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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.