PhD in the Department of Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, in 2018. Prior to this, he had documented marginalized communities in rural Iran, winning several price for his work.
An experience following the publication of what would become a viral series capture a remote village in Iran forced Hazaveh to rethink how documentary photography could become more ethical.
“My intention was to bring attention and funding to this village, but the result was different from what I expected. In the professional photography community, the discussion did not go beyond aesthetic aspects of the story,” he said.
The media then used the photos and reframed the story to suit their own agenda, including a news agency that used the images to portray Iranians negatively, he said.
“As a result, I decided to try to make a fuller representation of people and leave less room for distorted projections.”
In her four years in New Zealand, Hazaveh has taken many photos of people who have been refugees at some point in their lives and are now carving out a place for themselves in their new country. It is the part of their stories that Hazaveh is determined to capture.
“A huge amount of footage on Google search only shows one side of that story and I’m trying to create a bigger picture of someone’s experience,” he says.
Instead, he asks what someone’s life is like now. “That’s what’s missing, there’s a huge void in people’s minds about these people.
“It’s really important to me to give people other lenses, other perspectives, to have it in their pockets.”