Whether photographing the victims of flood-ravaged Pakistan or Somalis risking their lives to flee their country, Alixandra Fazzina focuses on the human consequences of crisis.
It is the middle of the night and less than 48 hours until her book launch in London, but the photographer Alixandra Fazzina is in a 4 x 4 vehicle, bumping, lurching and sliding along a mud-caked highway in Pakistan’s Sindh province. She is making her way towards yet another village that has been all but destroyed by this summer’s floods.
Fazzina has spent most of the past few weeks on the road – though given the destruction of so many highways and bridges in Pakistan, the phrase does not adequately describe that experience – recording the devastation and its impact on ordinary citizens. Millions have been displaced. Their pathetic encampments line the roads, each patchwork tent representing a family that has lost its home, with all the emotional trauma that that entails.
The week before, while revisiting the Swat valley, which endured Taliban occupation and liberation by Pakistan’s army, only to be savaged by the monsoon floods that began in July, Fazzina and some colleagues nearly died when their vehicle was trapped by rising floodwaters. ‘I saw a man being washed past me in a metre of fast-flowing water,’ Fazzina recalls calmly. ‘We got to a bridge and were stuck for an hour as the water came up. Then the bridge collapsed and we were stuck on the far side. It was dark, there was no electricity, no water, no mobile-phone reception and no road. We ended up staying in a museum in Mingora. We were four days and nights sleeping in the same clothes.’ It took two days of trekking and wading to get to a place where a Pakistani military helicopter could pick them up.
Though her powerful images on these pages give a human face to the numbing statistics of the disaster in Pakistan (as well as to the suffering of women in Afghanistan and the plight of African migrants) you won’t generally find Fazzina photographing a story that is already established on the world’s front pages. She is much more interested in under-reported crises or the lesser-known aspects of conflict. After an early career as a war artist, embedded with the British Army, she decided she wanted to draw attention to the people left behind after the television crews have departed: the victims of war and displacement. She began to use a camera as an instrument for advocacy, composing sombre, moving images, first in the Balkans, then in Africa, where she was based for eight years, and now in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Her work has been published in magazines around the world and has won many prizes. But key for her is the way that her images have helped organisations such as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to draw attention to suffering that would otherwise go ignored. Much of her work is commissioned by magazines and newspapers but sponsored by NGOs that want to get their message out.
Fazzina’s new book, A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia, was sponsored by the UNHCR and the intergovernmental body the International Organisation for Migration. The book tells the story of the thousands of people from Somalia and Ethiopia fleeing ongoing violence and the destruction wrought by years of conflict. It is the fruit of almost two years of visits to the lawless edge of the horn of Africa, and to the countries across the Gulf of Aden, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where so many refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia make their way after the dangerous journey across the narrow water.
The book is entitled A Million Shillings because that is the basic fare (about £50) that people pay to get from Mogadishu out to the coast and then across the Gulf of Aden – sometimes called ‘Pirate Alley’. Fazzina rode on the trucks packed with tahrib – the Somali word for emigrants – from brutal smuggler towns such as Boosaaso to lonely, rubbish-strewn beaches where violent gun-toting human traffickers corralled them and waited for the boats to come in. She spent the night out in the open with the shivering, terrified migrants and was there taking pictures when groups of 100 or more were packed on to small unseaworthy craft. And she was there when the people smugglers, high on hashish or khat, or just drunk on power, robbed their charges of their pathetic belongings, or beat, raped and even killed them.
Some of the most moving photographs in the book are those of these desperate, hopeful people with their precious little waterproofed books full of telephone numbers and remote contacts in Sana’a or Saudi, or even London. The most shocking are those of fresh bodies washed up on to the shore – refugees thrown off the boats into unswimmable seas or murdered by the crews.
As Fazzina points out, even those who survive the voyage to Yemen and the relatively friendly refugee camps there face abuse, robbery and rape on their onward journey. Many of the women and youngsters who go to Saudi hoping to find domestic work are sold as slaves, disappearing for ever behind abaya veils and high walls.
There are few places in the world quite as unsafe as Somalia. While there Fazzina had none of the normal media infrastructure – no security guards, no bribed militiamen, no local stringers to protect her from the criminal gangs. The only reason that the smugglers left Fazzina alone was that she had spent so much time and effort winning the trust of the tribal elders and clan leaders in Boosaaso, to whom even the gangs must answer.
