‘We are obese, and they are starving’ Local photog records misery in African refugee camps

Local Life February 9, 2011 0 Comments

‘We are obese, and they are starving’ Local photog records misery in African refugee camps

Children (seen here with Bruce) want to run and play, even in the most horrendous circumstances, like these kids in a refugee camp in Somaliland.

by Bruce Kravetz
Ed. note: Local photographer Bruce Kravetz visited refugee camps in Africa last year from March 25 to April 15. He was there to make a film that would be used to raise funds for a humanitarian relief organization, the Daryeel Foundation. Many still photos from his visit as well as non-African photos are currently on display through Feb. 14 at the Trust Gallery 249 Arch St. (at 3rd Street). For more information, call 215-592-8400, email andrea@thetrustvenue.com or visit www.thetrustvenue.com

There was nothing easy about my last photo shoot in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Even before I landed in Africa I had to undergo $550 worth of immunization shots and deal with getting visas. Squeezing my 70-year-old body into a cramped jet seat for 14 hours and enduring the very long journey to Africa was the easy part. My future had some major surprises for me.

There were the 13-hour bus rides with busted springs and, would you believe, no air-conditioning. And that was on good roads. I spent many hours on back roads in cars or land rovers that were held together with chewing gum and bailing wire. There were absolutely no roads as we know them; I would rather call them road ruts.

And one does not simply go into a country in Africa and waltz into refugee camps with cameras blazing without permission. Ethiopia was having an election, which made things nearly impossible. I traveled a long way over rough roads, thinking I would be able to enter the camps, only to find out just hours before arriving that permission was denied, with no reason given.

So I was off to Somaliland, which was a different story because that government was afraid of guerrillas and terrorists, but not cameras. Their concern was for the travelers’ safety, so they made all of us hire guards. My guard liked chewing a leaf substance called khat, which turns out to be a narcotic and a very common addiction in that part of Africa. I hoped he knew which way to point that big gun.

He said the guerillas already knew where I was . . . That information kept me on my toes, although I was never in any danger; maybe abducting old balding guys was not in season. All told, I was able to get into five camps. Some had been there for years, one for only a few months. Most of the refugees were from an endless war in Somalia.

This elderly man, like almost everyone in the refugee camps, was emaciated and moved only with great difficulty. (Photo by Bruce Kravetz)

Just getting to the area where the camps were was a grueling experience. Often the road consisted of just tire tracks. Once I arrived I started thinking about what it would be like having a rich person aiming a camera at me if I were down and out. The refugees in the camps did not like having me point my camera in their direction, and I could not blame them. Before I started shooting, I made sure I found the elders of the camps and gave them money, and I had a bag of candy for the children.

It all felt kind of strange, knowing full well that I would be leaving the emaciated, starving refugees soon and going home to Philadelphia to all the amenities and comfort we enjoy, where overweight and obese people are the norm, and 40% of the food ends up in dumpsters. It never leaves me how much are taken for granted. I ought not to complain about anything, ever.

The refugees did not have to go far to bury their dead. Just outside the one camp was a gravesite where some mounds were fresh, and I lost it. I cried, and was glad I was alone. Burial mounds as far as the eye could see and an occasional bone sticking out of the earth where the hyenas dug them up.

An old friend, Dr. Susan Barcus Kay, who is a surgeon at the Shriners Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia, later told me there was a used ultrasound machine available and wondered if I wanted to donate it. I got the name of the particular machine type and sent it off the information to Dr. Rahmangurgurte at the General Hospital of Berbera in Somaliland. He was familiar with the brand, so after much paper work, I had it sent off. I feel good about that. The Daryeel Foundation in Holland, associated with Oxfam, a wonderful international humanitarian organization with a major presence in Africa, was instrumental in getting me into the camps. They had a connection to the hospital.

It took 43 very long, hard hours to get from Addis Ababa back to a bed in Philadelphia. Two weeks after I got back, my doctor informed me I had Type 2 diabetes, and two weeks after that I nearly killed myself in a motorcycle crash. The diabetes is almost under control now, and I am just about completely healed from the accident. But my motorcycle days are over. It was a good run, but I’d better not push my luck. Do I think I am helping and making a difference for the people in the refugee camps? I have not a clue, but I cannot sit here and do nothing.

The exhibit at the Trust Gallery represents the last five years of my photography, not just the time in Africa. There are 4,500 square feet of gallery space being utilitzed. Sizes range from traditional to outlandish, with some 3-D installations that are 14 feet tall.

The primary purpose of the show, however, is about my last trip to Africa, which was by far the hardest. My goal is to depict what life is like in the refugee camps. The photos were printed in sepia because this was the best tone for reflecting the mood.

The installation art consists of 21 playing cards. Each card measures just less than 4 x 8 feet printed on canvas and stretched on reinforced wooden frames. The images were taken from Austrian playing cards from the 1850s. They are just like regular playing cards but much larger, and were installed and photographed all over Philadelphia — at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia International Airport, City Hall and various other places.

Another part of the exhibit is a group of photos of the interior of St. John the Baptist, a Catholic church in Manayunk, many of which were shot in multi-row panoramas. I spent every day in the church for over a month to get the images I wanted. They are very large, with some over 7 feet tall, but can be viewed up close to see every detail.

Another project involved photographing the homeless, and this presented a whole new set of problems. Since some homeless individuals are on the street because of being disruptive and/or not on their medication, I had to be cautious. But I tried to help them and earn their trust, and I wound up getting to know them and like them as well.

Kravetz, now 71, is a veteran 101st Airborne-trained paratrooper and world traveler, who at one time rode his bike alone across the U.S. Born in Rochester, New York, he has lived in Munich, Germany, and Australia, produced two films and has had numerous shows of his work in both America and Europe. You can contact Kravetz at cameralens@verizon.net. For more information about the Daryeel Foundation, visit www.daryeel.eu

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