CULTURE & ARTS

Striking Portraits Show Refugees With Their Most Prized Possessions

Gabriel Hill didn’t want to dramatize refugee stories; he wanted viewers to relate to their struggles.

Last year, a heartbreaking image was captured and circulated, causing news outlets to investigate its subject and artists to respond to its tragic implications. The image shows a toddler who had washed up on the coast of Turkey ― drowned, apparently, while trying to escape Syria with his family.

The photo is striking for a number of reasons. Unlike other powerful, war-related images, there’s no violence depicted. But the boy’s vulnerable position, and his small shoes, underscore the tragedy. It’s a sad picture that draws a hard line between the viewer’s and the refugee’s experience.

Gabriel Hill, a Swiss photographer whose work aims to provide an alternative to this sort of gritty imagery, pointed out that the image resonated so much with viewers because we all learned the boy had a name: Aylan Kurdi. 

“No matter how you think about refugees in general, this made people sad because this little boy could have been [anyone’s] little brother or child,” Hill told The Huffington Post.

Hill has devoted much of his artistic energies to taking portraits of refugees. His aim, he said, is to illuminate those individuals’ experiences and make it difficult for viewers to hold onto generalizations.

"I had to abandon our home in Sri Lanka in 1984. I walked most of the way, but in order to get to Switzerland I took a boat,
"I had to abandon our home in Sri Lanka in 1984. I walked most of the way, but in order to get to Switzerland I took a boat, a plane and a train, as well. I wasn't able to take much with me besides the clothes I had on. Since I had to leave my family behind, these photos were the only things that were important to me, and luckily I could carry them on me. On the photos you can see my parents, my brother and my sister -- who's not deceased." -- Vinasithamby, 64, fled from Sri Lanka in 1984

“There are millions of images and portraits of refugees, but usually very dramatic ones, with dirty clothes in a refugee camp and mostly one doesn’t know who this person is. For sure it’s important to show the world how they have to live in the camps or how they travel for documentary reasons but sometimes I feel the photographers ‘catch’ them in their most horrible moment,” Hill said. “Exhausted, scared, naked. They don’t have a chance to say if they want their image shown to the world.”

To add another perspective to the steady cycle of tragic realities, Hill decided to take his own portraits of refugees, capturing their strong expressions to paint them as survivors. Over the course of one year, he interviewed refugees about their most prized possessions ― what they brought with them from their homes, be it something practical, like a cell phone, or something sentimental, like a family photo. The series is called “ImPORTRAITS.”

The breadth of items shows that some of the subjects had to flee their homes in a rush, while others could be more deliberate about their exits. Regardless, the portraits communicate something about the strength of remembering your roots. They also show that, for some of the subjects, survival took precedent over emotion.

“Once you see my portraits, your next thought is most probably, ‘What would I take with me if I have to leave my home and my country?’” Hill said. “For a fraction of a moment you are in exact the same situation as the ‘refugee’ was.”

