They look at us with hope, but we can only document their despair

As a photojournalist capturing the suffering of the Rohingya, I wonder whether our pictures are doing anything to help them at all.

Sixteen-year-old Annica Bhar is six months pregnant. Her husband of a year-and-a-half was murdered [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

It is mid-day. The humidity is unbearable. The stench of stale sweat hangs in the air.

We are in a small and impoverished Hindu community in the Bangladeshi port city of Cox’s Bazar, telling the stories of some of the more than 400,000 Rohingya who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.

A 16-year-old girl – one of the minority of Rohingya who are Hindu – is wailing, grieving for her murdered husband. She is six months pregnant.

None of the other refugees here pays her much attention. They are too busy with their own sorrows, their own desperate attempts to survive. But a few local men gather, surrounding her. They take out their phones to film and photograph her as she cries.

I feel sickened, disgusted by the scene, by the idea that people can feel so detached from the suffering before them that they would choose to record it rather than offer comfort.

I feel sick because surely this is what I, as one of the hundreds of journalists who have descended upon the refugee camps here, have been doing.

I have photographed and filmed images of desperationand sorrow unlike any I have witnessed before: the mother whose ear had been hacked off and her 10-year-old daughter who lost every other member of their family, the four-year-old whose parents had been killed, the little boy cradling his unconscious baby sister after their father was murdered and they became separated from their mother. Each story seemingly more tragic than the last.

A Rohingya boy cradles his unconscious younger sister. Their father was killed and they became separated from their mother as they fled Myanmar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
A Rohingya boy cradles his unconscious younger sister. Their father was killed and they became separated from their mother as they fled Myanmar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

I wonder whether to me and other journalists this 16-year-old widow is a story. An opportunity to prove our journalistic credentials. A chance to capture the definitive image of suffering and despair that will somehow encapsulate all the suffering and despair we see around us – crammed into every square foot of this city – or to at least secure a few more likes or television rating points.

Annica Bhar looks at their cameras with hope, the same hope with which I have seen others look at mine. She, like them, allows us to photograph her in her most desperate moments, in the hope that our cameras might offer some relief. But they do not.

In a few days, I will leave here to return to my comfortable life. I will leave the misery, the disease and the mud behind. But Annica and the other Rohingya refugees will remain. They will stay here begging and tussling for the little aid that arrives, distributed haphazardly from trucks to those who are still strong enough to grab it while the weaker among them lose out. They will stay as epidemics set in in the overcrowded and unsanitary camps, while torrential rains pound their flimsy shelters. And I will wonder what good our pictures did after all.

Source: Al Jazeera