From Kabul to Congo: Unique photography project captures day-to-day drama of the world's refugees

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The Independent Online

From caves housing Afghan refugees to Colombian slums, from roads lined with displaced people in Congo to Yemeni beaches where exhausted Somali refugees wash up... Espen Rasmussen has travelled to many of the world's least hospitable, most makeshift living places. Over the past seven years, the Norwegian photographer has followed the displaced victims of numerous conflicts, capturing on camera the harsh conditions they find themselves trying to scrape a living in, and discovering that – no matter how difficult the circumstances – the hope for a real home is never extinguished.

"It started in Chad and Darfur. I was there for a couple of weeks just working on a single story," says Rasmussen, before explaining how the project grew to dominate his working life.

"I've always been interested in refugees – not that much in war itself, but in the people affected by it and the way they live their daily lives, the things that you and me can relate to."

The more he travelled, the more Rasmussen was struck by certain commonalities in the ad hoc communities that spring up when people are forced to scratch out a new life in an unfamiliar place. "It's kind of interesting because you travel right around the world, but you start to see both the similarities and the differences. There are two things: how they live and how they cope. In one place you have camps, then another place you have huts, or a slum, which is different. But in their minds and their way of coping, there's a lot of similarity.

"They almost always have a strong, strong belief in the idea of returning home, and they're always talking a lot about children and education. They don't want to see kids live the same lives as they did. These are the two main things that everyone I meet has in common."

Around half of his time was spent simply listening to people talk about their experiences.

"I go to places where there's been a conflict, but I don't go to the frontline. I try to turn my back on that and follow the people who have to flee."

While his photographs certainly reflect a general shortage of refugee camps in any country, they also aim to capture the irrepressibility of the human spirit.

"It's very easy for me as a Westerner to go to a place that is horrible and take pictures that are really depressing. But there are hundreds of kids there, and they are running around, joking, playing football – they are not sitting around crying. If you only see the darkest of the dark, it is harder to relate to the pictures."

Of course, he acknowledges that the shots of Somali refugees, for example, getting off a boat after a long and perilous journey to Yemen, don't exactly brim with positivity. But when visiting established camps, Rasmussen would see people managing to get by, creating a daily routine, making a home from home.

The project also brought the issue home for Rasmussen, quite literally: two years ago, he began to shoot Rahman, a young Iranian refugee living in Norway. As an immigrant without identification papers, he is unable to get a proper job, home or healthcare, and can be expected to be paid at about one-third of the minimum wage for working very long hours.

"There might be 10,000-20,000 people in Norway without papers, but you don't see them, they are not visible. When I started to hang out with Rahman, I started to see them," he says.

Now Rasmussen's photographs are being brought together for a new exhibition (at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo) and a book, entitled Transit, which hopes to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people worldwide – there are thought to be more than 43 million of them. Presented together, these images are also making visible displaced people, letting us see them in their hardship – and their hope.

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