• Daniel Portal

Dignity in Limbo

As a photographer being constantly bombarded by billions of photographs in this digital era, I find myself constantly struggling to find meaningful subjects to photograph and stories to tell. Portrait photography is, to me, a window into human nature and I try to approach my projects with that in mind. I am constantly talking to people and engaging with the stories that interest me. I have always been interested in the untold story. About a year ago, a friend of mine who is an ER doctor mentioned she was going to work at a refugee camp in Uganda. My face lit up and I asked her if she thought there was a chance for me to tag along with her team to photograph refugees and tell their stories. She got excited about the idea and told me to start planning as she requested the necessary approvals from her organization.

Placing Serucio Shakondo in front of a wall not only added texture, but more importantly, simplified the otherwise busy background. In this case, I asked him to give a simple stare that leaves the viewer wondering, which I find more engaging than a smile. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/160 second.

I have always been very interested in the plight and resilience of refugees, but I wanted to approach this project in a different way. We’ve all seen the images of children sitting in the dirt or crying, or mothers waiting in desperation for a food delivery. I wanted to convey a different message with my project. As I did more research, I realized that the images that kept seeing over and over again were for the most part of people stripped of their dignity. Maybe these are the images that are more likely to help NGOs to get donations and support. I don’t know. I'm not judging. But I knew I wasn’t going to portray refugees in the same way. I wanted a fresh perspective that didn't unfairly and inaccurately strip refugees of their dignity, and told each their stories in a new light.

I talked to Olock Ojullu Obang for about an hour. He came all the way from Ethiopia and had spent his entire life escaping violence and war, both in Ethiopia and at different settlements. When I prompted him to reflect on his journey, he covered his face with his hands. I asked him if it was OK to take his picture, and he nodded yes. It helps in these situations to be completely upfront with your goals. He knew I was there to document refugees, so in that context, asking him to take his picture was not considered inappropriate. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/180 second.

While the preparations for my trip advanced, I faced another challenge: what gear to bring? Since I was going to be a one-man operation, in an unknown, hot and humid location, I needed to make compromises. There was no point in bringing a backdrop, light stands, strobes, or light modifiers, though I would have loved to have them with me. Had I brought all this studio lighting with me, walking around the settlement would have been impossible. I wanted to walk around and meet people. including individuals who would have had a hard time coming to me, such as those that were unable or too weak to move. To keep my backpack as light as possible, I decided to bring short portrait lenses: my trusty workhorse Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 50mm f/1.8 were going to have to do. One critical piece of gear I decided to bring was a Polaroid instant camera. I wanted this experience to not just be one sided. And at least by giving my subjects a physical photo of themselves to keep, it felt like a more fair transaction. I knew I wasn’t going to compensate the subjects financially, so the least I could do was to give them something back for their time.

I met Muyehe Mutabazi, who had been diagnosed with cancer. His family told me the hospital had the medication he needed, but would not provide it to him. Rather, they had to obtain it in the black market. Needless to say, they could not afford it. Refugees live hard lives, yet display unyielding resilience. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/125 second.

A few months later, my friend told me that she had confirmed the dates, and that it was time to contact my physician and get the required vaccinations. Suddenly, everything became very real and exciting. Forty-eight hours after taking off, we arrived at our hotel in Mbarara, Uganda, two hours away from the Nakivale refugee settlement. The plan was to spend a few days at the settlement on the border with Tanzania and then drive all the way up to the border with South Sudan in the North to visit the Bidibidi and White Rhino settlements. The settlements in the South and the North are very different from one another. Nakivale is a 50 year old settlement. Some refugees have spent all their lives at the settlement. Bidibidi and White Rhino settlements, on the other hand, are new settlements, established for refugees from the ongoing wars in Sudan and the Northern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sahid Habineza wanted her picture taken. She didn't put down the bowl she was carrying, and I thought it looked great so I didn't even mention it. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/125 second.

The next day we stopped at the UNHCR office to introduce ourselves to the local authorities, and to present the official permits that my friend had managed to obtain for me to access the settlements. After that, I was on my own with my refugee assistant/interpreter named Lokwa, who helped me to explain my project to prospective participants. As we walked through the different muddy streets, I realized that the coming days were going to be physically demanding. I think I had been walking for under one minute, when another realization became evident: I was not going to be unnoticed. I was followed by about 20 or 30 adults and a similar number of children everywhere I went who were very curious and excited to see what I was doing. Working in those conditions was not going to be easy. However, everyone was extremely nice, welcoming, and interested in my project, which was a huge relief and made me very happy.

I met Ruhanwa while photographing other people near the Sudanese neighborhood. He called me up to talk to me about his projects. He is building a school, he runs a woodwork school for young refugees, and also organizes a support group for orphans and widows (which abound at the settlement). He was such an interesting person. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/125 second.
Umukoza Emerance was patiently waiting for me to work my way through 5 people who wanted their photo taken. When I finally met her and talked to her, we instantly connected. Her story was very sad, but she told me she wanted to go back to Congo one day. I asked her to dream about her village and her life before war started. She closed her eyes and we made this beautiful portrait. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/8, 1/125 second.

I spent the following days meeting amazing people and hearing the most touching and sad stories from unbelievably resilient people. My new friends were eager to tell me their stories of courage, resilience, love, and horror. The blurred image below is an attempt at capturing this feeling of being present and absent at the same time. Refugees are not allowed to work in Uganda, nor can they return to their countries of origin, which makes them feel in limbo.

Blurred portrait of Ruhanwa. The idea was to convey a sense of dual existence. I asked him to move left to right and set the shutter speed to 1/15th second. After a few attempts, we obtained this image. Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/13, 1/15th second.

I walked through the settlements for 10+ hours each day, meeting a total of 105 refugees in one week. I made a point of spending time with each participant, putting the camera down and listening before talking about the project, much less making an image. As is always the case, I learned so much by just shutting up and listening. A common theme started to emerge after the first couple of days of meeting these amazing people. They all want a better future for their children. They all want peace. They all want to work and earn their way. They all want their kids to be healthy. No matter how hard, how unfair life has been to us, these desires are just human nature. I can’t think of a more diametrically opposed person to them than myself, in terms of upbringing, opportunities, luck, etc, and yet, I want the exact same things for my own daughter. Perhaps the biggest difference between them and myself became evident after I returned home from my visit. One day, I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get any traction with my images, when I received a Whatsapp message from one of the refugees. He was just saying Hello. After hearing my frustrations and apologies for not being able to gain more tractions with my images and bring more attention to their situation, he comforted me by telling me they already got more than what they needed. They regularly talk about the Muzungu (i.e. "white person") that came to meet them, on foot, and listened to their stories. I felt bad that he was cheering me up, given our very different situations, and then I realized that is what friends do.


You can watch a video of Daniel's experience here.


About the author: As a portrait photographer, Daniel is primarily interested in creating genuine portraits that engage the viewer. Whether on assignment or working on a personal project, Daniel’s portraits show the thought he puts into capturing the essence of his subjects in original ways. Portrait photography is a way for Daniel to explore the human condition. From the drama of an athlete’s performance to his work with war refugees, Daniel is always looking for a different angle, an untold story, and new ways to connect with the subject in order to tell their story. 

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