  • "Five years ago I had to leave Iran. The only things I could take with me was what fit in the pockets of my trousers. After a
    Gabriel Hill
    "Five years ago I had to leave Iran. The only things I could take with me was what fit in the pockets of my trousers. After a few months I arrived in Switzerland. I made most of the journey on foot. Every now and then we had to cross a river on a rubber boat. I only took these three photos with me. Every one reminds me of a different time in my life before I had to flee -- times I have warm memories of. I would take more things with me if that had been an option at the time, but it wasn't." -- Taghi, 27, fled from Iran in 2011
  • "When I was a child, my father would often travel to Africa for work. One time when I was three, I had asked him to bring me
    Gabriel Hill
    "When I was a child, my father would often travel to Africa for work. One time when I was three, I had asked him to bring me back a real life monkey, but he brought me a stuffed bunny he had bought for me during a transit at Zurich Airport. I took that bunny everywhere. When the war began, everything went so fast I could neither understand what was going on nor think about what I wanted to take with me when we fled. That's how I forgot my bunny when we left. My dad stayed behind, and I wrote him so many letters saying things like: 'Did you find my bunny? I miss you!' I can't describe how I felt when I saw my father again three years later, in 1995. My whole body was trembling when I saw his face at the airport in Zurich -- and saw that he was holding my bunny." -- Sejla, 33, fled from Bosnia in 1992
  • "It took me almost nine months to arrive in Switzerland. I wanted to take a ship from Turkey to Greece, but we kept getting c
    Gabriel Hill
    "It took me almost nine months to arrive in Switzerland. I wanted to take a ship from Turkey to Greece, but we kept getting caught by the coast guard in Greece and sent back to Turkey. I tried five times -- once, the boat overturned and sank. From all the things I took with me, only this cell phone is left. My mother bought it just before I fled Afghanistan -- she spent 3,000 Afghani on it. That's half of my family's monthly income. The phone was the only way I could let my family know where I was on my journey and that I was OK. My mother was very worried, so a call from time to time helped calm her down. The phone also made me feel safer and less lonely." -- Suleyman, 18, fled from Afghanistan in 2014
  • "In 1959 I fled with my father, my mother, my sister and my grandparents from Tibet to India. I was 2 at the time, although I
    Gabriel Hill
    "In 1959 I fled with my father, my mother, my sister and my grandparents from Tibet to India. I was 2 at the time, although I don't know the exact day I was born. I arrived in India only with my father and my grandparents -- we had lost my sister and my mother on the way. The most important items we had on our escape were the torches illuminating the pass over the Himalaya." -- Migmar, 59, fled from Tibet in 1959
  • "Five years ago I had to leave Afghanistan. I was trained as a police officer there, but shortly after I had started on the j
    Gabriel Hill
    "Five years ago I had to leave Afghanistan. I was trained as a police officer there, but shortly after I had started on the job I was forced to leave the country. I had a backpack with my belongings with me, but the human traffickers told me to throw it away. The only thing I have left is this little book from the police academy and a necklace my mother gave me. I always dreamed of becoming a police officer. This little book is the only thing I have left of that dream." -- Nazim, 26, fled from Afghanistan
  • "I have been living in Switzerland for two years now. My family could only afford one journey out of the country, so I'm all
    Gabriel Hill
    "I have been living in Switzerland for two years now. My family could only afford one journey out of the country, so I'm all alone here. It's very expensive to leave, so they won't be able to follow me here. When I left home my father gave me a cell phone. This cell phone and the clothes I was wearing were the only things I could take with me. Thanks to the cell phone I was able to get in touch with my family and tell them that I had arrived safely. It also gave me the feeling that I wasn't alone. It meant everything to me." -- Shireen, 21, fled from Afghanistan in 2010
  • "The escape from Eritrea was quite long and exhausting. Walking for days, being held captive in several countries and crossin
    Gabriel Hill
    "The escape from Eritrea was quite long and exhausting. Walking for days, being held captive in several countries and crossing one of the world's biggest deserts didn't make it an easy journey. We were lucky, though. Everyone survived. I took some personal things with me but I had to throw most of it away before crossing the desert so I could take as many bottles of water with me as possible. I kept a small book with phone numbers and a few photos from my childhood. The phone numbers were very important, because I was help captive a few times and had to pay my captors a ransom for them to let me go.  I'm lucky enough to have an uncle in the United States -- he'd send me money so I could pay. That made his number the most important thing in my life." -- Yosief, 20, fled from Eritrea in 2014
  • "I got on a ship in Libya that was supposed to bring us to Italy. I couldn't take anything with me except the clothes I was w
    Gabriel Hill
    "I got on a ship in Libya that was supposed to bring us to Italy. I couldn't take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing and a little piece of paper with the phone number of my family on it. They had told me to get in touch them as soon as I would arrive in Italy. About halfway, the ship overturned and sank. My clothes were soaked and became so heavy I had to take them off. They disappeared in the sea, along with that piece of paper with my family's phone number on it. I survived, together with about 200 others. Over 250 people from that ship drowned. Months after fleeing Eritrea I found someone in Switzerland who could reach out to my family. They thought I hadn't survived the crossing. This piece of paper with their number on it used to be the most important thing I owned." -- Ahmet, 23, fled from Eritrea in 2013
  • "Originally, I'm Palestinian but I fled from Lebanon. A few years ago I converted from Islam to Christianity and a priest gav
    Gabriel Hill
    "Originally, I'm Palestinian but I fled from Lebanon. A few years ago I converted from Islam to Christianity and a priest gave me this Bible. During my journey, a boat I was on was in trouble, and our fixer ordered us to throw all our stuff overboard. Somehow I managed to hide my bible. It's my most treasured possession and gives me strength in hard times. It's been soaked with seawater and it's quite dirty, but I wouldn't want a new one. Here in Switzerland I live in an asylum with predominantly Muslims -- my family are the only ones who know I converted. That's why I can't show my face -- I'm living a double life." -- Mahmoud, 20, fled from Lebanon in 2014
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