Barat Ali Batoor is an Hazara photoreporter born in 1983 in Afghanistan. He left his native country during the civil war and came back twenty-three years later, after 09/11. He decided to become a photojournalist to witness his people’s tragedy. In Batoor’s jouney, he risks his life to take the first pictures of a desperate boat trip across the see towards Australia: a dangerous form of migration Hazara asylum seekers are used to. Batoor tells us about his experience, the role of the image and the importance of witnessing, even despite death.
Desperate Journey of Migrants
Transcription conversation below
Barat Ali Batoor, Batoor’s Journey, 2012. Journalist: Mark Davis
A Skype conversation with Barat Ali Batoor, by Michela Alessandrini.
Barat Ali Batoor: My name is Barat Ali Batoor and I am a photojournalist from Afghanistan. I was a refugee. I settled in Australia. I am currently working on a documentary project that I started three years ago. Basically, this documentary is about my journey but it covers the whole history of Hazara and their persecution and why they migrate and try to seek asylum in other countries, such as Australia, or in Europe. Why do they risk their lives? This documentary is based on that story. Unfortunately, we see that asylum seekers are in the sea and nobody is accepting them. There is a human ping-pong. Every country is relying on the others and nobody is welcoming them. They are in the middle of nowhere in the sea and nobody is accepting them, which is a tragic incident happening with these innocent people. My story is also similar to that.
Michela Alessandrini: I would like you to say something about the role of the image, according to you, and also the role of witnessing. What were you experiencing in those moments?
BAB: This journey was never visualized before: it was the first time. I made the perilous journey and risked my life and documented it. That’s why there was a lot of appreciation and admiration around by so many people. For the first time they saw those people that the anti-Hazara politicians call the “boat people.” These asylum seekers, travelling by boat to Australia, were only on the newspapers or in television. It was the first time and it had affected people. I experienced it everyday here, when I go to conferences and seminars, I see how they changed their mind on asylum seekers. They realize that they are human beings like them, that we are not ghosts. It makes it more personal to them. The image itself is very effective and it brings feelings within it. Plus, I think that photojournalist are messengers. We show to people what it is really happening on the ground. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a battlefield or on a boat in the middle of the sea. We show to people what is happening and, from then on, they start campaigns and other kinds of protests; they start talking about human rights, refugees’ rights. It all starts when photojournalists do a good job, because we show to the world what s really happening. Nobody wants to risk one’s life to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to see what is really happening. Probably a lot of people they don’t know where these countries are in the world.
MA: What was your experience of it? You were really engaged, you risked your life. I imagine that it was important from the human point of view too. Not only as a reporter but as a human being.
BAB: Sure. I already had to take that boat once before, but not as a reporter. It was important to me to take it twice to have it documented. I was not different from my ninety-two asylum seeker fellows. The only different thing is that I was taking photos. They thought I was insane, because we were close to death and I was taking photos and videos. They thought I didn’t care about my life. They didn’t understand the importance of what I was doing. I was very scared but taking pictures helped me in overcoming my fears.
MA: Do you think these photographs have an artistic value? Your pictures are exposed worldwide… Were you caring about aesthetical aspect of your photos while taking them?
BAB: I was interested in witnessing what was actually happening to us, but at the same time I was very careful about the composition, the photographic point of view… I didn’t have so much control on the light though. But still, I was checking my position, the frame, the angles etc. I wanted my pictures to be strong, aesthetically and emotionally; I wanted to show my fellows’ expressions. I was thinking about this aspect, also.
MA: Thank you very much for witnessing. Your work gives us the opportunity to be more attentive to this sociopolitical phenomenon.
BAB: Thank you very much for having me. I hope that my work has an impact on what is happening in the Mediterranean, in Malaysia or in Thailand. I do hope that my small work can make a small difference in this debate.