Patrick Brown tells Nigel Atherton the story behind his World Press Photo awardwinning image and shares some of his powerful work on the wider Rohingya crisis
Patrick Brown talks about his powerful images of the crisis in rohingya
Following violent attacks on Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority by the Burmese military, refugees have been pouring into neighbouring Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine province in their hundreds of thousands since last August. Based in Bangkok, Sheffieldborn photojournalist Patrick Brown was on the scene very quickly.
‘I have worked in a lot of trying and difficult areas but I was simply unprepared for what I was about to see,’ recalls the multi-award-winning photographer who is currently working for UNICEF. ‘Literally thousands of people pouring over the border from Burma to Bangladesh, and those thousands turned into tens of thousands, and now we have nine hundred thousand people.’
Patrick has been photographing the refugee crisis for many months but the scale of the suffering was brought home to the West recently when a shocking image by Patrick was nominated for World Press Photo Picture of the Year (see right). ‘I heard reports of a boat which had just capsized in a storm with refugees on board so we jumped in the car and went down there,’ recalls Patrick. ‘The Burmese border was sealed off and the military was planting landmines to stop people from crossing. They were shooting, beating and robbing people, so a group of Rohingya had decided to try to circumvent the authorities by sailing right out into the bay. They were navigating around a segment of land called Cox’s Bazar to avoid the Bangladeshi coastguard and Burmese military. So they were going right into the Bay of Bengal, during monsoon season. It was a really horrendous storm that night. The fury of it was like nothing I’d experienced before.’
The boat apparently broke up within 200 metres of the coast, with over 100 people on board, many of them women and children. Soon the bodies started being washed up on the shore. The local fishermen used torches and collected all the bodies they could find. When Patrick arrived he was confronted by a dramatic scene.
‘It was dark; there was a heavy thunderstorm; the only part of me that wasn’t completely soaked was under my chin. The bodies were all laid out on the ground – women, children... people were weary. When I took that image, it felt like I had been there for a lifetime, whereas in reality it was only half an hour. I didn’t take many pictures that night. It was very sad. It really moved me. But you try to emotionally distance yourself from what you’re photographing, and make the clearest narrative you can to tell what’s happening. The camera is a veil – a filter that you’re putting between you and your subjects. You are concentrating on the elements and how to balance them in the frame, to tell the story. It’s not until later, when you’re editing and choosing the images, that’s when it gets more emotionally challenging. That’s when you begin to digest what you’ve seen. When I first took those pictures I thought they were too harsh. But my editor in New York said we needed to tell the world what ethnic cleansing looks like.’
A survivor of the massacre at Tula Toli village (also known as Min Gyi) in Myanmar. Rajuma Begum, 20, witnessed her parents, two sisters and brother killed by the Myanmar Military. She saw her three-month old baby killed, then thrown onto a fire by the...