On 11th May St John’s College welcomed Skimstone Arts who presented their exhibition “One Day Changes” by Skimstone Arts Associates and two photojournalists, Ako and Shahor. The exhibition, which is open to visitors throughout the week, documents refugee camps in Iraq and Syria and explores how in one day, something so dramatic and life changing can force people, including children, who were leading normal lives, to suddenly become refugees fleeing their homes, and survivors looking for a safe place.
The exhibition was especially moving given the current situation in Ukraine. Ako and Shahor rightly pointed out that while this exhibition is of a different war, a different place, a different time, people are still caught up in and suffering from war, fleeing for their lives and leaving everything behind. Just like in Halabja where one day changed everything when the chemical bombs were deployed, one day changed everything for Ukraine. The panel explained that the name for the exhibition took inspiration from the title “One Day” used for Holocaust Memorial Day which again emphasises the fact that while one war may be over, we are far from peace and an end to suffering.
Before viewing the exhibition of photos displayed in the Crossroads, a panel from Skimstone Arts, Ako and Shahor gave a fascinating presentation and Q&A session. After brief introductions, we watched the short film they had produced together as part of the exhibition ‘The Smell of Apples’. The film tells the story of Azad, who survived the chemical attack on the city of Halabja on 16th March 1988, during last days of Iran/Iraq War.
I found the video incredibly moving, in particular the music and the repeated return of photographs of the victims holding apples. The survivors of the chemical attack remember the smell of the chemical bomb reminded them of apples and that this has changed their perception of apples. However, it was aptly put in the video that the apple is not to blame, but the criminals are those who could turn such a beautiful, natural food of the earth into a poison.
The video inspired a fascinating discussion about many things from the cruelty of war to the impact on the individual lives of Ako and Shahor. I found the two men incredibly inspiring; the bravery of photojournalists is often overlooked. Ako told us how his mother, when she eventually found out he was working in television, would wait for him to come home every night while Shahor never told his mother who only found out when he was filmed taking photographs on the front line live on TV. Both men were so passionate about ensuring people can see the truth from uncontrolled media and understand the true horrors of war that they risked their lives alongside many other photojournalists in the hope that people turn to peace after seeing the true monstrosities of war and the terrible suffering of innocent victims.
What really resonated with me in the discussion was the emptiness encapsulated by the label ’refugee’, especially important to remember in the current circumstances in Ukraine. When we use the word refugee, that wipes the identity of the person in its entirety. The exhibition today was not created by refugees, but two individual photojournalists with individual identities and lives. One of the audience members commented that the label refugee can be used as an excuse for certain treatment by countries which they would not do to their own citizens such as deporting refugees to other countries. Another member of the public who came to the talk made the poignant point that when at school you are asked what you want to be when you grow up, no-one ever says they want to be a refugee. It is important to remember that being a refugee is not the defining identity of a person.
The photos in the exhibition were of various different scenes and showed many different impacts of war from taped up windows in offices out of fear of an explosion to shots of destroyed landscape. I felt the exhibition captured so many different aspects of war but there was one photograph that stuck with me in which a child was sitting on an abandoned tank. The naivety and optimism of the child against the frighteningly empty background encapsulated the hope that I can only imagine one needs to keep on fighting day after day either on the front line in the war or just to survive life day to day.