The Exchange: Are Journalists Checking their Privilege When Covering Refugees?

Tobias Zielony and Anna Badkhen on the displaced, the Global South, and what Africans misunderstand about their peers who’ve made it to Germany.


For all the connectivity enveloping the world, how well do humans really know one another? That question is at the heart of photographer Tobias Zielony’s project The Citizen. Exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, the series captured the challenges that activist-refugees from Africa face while living in Germany. Writer Anna Badkhen examines similar themes in her work. She has embedded with nomadic herders in Mali, carpet weavers in Afghanistan, and fishermen in Senegal—experiences that have shaped her perspective on community, displacement, and empathy. Badkhen, from the capital of Senegal, and Zielony, from Berlin, recently connected on the phone to discuss who lives on global society’s fringes (hint: maybe not the poor) and how to avoid creating journalism that’s merely background noise.

Tobias Zielony: Over the last five, six years, there has been a very strong political movement of refugees living in Germany, fighting for their rights to study and work and actually to move within the country. These activists in The Citizen were leaving this passive, victim-like position they were put in, and they became proactive; they finally had a voice in the public and a face. Something that really struck me before making this project was when I talked to an African refugee-activist from the group Lampedusa in Hamburg, whose members relocated from the Italian island and now want permanent residence in Germany. He said: “Everybody’s talking about the Mediterranean and the dangerous and traumatic journey over the sea. But for us, we would be happy if people talked more about the situation that we have here in Europe and in Germany, and also the situations in our home countries.” So I thought there would be something for me to do, to work in Germany and look at the situation here and also try to find ways to connect it with the situations in the countries the people came from, which, in this case, were African countries. At the time, it was really, really hard and frustrating for them to be in Germany. I think the policy of the government was basically to make refugees’ lives hell, so they would leave on their own. So I was amazed by the bravery of these activists. Anytime the police knocked on their door, they could be deported; in this very insecure situation, they would be going to demonstrations. They were using all the experiences they had brought from political struggles elsewhere, in Italy or in their home countries, to Germany.

Anna Badkhen: This is what an artist’s or a storyteller’s path really is: to challenge the notion of seeing what a migrant is, or what the story is. Otherwise we’re creating wallpaper, we’re creating elevator music. A huge chunk of humanity is on the move. And I think that what we are compartmentalizing is that today migration is our common story—and historically migration is the common story, of course. We’re still all immigrants wherever we live, except perhaps the people who still live in the Horn of Africa. These assumptions or prejudices, I think, are important to confront within us and within our audience on a daily basis. In talking about the bravery of activists—when somebody, readers or viewers, would imagine they’d be hiding in their apartments, hiding from persecution—that’s already a challenge to the popular assumption.

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TZ: The idea that I actually had with the project was to turn around, let’s say, more traditional ideas of Western journalism—reverse that direction and work with newspapers in Africa and with African writers. Basically, I would photograph refugees here in Germany and then publish the pictures in Sudan or Ghana or Cameroon, and so on. African journalists were often surprised when I approached them with that idea; it was kind of unusual to say to someone in Cameroon, “Look, I have these pictures here of these activists in Germany. Are you interested in publishing them?” I don’t think this happens so often. And a lot of the writers, actually, would link the stories of refugees in Europe with refugees within Africa, within their own countries. When they talk about refugees, they’re mostly thinking about refugees within Africa. And this is something we forget quite a lot. Some Africans say, “The people who actually make it here [Germany] are pretty privileged.” They say, “Yeah, what are they complaining about? They’ve made it to Europe.” But obviously there’s also a lack of knowledge and information about what it means to come here and what the situation actually is for people who’ve made it here.

AB: I think that your work challenges two assumptions: One is that assumption of the Western media that our audience is in the West, and that people in the less wealthy parts of the world are not curious. In a way, The Citizen is not just offering a pinhole into another way of being in the world; you’re also holding up a mirror to how we’re seeing the world. The other assumption is among people in the Global South, that the Global North is absolutely disinterested in their lives. And to a large extent, it is true. The Global North is not really interested in how most of the world lives. But by reaching out to African newspapers, you are challenging the assumption of the intellectuals in Africa. They’re saying, “Oh, well. Here is actually a Western journalist who wants to reach out,” so you’re crossing the other way, which I think is tremendously important.

TZ: What I learned in Hamburg is that it’s a lot easier for goods to travel from one continent to another than it is for most people in the world. We are in a situation where goods and images and information and probably weapons and a lot of other things travel with fewer and fewer restrictions. And it is obvious that people want to travel too. And I thought for me, as a photographer, it would be interesting to have my pictures circulating in a different way or going to different places and becoming part of this circulation of stories.

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AB: I grew up in Leningrad, USSR, and I have worked and lived in the Global South for most of my life. So in a way I could say that while I’m not an outsider by birth, I am the “other,” but I think that none of us really has to be an outsider because we are in a constant process of reassessing and self-challenging, doing a kind of incessant interrogation. It’s a continuous plotting of our prejudices: What is the “other”? We’ve been using words in this conversation like “edges of society.” What do we mean by “society” if most of the world lives on the edge? Perhaps we have to challenge our notion of what “edge” is and what “society” is. And we have to be a little bit honest with ourselves and say, “Well, we’re talking about the wealthy” or, “We’re talking about the privileged as society, and we’re talking about the poor and the non-privileged as the edge,” and then challenge that and ask ourselves why. This is a very difficult task because it’s uncomfortable.

TZ: It’s difficult, especially as a photographer. Obviously, I’d like to think that there is no “us” and “them,” or no center and no periphery. And I hope that somehow in my work I can break down these boundaries, at least for a glimpse or for a little moment. But obviously we have to acknowledge the inequalities that exist. I don’t think it makes sense to just ignore those facts. But on a personal level and working with people, I try to overcome this notion of the “other.” I would say there is something that is almost contradictory in my work—both a strong feeling of intimacy or empathy and this feeling of distance.

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TZ: The people I’ve photographed are often struggling with, let’s say, difficult environments. But I see them as very proactive individuals who try to cope with a very challenging situation, and to me they’re more like heroes. In no way do I try and portray them as victims. And I don’t think they see themselves as victims, either. But obviously, media and photography have played a role in victimization of people. So I think it’s something we have to be very aware of, where we position ourselves in that situation.

AB: I think the idea that people who live in poverty and plight have specific characteristics makes me very uncomfortable. It’s an assumption that we make, and then we buy into it. For example, how do you know that I don’t live in poverty or plight? What is it about me? I am a migrant. So what is it about me that doesn’t fit the idea of a migrant? It’s the fact that I’m a writer. So that means that a migrant cannot have an intellectual pursuit. Why do we think that? Most artists in history have lived very, very poorly, and in plight. So I think that I agree with Tobias that there is definitely a kind of victimization that goes on in the media very often. And it is a form, a very dangerous form, of othering. So when I step into someone’s kitchen, or step into someone’s house, I’m not immediately trying to figure out how poor this person is or how many children has she lost. My attention is elsewhere: What kind of person is she? What is she thinking about? In the beginning of our conversation I was talking about this need to constantly keep checking ourselves for assumptions, for generalization, and for prejudices. And this is one that I think is extremely othering, to use that as a verb: the idea that people who are poor are somehow different from us.

This conversation has been condensed for publication. A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP. Listen to the discussion by subscribing to FP’s Global Thinkers podcast on iTunes or visiting here.