Yet Fazzina is not some self-dramatising, grizzled war correspondent. For her, the story is not about how she copes with the dangers of frontline life but about war widows of the North West Frontier, the girls forced into marriage by the Taliban, the expectant mothers who face the world’s highest maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan, and the doomed youths she encountered waiting for boats to take them away from Somalia.
She has told that story so well that on top of previous photographic prizes she has been given the Nansen Refugee Award by the UN. Named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Polar explorer and first League of Nations commissioner for refugees, the forerunner of the UNHCR, the award comes with a $100,000 prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland that recipients are encouraged to give to a cause of their choice – Fazzina hasn’t yet decided where the money will go. No photographer or journalist has ever been made a Nansen laureate before. Eleanor Roosevelt (FDR’s widow and a prominent champion of civil and refugee rights) was the first recipient. Other winners include King Juan Carlos of Spain, Senator Edward Kennedy and Médecins sans Frontières.
The introduction to A Million Shillings was written by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. In it, he points out that ‘more than any report my organisation could prepare… it tells the story of the thousands of people who risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden in search of safety and a better life. The author has achieved something remarkable – portraits which are intimate without being invasive and deeply sympathetic without being exploitative.’
He could have added that many of her pictures have a strange, ironic beauty. The shots of Somalis wading through crystalline turquoise waters on to a people-smuggler’s boat evoke tourist brochures – though few of these voyagers survived the crossing to Yemen. Then there are the blurry blue-tinged shots of truck stops at dawn or dusk, and the images of mothers cradling sick children with their echoes of Renaissance Madonnas.
Fazzina, 36, was born in east London and still has a house in Bethnal Green. But she spent much of her early life in Holland where her father was working. She studied fine art at Bristol University where she wrote a thesis on the ways that conflict is covered. She hadn’t yet graduated when in 1995 she was appointed an official war artist for the British Army in Bosnia. She decided to stay in Bosnia after graduation, and began to shift away from the pencil to the camera. In 2000 she went to Sierra Leone through her contacts with the Army, and she spent a lot of time travelling in west Africa. Without a hint of boasting she mentions that when she was in Liberia she was taken hostage for four days by Charles Taylor’s militiamen: ‘I was working for the Telegraph, and because the US and UK had put sanctions on Sierra Leone I was a political tool.’
Fazzina had concentrated on Africa for seven years when an assignment took her to Afghanistan in the summer of 2008. Afterwards she decided to base herself in Pakistan. ‘It’s the furthest east I’ve ever worked, though I have lived in a lot of Muslim countries.’ She did not want to be based in Afghanistan, she says, because ‘there are too many foreigners and NGOs’ there. ‘Pakistan has so much daily news going on that sometimes the bigger picture is forgotten. I’m not the photographer who chases after the bombs. I’m more interested in why they happen and what happens to the victims.’
Since winning the Nansen prize, Fazzina is subject to more attention than she is used to. It is not something she is comfortable with. ‘I’ve done a couple of interviews when all people want to ask is where I stayed and what I was wearing, not what I was doing,’ she says with surprise and distaste. ‘I work quietly. My photographs are quiet. I find it awkward when someone makes me the subject.’
She finds it hard enough to balance the human and emotional demands of her work without having to think about the supposed glamour of reporting from conflict areas. ‘The world is not just images to me,’ she says. ‘I’ve been in a lot of horrible situations, and you do have to snap into this mode where you are not looking at it with your eyes, but through your camera. That is how you deal with it, but as I’ve become older I’ve become less like that. I don’t want to look at it through a lens.’
This involvement comes at a cost: ‘I get quite depressed sometimes. Especially recently here in Pakistan. Seeing all the devastation, day in and day out, it does affect you. Driving past miles of tents, and each tent is a family. And in Yemen, on the beaches there… there are only a few pictures of the dead bodies in the book because it would be overkill to have more, but I’ve got hundreds. I’ve seen so many dead bodies. Beaten, drowned and eaten by crabs on the beach. It gave me nightmares.’
Nevertheless Fazzina feels guilty about leaving Pakistan’s flooded zones to launch her book in England, and cannot wait to get back to work. ‘I see myself as a storyteller,’ she says. ‘I like to give people a voice.’
‘A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia’ is published by Trolley Books, £24.99