Refugee photos a haunting reminder
Who are these people? Where are these people now? They’re homeless. They don’t have an identity.’’
Hundreds of plaintive, defiant and defeated pairs of eyes stare from Pataka’s walls, their gaze provoking searching questions about New Zealand’s attitude to refugees.
New exhibition Refugee features enlarged photos of refugees from Afghanistan found in an abandoned Iranian detention centre by a Wellington man on his OE.
Murdoch Stephens smuggled 1173 of the identification photos out of Iran in 2009 without a clear idea of his intentions, but wanting to save the historical documents from neglect or destruction.
‘‘ They were very powerful, strong images. I felt impelled to take them. It was a story that needed to be told,’’ he said.
The pictures show families, couples, siblings and single refugees detained between 1989 and 2005 in a facility in the Iranian desert, while civil war raged in Afghanistan.
Some of the photos look like happy family portraits, with sitters dressed in their finery and beautiful fabric hung as backdrops. Others evoke haunting photos of doomed prisoners during Cambodia’s period of genocide. Some refugees are marked with crosses, the significance of which can only be guessed at, Stephens said.
Stephens was encouraged by Afghani friends and experts in New Zealand to exhibit the photos, and intends eventually to return them to Afghanistan’s Kabul University.
Meanwhile, he said he hoped the pictures would draw attention to New Zealand’s patchy record on accepting refugees. Despite a common belief that New Zealand leads the world on human rights issues, our refugee per capita rate is ranked 97th in the world, just above Tajikistan and Malawi.
‘‘ We don’t keep very grand company.’’
Australia accepts five times as many refugees per capita than New Zealand.
New Zealand had filled its United Nations quota of 750 refugees only once since 2008, and took only 85 asylum seekers last year from 300 applicants, Ste- phens said. By contrast, in the 1990s New Zealand accepted an average of 500 asylum seekers a year.
Stephens would like to see New Zealand double its UN quota.
‘‘We’re not doing our bit internationally. We like to think we’re really hospitable people, we like tourists and foreigners, but there’s something about true hospitality – it’s not about money or what peo- ple will give back, giving.’’
New Zealanders tended to be hospitable to the refugees we did accept, but more money needed to be dedicated to helping refugees set up home in New Zealand, learning English and finding jobs, Stephens said.
‘‘What really matters to people who have been given refuge is the esteem that you get from
it’s about meaningful work.’’
Pataka senior curator, Bob Maysmor, said Refugee prompted more questions than it answered.
‘‘Who are these people? Where are these people now? They’re homeless. They don’t have an identity as such,’’ he said.
‘‘I wanted it to be evocative. I wanted people to stay and think of these families, of these couples, of the old folk.’’
Lives in limbo: Wellington man Murdoch Stephens has created a confronting exhibition at Pataka from refugees’ photos he smuggled out of an Iranian detention centre while on his OE.