How a photographer is busting the stereotype of Syrian refugees

I heard all the news reports beginning in 2012.  First it was a few hundred, then a few thousand Syrians killed by their own government.  Then tens of thousands.  I said to myself, wow, the world can't possible let this continue.  Eventually, as we now know, over a half million dead and 11 million displaced from their homes with almost half outside the country looking for a new place to live.

The photojournalists were instrumental in bringing all this to our collective attention and a few incredible images finally started the world moving. This amazingly sad photograph by Aylan Kurdi was among the most powerful.

I thought to myself, I'm no photojournalist, what can I do?

Have you ever felt that you had to do something, but didn't know what?  Have you ever felt that you're just one person, what difference can you make?

After seeing a presentation about a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, it hit me.  What do we really know about Syrian refugees?  Sure we see them trying to flee a war torn country and we see the despair in their eyes.  But so many people are unwilling to allow Syrian refugees to resettle in their country.  Is it because they don't really know them?

So I created a project called Open Minds, Open Doors.  I formed a team with a journalist, a researcher and me, the photographer.  We would find Syrian refugees who not only made it out of Syria, but who had successfully resettled and integrated into a new country.  We would interview them, and photograph them, and create an exhibit that would travel the USA introducing people to Syrian refugees and telling their story of hope and what it looks like when refugees and given conditions to thrive.

We raised just enough money for travel and in December we went to Berlin.  There, with the help of many NGO's and other contacts, we interviewed and photographed over a dozen incredible people that are making a new life for themselves in Germany.

I assembled a portable studio with a single soft box and strobe with a second stand to hold a narrow backdrop.  We'd shoot a full length portrait with some environment showing on either side of the backdrop, and a headshot.

Here's my field kit with water jugs as stabilizing weights.

Here's my field kit with water jugs as stabilizing weights.

To keep the images consistent, I shot a Nikon D810 with the new Sigma 85 ART lens at a premeasured distance for each image.  We also interviewed each person and asked them questions about them as people, so we could really get to know them.

We ask questions in english and arabic. We hav a journalist and a translator.

We ask questions in english and arabic. We hav a journalist and a translator.

The end result looks like this.  Here's Kefah:

And here's Farhan:

Each person we photograph will have two images displayed.  This month we'll travel to Toronto to interview and photograph more.  We've set up a Facebook page at  And this spring, after raising more funds to create the exhibit, we'll start touring the USA to educate, open some minds, and open some doors.

Is there something you want to do to to impact change?  Use the power of your will, and your camera, and make a difference.

Michael Cohen1 Comment