How ‘Double Exposure’ illuminates the stories of Rohingya refugee children through art
All photos by and courtesy of Mike Tan for Floating Children.
By Les Neuhaus
Les Neuhaus is a former foreign correspondent, having covered events across East and Central Africa, and the Middle East. He now works as a freelance reporter from his home in the Tampa Bay area. Follow him on Twitter at @LesNeuhaus.
Forced into camps and villages just inside Burma’s western border with Bangladesh, the Rohingya Muslim minority live as a marginalized people, largely considered one of the oppressed groups in the world.
This is a long windup to Mike. Instead, let’s flip it and say, Photographer Mike Tan was inspired to document their plight after visiting his homeland Malaysia, in 2015 and witnessing for himself the problems facing Rohingya refugees and their children.
Tan founded Floating Children, a small refugee school in Kuala Lumpur. Floating Children works to teach stateless Rohingya kids English and math, but also to help them with other personal and social issues.
The Rohingya’s statelessness, both inside and outside of Burma, gives them little ability to work legally or educate their children, without groups like Floating Children. But Tan doesn’t just teach. His most recent multimedia photography project, Double Exposure, aims to offer insight into the experiences and minds of Rohingya refugee children.
“They are completely stateless and what’s really interesting about the Rohingya is that historically they were from Bangladesh, and in Bangladesh Rohingya means ‘outsider,’ so it’s a perfect illustration [as] they have been marginalized for centuries,” Tan told ivoh by phone from New York, where he’s now based. “I think their statelessness is partly to do with living so close to the border with Bangladesh and Burma, so they have a different cultural makeup that doesn’t fit into either Bangladesh or Burma, so they are not been accepted.”
Tan also said the fact that Rohingya are constantly mired in chronic poverty further excludes them from being able to function in countries that already view them as unwanted foreigners.
Tan, who received his fine arts education at New York University, combines photography with collage and storytelling in “Double Exposure.” For the project, Tan asked the Rohingya kids of Floating Children to draw anything; he didn’t want to give them an impression that would alter their originality. He decided it would be too common and biased to use an interview to caption their photos. Instead, he asked the children to draw anything they pleased first without interfering in their work.
It didn’t matter whether the drawings were conjured up from their imaginations or if they weren’t; the point was to get something honest out of the project. The result was revealing, he said.
“Whether these were figments of their imagination or real experiences, I wanted them to feel involved in their own story,” he notes in the project’s website.
In one photo, a boy has drawn an inverted flag. In another, a body lays in what is presumed to be a pool of blood.
Next, he took their photos and superimposed their drawings on their pictures.
“Most of these children had never had their picture taken before,” Tan said. “So when I had them draw whatever they wanted to, what came out in the photographic portraits was a representation of what they had been through on their journeys, their scars.”
Tan said he’s interested in how a child’s drawing can be combined with a photo for a double exposure to represent what they’ve experienced as refugees escaping violence to another country — one that doesn’t necessarily recognize them.
“I wanted to do something that could tell their stories through their own minds,” Tan said.
In the school, the children vary in learning levels. He said they tailor each curriculum to the child. By picking up on the child’s interest, he said, they can spend more time on specific subjects like math or English
“We want to teach this way to make the children feel special and to let them know that their voice matters,” Tan said.
They and their parents often have no official identification or documentation giving them citizenship in Burma (also known as Myanmar), which is overwhelmingly Buddhist and was ruled by a military junta that infused Buddhist nationalism into its government and ostracized the Rohingya. They have no right to move about freely there, much less across borders legally, and no right to an education, to work, to marry or to access health care.
Conflicts rise from time to time and there has been a recent wave of unrest, sending tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh, where they are usually promptly deported. Some make it to Malaysia.
Tan thinks it’s a tricky situation that might only get worse.
“All I can do is what I am doing now — to shine the light on the children we work with and through Floating Children, I can hopefully bring a greater international awareness to what the Rohingya are enduring,” he said. “Children deserve to have a sense of belonging — these children don’t have that now and we try to fill that void.”
Related: Vignette Interactive shares the dreams of refugees in limbo | