Review by Melanie Chapman •
When Never Again Repeats Itself: If ever there was a singular book that exemplifies the meaning of “Photo Evidence” (FotoEvidence), this essential publication documenting the tragic plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees certainly must be that book. So beautiful are the images and so heavy is the topic; this new collection of photographs, essays, and reproductions of children’s drawings asks to be picked up and requires being put back down, time and time again, until the viewer is finally able to sit in silence and contemplate the magnitude of yet another Genocide.
This is no easy book to review. Commenting on the exquisite compositions of Patrick Brown’s images, shot in squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh, feels inappropriate. Yet there are many photographs which have the quality of Renaissance paintings; women wrapped in richly colored headscarves, tears staining their cheeks as they recall the murder of family members; the barely illuminated face of man who witnessed a village massacre from his hiding place in a rice paddy (though no light will ever shine again in his soul after seeing infants thrown alive into a pit of burning gasoline).
Wide vistas of the camps, densely populated with shacks under constant threat of monsoon rains, where nothing will grow but the number of more stateless Rohingya, might evoke the pallet of Bruegel or the hell-scapes of Hieronymus Bosch. But beware the temptation to simply look at these photographs. The subject matter of mass killings and the forced exodus of thousands of people from their homeland, who are then ignored by the World community like so many discarded pawns…these images demand to be felt.
How can one not notice the gorgeous contrast of gold fabric against the dark skin of a young mother who averts her gaze from the camera, and how can one remain comfortable upon reading this same woman had her 28-day old child killed right in front of her by soldiers who then raped her and burned the hut where she and others had been left for dead?
How can we turn away from the boy in the bed whose arm has been amputated, or the girl in the school photo who has since disappeared? How can one look at a rain-soaked man, bent down weeping over the bodies of five dead children, alone in a crowd yet not alone in his sorrow, or spend a few moments with children’s drawings of helicopters dropping bombs, blood red crayon pooling around stick figure women, and ever have anything relevant to say?
Fortunately for those of us who want to better comprehend the plight of the Rohingya refugees, No Place On Earth includes a number of essays offering historical background and unflinching perspective, written by those who have witnessed this ongoing crisis firsthand. Equally as important are the personal testimonies of Rohingya refugees themselves. The words of these individuals—who like you and me, want a place to call home and to raise their children in safety but instead have experienced brutality, rape, the indignity of forced migration and a very uncertain future—coupled with veteran photojournalist Patrick Brown’s painfully beautiful images, challenge the viewer to be cautious of “selective compassion” in which we only care about the problems of those who look like us, live like us, worship like “us.”
To contemplate that which No Place On Earth shows about man’s capacity to turn its back on the suffering of one’s fellow man, reminds this reviewer of the 1946 prose poem by German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller “First they came for the Socialists…”. If you are not familiar with this passage, look it up. And then find a comfortable place to sit while you turn the pages of No Place On Earth and decide what you plan to do about it.
No Place On Earth, Patrick Brown
Photographer: Patrick Brown, born in Sheffield England, settled in Perth, Australia, based in Bangkok, Thailand.
Published by FotoEvidence Press, Brooklyn, NY, copyright 2019
Essays: Matthew Smith, Peter Bouckaert, Jason Motlagh (first published in Aug 2018 issue of Rolling Stone), Afterword by Patrick Brown
Hard cover, sewn binding, 207 pages, 98 Color Photographs