Loss and Courage
What does it mean to
be a refugee? And is it possible that a single photographic image
can capture the psychological pain and loneliness, the disappointment
and betrayal of being pushed off one's land and stripped of everything
Tim Georgeson, a photojournalist from Australia, dared to take
on such an assignment and to capture such images with his camera.
Nearly 1 out of every 8 people living in Azerbaijan is a refugee.
World Press Photo 1999, the prestigious international annual
photo competition, recognized Georgeson's efforts and awarded
him one of the top prizes in the category of "Portraits
Singles", which was announced this March. The recognition
is one of highest honors a photojournalist can achieve.
refugee woman from Jabrayil, Azerbaijan, 1999 World Press Photo
Prize by Tim Georgeson, Australia
This year's World Press Photo competition was stiff. A total
of 3,981 photographers from 122 countries submitted their work
to be judged - a total of 42,215 entries. The contest has 18
categories ranging from spot news, sports and people in the news
to daily life, nature and the environment.
Georgeson's prize-winning photo shows us only the face of Gulnar
khanim, an elderly Azerbaijani refugee woman. Her weather-worn
features are bathed in natural light as she gazes off into the
distance. We have no idea of the context, the lonely trappings
of abject poverty and abysmal conditions under which she lives.
Her illuminated face makes us pause, causing us to wonder what
deep sorrows this woman has managed to live through.
Georgeson heard about Azerbaijan's refugees for the first time
last year when he was on assignment in Kosovo. He wanted to meet
these forgotten people after realizing that somehow most of them
had managed to survive against great odds for the past seven
years (since 1992 and 1993) living in make-shift shelters on
the desert plains of Azerbaijan.
"I knew little about Azerbaijan," admits the photojournalist
who stems from Sydney. But it didn't stop him from finding ways
to get himself halfway around the world and spending two weeks
with refugees who had settled into abandoned train boxcars parked
along the railway sidings near Imishli, a town near the Azerbaijani-Iranian
border. The settlement there has 475 boxcars, accommodating 632
families and 2,109 people, according to World Vision, a humanitarian
organization that works with these refugees.
"Everyday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., I photographed and talked
and ate and drank tea with them, totally immersing myself in
their life and culture," says Georgeson. "Of all the
people I met, probably no one had lost as much as Gulnar. Small
and wrinkled, her gray eyes strained as she tried to remember
her age. 'I was born in 1917, I think,' she had told me.
"Her hands trembled as she poured 'chai' (tea), the drink
of hospitality, and told me and an accompanying photojournalist,
'You are my grandsons now. I can be your grandmother.'"
Gulnar fled from Jabrayil in the far southwest corner of Azerbaijan
in 1993 when Armenian troops, set on capturing Nagorno-Karabakh,
deliberately attacked surrounding regions as well and occupied
her village. Gulnar has survived two wars. In WWII, she lost
her first husband and brother and was forced to leave her job
on a Soviet collective farm to become a teacher. "They wouldn't
even let us burn candles in our classrooms for fear that Hitler's
army would see us. But this past war has been much harder on
us," she admitted. "In WWII, we didn't lose our homes."
Gulnar's second husband died in the boxcar last year, as did
her son, a road worker, and her daughter, who used to pick cotton.
Gulnar believes her one surviving son, whom she doesn't name
out of disgust, headed off to Russia last year. "I don't
know where he is," she spits.
But her neighbors know that he was killed in a plane crash last
year. "She has lost too much," they confided, "and
she's old. If we tell her that he's gone, too, she'll die, too."
Nights in the boxcars are unbearably cold during winter when
electricity is sporadic at best. To enter these windowless, airless
boxes, which were not built for human beings to live in, many
refugees have to scramble up roughly hewn wooden ladder-like
steps to reach the sliding doorway. They sleep on cotton mattresses
laid out on the cold steel floor.
Gulnar khanim's stoicism and courage deeply impressed Georgeson.
"She has lost everything and everyone - a husband, four
children, her house. Yet she battles on, despite all this loss.
Somehow there's triumph in her mere survival."
It's not the prize money that made Georgeson so excited when
he realized he had won a prize with World Press Photo. It was
the honor. Even the Grand Prize, which this year went to Denmark's
Claus Bjorn Larsen who photographed Kosovo Albanian victims of
war, only draws 15,000 Dutch guilders ($6,650) in prize money.
As for Azerbaijan, Georgeson's dedication and commitment will
enable exhibition viewers throughout the world to see the tragic
plight of their refugees. Gulnar's photo will be part of a traveling
exhibition that makes its rounds to countries such as Sri Lanka,
Italy, Germany, Iceland, Uganda, Poland, Chile, Spain, France,
China, Peru, Japan, Zimbabwe, the U.S., Canada, Bangladesh and
Taiwan. The World Press Photo Foundation is sponsored worldwide
by Canon, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Kodak.
"I found the Azerbaijani people very passionate and overwhelmingly
hospitable," says Georgeson. "I'm hoping, if the funding
comes through, to go back and continue documenting these people
in greater depth."
Georgeson works for Propaganda Pictures London and is
currently based in Sydney, Australia. His trip to Azerbaijan
was sponsored by Kodak Australia and World Vision Azerbaijan,
a humanitarian organization that has been working with the refugees
in Azerbaijan since June 1994.
(8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
Back to Index AI 8.1 (Spring
AI Home |