While most travellers treat countries with ongoing humanitarian issues as ones to take special caution to avoid, for NUS Global Studies final-year student Arif Nurhakim, or Hakim as he prefers to go by, it is one of the most compelling reasons to visit. Hakim has been an avid photographer for the past ten years, having picked up the interest from the age of 15. Documentary photography however, only sparked his curiosity two years ago.
His photojournalism journey began in Singapore, when a geography module on migrant dysphoria gave him the chance to work with a non-governmental organisation, meet migrant workers and find out about the way they live. The experience inspired him to look deeper into documentary work on marginalised communities.
Documentary photography gives him the ability to visualise and better understand what he learned during class for his specialisation in population and migration, Hakim shared.
“I always feel that there is an empathy gap between what I learn and what is exactly happening out there beyond the classroom. For me, pursuing academic excellence alone is not enough to help me empathise more with these issues,” he added.
The 2015 twin earthquakes in Nepal was the start of his documentary photography sojourns. Unsatisfied with the cold, statistical approach many news reports took for this tragedy, he was prompted to search for an approach that focused on the “human struggle and the strength of the human spirit to overcome these adversities”. While there, he interviewed and filmed the survivors of the disaster.
“Working with survivors of the natural disaster who have lost everything, from their homes to family members, was a life-changing experience,” he said. “It taught me the value of what we, as Singaporeans, always take for granted in our everyday lives. Access to education, a safe country, family and friends.”
One particular moment stood out to him, even now, after more than a year. It was his interview with a woman who was the only one in her family to survive the twin earthquakes. “There were times when she would stop crying and in those moments, the silence was much louder than her tears,” he said.
Deeply struck by his experiences in Nepal, when he came back to Singapore he raised funds to provide enough winter blankets for one village.
His next destination was Paris, as part of his exchange programme in 2016, but instead of taking in the sights and touring Europe, he chose to document the Paris labour law protests that were ongoing then. “I was interested in understanding the inner workings of the Parisian society, from how the people fought for workers’ rights, to coming together, united as one, in the wake of the Paris attacks that happened just weeks before I arrived,” he said.
Undeterred by the tense situations and harsh realities, Hakim set his sights on covering the refugee crisis in Greece. He travelled there for one month during his semester break in May 2016, telling a story from the perspective of a refugee child. He delved and immersed himself in their way of life, in the process forging strong bonds with the refugees. His parting with the child was a poignant one, Hakim recalled.
“He just continuously kissed me on my cheek, telling me not to leave, telling me to stay longer. He was very upset. That was a very difficult thing to bear with, the entire separation,” he shared. He vowed to continue to follow up with and work on the migration crisis in Europe until a sustainable solution has been found.
The experiences have left an indelible impression on him, and strengthened his resolve to forge ahead with his aim to give voice to marginalised communities, to continue to tell the stories of the people who have had “their voices taken away from them”.
“Being in such situations often exposes me to the vulnerabilities of the human spirit but also shows me the enduring character of it. So while some of the experiences have taken an emotional toll on me personally, I always remind myself that if there are millions of people out there who can survive harsher conditions, then surely I can overcome the challenges in my own life too,” he said.
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