On Solid Ground: Photographing the displaced

A new exhibition captures the trauma of those forced to flee to survive.

Rachel stands, hands at her waist, in front of her home – a makeshift shelter built of stones and straw and grey tarpaulin. She looks into the camera. Behind her stretches a small valley full of similar structures; beyond them, green hills and a spare vista of trees.

This is the Bulengo displacement camp in North Kivu, Eastern Congo, where Rachel fled after her village was attacked.  She recalls: “I was bathing the children when I heard gunfire. We left half an hour after hearing the first shots, the children still naked. The houses had already been burnt down and people killed. Some were beaten on the road as we fled and pregnant women had their bellies torn open. I hid while other women were raped.”

Inside this small hold, Rachel keeps a few possessions: a toothbrush, water bottles, a few metal cups and plates beside a basket, the blanket she uses for a sleeping matt on the bare pebble floor.

Rachel’s portrait and those of her home are among many featured in a new multimedia exhibition, On Solid Ground, which comprises images and interviews taken by seven photographers who visited communities in Congo, Kenya, Pakistan, Croatia, Mali, Burundi and Jordan, speaking to and photographing refugees and survivors of humanitarian crises.

In the pictures we meet Marjee, a teacher in Sindh province, Pakistan, rebuilding his home ravaged by flooding two years before. Mathieu, in Barundi, bears deep scars from a machete assault in his own compound, the product of violent land disputes.  Milos, in Croatia, was dislocated to Serbia for six years during the Balkan war. Milos poses with him tamburica, the traditional instrument he played to remind himself of home during the years in exile.  

Humanitarian aid charity International Rescue Committee (IRC) joined with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and Panos Pictures to produce the project.  Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, launches the exhibition today, 20 June, which is also World Refugee Day.

Carolyn Makinson, International Rescue Committee UK’s Executive Director, says of the show: “Whether caused by war or natural catastrophe, displacement shakes the foundations of life. These images portray the common need of all people to have a place of safety and comfort they can call home.”

The free exhibition will be on display at St Martin in the Fields, London until 31 July before touring Europe. An accompanying website showcases the project online with short films documenting how European Union funding supports the IRC’s work.


Shugna, holding their daughter Kawila, and Marjee sit in their house in Pakistan. The house was completely destroyed by floods and had to be rebuilt in 2012. © Shiho Fukada/Panos Pictures/The IRC


Mathieu fled Burundi in 1972 and returned in 2008. “About two years ago I as attacked. I was coming back from the toilets outside at night when they started hitting me with a machete. I spent a year in hospital.” © Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures/The IRC


Muna, a Syrian refugee living in Mafraq, Jordan. She fled her home in Hamidiyeh in Homs province with her children in the summer of 2012. Her husband, a former civil servant turned member of the Free Syrian Army, stayed. “In Syria I was afraid and here I am hungry. I can stand the hunger but not the fear.”  © Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/The IRC


Milos Bastajic, 63 years old, from Prkos village in Croatia. The tamburica pictured was one of the few items he brought with him when he and his family were forced to flee Prkos in 1995. He returned in 2001. “Six years to be away was a long time. When we got back the electric wiring had been stripped out of our house, along with the ceramic tiles from the bathroom and the kitchen’s wooden fittings. It was a sad sight. But I was also very happy to be home.” © Adam Patterson/Panos Pictures/The IRC

Rachel in Bulengo displacement camp, Congo. (Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures/The IRC)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.