Art Seen

Portraits Of Refugees With Their Most Important Items Proves It's Not What You Have — But What It Means — That Matters

"This necklace is everything that I have from my family and my homeland... it gives me the feeling that I’m not alone."

For the many, lucky people who have never been forced to leave their country, it can be difficult — almost impossible — to picture the uncertainty and danger a refugee must experience in their attempt to live a safer, better life. Those who do succeed in emigrating to a new country often arrive with just the clothes on their back and little, if anything, else. Because of this scarcity, what they do get to bring with them becomes more than ordinary objects. 

An award-winning photographer, Gabriel Hill, is exploring the relationship between refugees and the single object most important to them in his series, ImPORTRAITS, a combination of the words "important" and "portraits." 

Hill's studio in Basel, Switzerland, is right next to a building that houses refugees. "Every day when I go to work, I see them and how they live," Hill told A Plus via email. Also located in Basel are three large pharmaceutical corporations, Roche, Novartis, and Syngenta. As a portrait photographer, he's taken pictures of the heads of these companies regularly.


“I always found it weird to be working every day with people who own more than most of the people and, on the other hand, I see the refugees who own mostly nothing,” he said.

Shireen, 21, was only able to leave Afghanistan with his clothes and a cellphone to contact his family so they would know he was safe.  Gabriel Hill

While Hill acknowledges the importance of showing how people live in refugee camps or how they travel, he wanted to tell another aspect of the refugee's story through his work. "Sometimes I feel the photographers 'catch' them [the refugees] in their most horrible moment … exhausted, scared, naked," he explained. "And they don't have a chance to say if they want their image shown to the world." Instead, Hill wanted to "take a different approach and show them with pride and without any dramatics."

Through his nonprofit project, Hill hopes to provide greater exposure to the plight of refugees, and debunk stereotypes and suspicions, but, most importantly, to create empathy between each portrait's viewer and its subject. "That's where the idea with their most important item came from," he said. "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?' For a fraction of a moment, you are in exact the same situation as the 'refugee' was."

For many refugees who end up living alone in a strange place, the object represents something intangible, but all the more essential: home.

Taghi, 27, only brought three photos with him from Iran. Each one represents a time in his life before he became a refugee.   Gabriel Hill

No matter how small or fragile, every item tells a story about an unforgettable time in that person's life. From slips of paper to cellphones to stuffed bunnies, the items invoke bittersweet memories.

Rohulla, a 24-year-old man, was only able to take the clothes on his back when he fled from Afghanistan. Because his father died when he was young, Rohulla didn't have many memories of him. The only thing he had was his father's golden necklace his mother had given him. 

"I came on my own to Switzerland, and this necklace is everything that I have from my family and my homeland," he told Hill. "This golden necklace means the world to me since it gives me the feeling that I'm not alone and that my father is always with me." 

Another man, 23-year-old Ahmed, left Eritrea with even less. All he could take with him were the clothes on his back and a piece of paper with his family's phone number on it. They told Ahmed to call them as soon as he reached Italy, but halfway there, his ship overturned. "My clothes were soaking with sea water and were getting heavy so I had to take them off. They disappeared in the sea," he told Hill. "With them the piece of paper with the phone number." 

Luckily, Ahmed survived the shipwreck and eventually found someone in Switzerland who could contact his family. "The piece of paper with their number was the most important thing that I owned," he said.

Sejla, a 33-year-old woman who left Bosnia in 1992, still cherishes a childhood present from her father: a stuffed bunny. "When the war began, everything went so fast, that I couldn't even understand what was going on, let alone think about what I wanted to take with me," she told Hill. 

Forced to leave her father and her bunny behind, she didn't see them again for three years. "That moment, in 1995, when I travelled to Switzerland to see my father again, is indescribable," she said. "My whole body was trembling, when I saw his familiar face that I loved so much, at Zurich Airport. In his hands: my beloved bunny." 

When chronicling each person's story through their most important object, Hill left out anything that could be considered negative. "That's why I never write why someone had to flee or which countries he/she passed while coming to Switzerland," he said. "It just about their persona and nothing more."

While each item is irrevocably linked to its owner's experience as a refugee, it's also tangible proof that their experience does not define them.

The reason why these items are the most important is often not because of their purpose during the journey, but because they remind each person of their life before becoming a refugee. For some, the item represents an idea of home to which they cannot return. For others, it embodies a dream put on hold. 

For a few more who weren't able to take anything at all, the lack of an item embodies the inherent risk of the refugee experience. No matter how much or — more likely —how little each person was able to bring with them, they all had to start over. 

Marie-Therese, 62, could not bring anything with her when she left the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008.  Gabriel Hill

Though the project is ongoing, ImPORTRAITS was already recognized as one of the best 12 works in Swiss photography by the Swiss Photo Awards in April 2016. Ultimately, Hill plans to combine all the photographs into a coffee table book, which he is currently crowdfunding via online donations

All funds raised from ImPORTRAITS, including "every penny" Hill makes with his press agency (Rex Press Agency) or any other publication, will be donated to OESA, a nonprofit refugee asylum financed by a few Swiss churches and donations. The organization provides food and clothes to all refugees who come through its doors, helps them with translating documents, legal help, and pays school fees. 

“The main thought behind OESA is ‘We are all equal,’ ” Hill said. “[So] they help without asking. In my project, I also never ask people why they had to flee or why they have chosen Switzerland … it simply doesn’t matter. They are here, and I want to show who they are.”

Migmar, 59, fled Tibet with his family when he was just 2 years old. "The most important items we had on our escape were the torches illuminating the pass over the Himalaya," he said.  Gabriel Hill

For people whose entire existence is often written off with one word, being represented in a picture — which the old adage deems to be worth a thousand — makes the other 999 all the more important. 

"Many of the refugees I portrayed said now they finally have a face and a voice because usually we only read about 'the refugees," Hill added. "The best thing I got out if this project was seeing the portrayed people in my exhibition being proud [of] their portrait and show[ing] them to their friends."

Hill hopes that when people see the ImPORTRAITS, they can begin to understand the gravity of the refugee experience. "It takes a lot to leave everything you ever owned and your beloved ones behind to go somewhere where nothing is certain," he said. "Most of them had to flee because their life [was] threatened … some of them fled because they wanted a better life … I hope people take away from this project that it is a really tough thing to leave your family and everything behind — no matter why you did it." 


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