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international civil servants in Geneva

IOM staff pushing a boat full of emergency NFI’s in order to reach flood affected villages located in jungle areas of Popondetta, Papua New Guinea. ©Muse Mohammed
Capturing the human stories behind humanitarian assistance
1 May 2020

For as long as I can remember, I had a passion for visual creativity. As a kid, I struggled with painting or drawing but I always enjoyed being able to show others the things that I see.

The coolest job at the organisation

My name is Muse Mohammed and I am the International Organization for Migration’s principal photographer. It is a role that has evolved over the years, from primarily focusing on generating professional quality visibility on the work that IOM does, to incorporating elements of photojournalism and visual storytelling, in order to illustrate themes of migration around the world.

I am often told I have “the coolest job in the Organisation” even from my supervisors, for its uniqueness and the large amounts of travel involved.

My focus is not purely on the lifesaving work IOM does around the world, but also the people who benefit from it and the underlying reasons for the Organization is needed in the first place.

During my early years in this role, I researched how other photojournalists covered similar subjects. I took notes on how some of the photographers that influence and inspire me framed their shots, lit their portraits, and wrote captions. I quickly learned how captions can be as important as the image itself, as it provides the critical context that may not be immediately obvious in the photo.

Telling the stories of others in a dignified manner

One of the most challenging subjects that I have had to document while on assignment is climate change; it is a struggle to visually illustrate in a single frame, a problem that can take years to manifest. In the end, I found myself using people’s life stories in order to provide a human timeframe which viewers might be able to relate to.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Aisha wipes away the tears from her son Zak as he says goodbye to his grandfather over the phone in Beirut, Lebanon. As the Syrian family waits for their taxi to the airport, today marks an end to a chapter in their lives where they have been living as refugees for several years. Recently, they found out that they are finally being resettled to Europe, where they will be able to start a new chapter of their lives. ©Muse Mohammed

“My role within IOM sometimes blurs the line between being a humanitarian and a photojournalist.”

— Muse Mohammed

As my role within IOM sometimes blurs the line between being a humanitarian and a photojournalist, I’ve found myself incorporating elements of the former into the latter. A key element of that is the importance of depicting people and their story with dignity whenever possible.

As a UN staff, one of my key responsibilities is to ensure that I tell the stories of others in a dignified manner. That begins from the moment I identify a subject. It is critical that I obtain informed consent from my subjects and ensure that those, whose stories I write and share, are fully aware of where and how their stories will be told.

Thankfully, my years of studio photography and using flash has allowed me to find creative solutions in creating beautiful portraits that do not fully show one’s face. One of the techniques I use in my portraits is to ask my subjects to stand up so I can photograph them at eye level. Making sure that the camera is at eye level allows viewers to see the subjects as equals instead of having to look down at them.

As I continue to help field offices around the world to highlight the key work that IOM and its partners are doing, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to use my skills as both a photographer and storyteller to help humanize our response.

Each year, IOM provides assistance to millions of people. It is extremely hard to quantify such a number but I see my role is to remind the public, our partners and donors that these people have names and their own unique stories to and that it is important for people to pause long enough to learn who they are.

Theresa is one of the several elderly residents on the remote outer island of Likiep, The Marshall Islands. The Marshallese woman has seen many changes happen to her island over the past 86 years. She has noticed that the climate has been getting dryer and hotter, and because of the current 9-month dry spell, her grandchildren experience more hunger than she did due to less food being produced. She also recalls the backside of her house used to be covered by trees, preventing her from seeing the lagoon. Today, she sits in her wheelchair with her grandchildren, gone are all the trees and beaches, which have eroded away. Instead, all that is left is her seawall, which protects her land from further erosion, and a perfectly clear view across the lagoon. ©Muse Mohammed
Revell Alkhouly, an eight-year-old Syrian refugee, has taken up roller-skating since resettling to the small, rural town of Coronel Suárez in Argentina with her parents and two younger brothers. “The children haven’t faced any difficulties since the first day [arriving to Argentina]. To them, this has felt like an adventure or road trip. A child doesn’t understand [the whole picture] they see a nice garden, school, playground, as if it were an excursion” explain Revell’s father Wadeh. Revell and her family is among the hundreds of Syria refugees that have been resettled to Argentina through the help of IOM and partners. ©Muse Mohammed
Tatiana sits in her bridal shop in Kyiv, Ukraine. Originally from Donetsk, her local business was robbed in 2014 by armed groups and following the incident, decided to flee to the capital. She eventually befriended a wedding dress designer who was also displaced from the conflict. After seeing her friend fall on hard times, the two decided to open a business together designing and selling dresses. Over the next couple of years, Tatiana would go on to create her own business selling wedding dresses through the help of other women who were displaced from the conflict as well as an IOM business grant. “There is something really special when you see a woman walk out of here with a dress saying, ‘that’s the one for me’ and just knowing you played a part in that,” she said. To this day, Tatiana still carries the train ticket she bought to leave Donetsk as a reminder of how far she’s come after fleeing her home from the conflict and to be appreciative of the good moments in life. ©Muse Mohammed
Mario visits a local community centre that provides services of LGBTI migrants in Quito. The young Venezuelan migrant was exploited for work during his journey to the Ecuadorian capital. Many Venezuelans fleeing their country embark on dangerous journeys, often through irregular means, in order to reach neighbouring countries. ©Muse Mohammed
A house can be seen flipped over after being ripped in half in a residential area of Abaco. Two months following the landfall of a powerful category five hurricane in the Bahamas in late September 2019, entire neighbourhoods are still destroyed in affected areas. The storm impacted more than 70,000 people throughout the country, and many have already begun the slow process of rebuilding their lives. ©Muse Mohammed
* Muse Mohammed is the International Organization for Migration’s principal photographer.
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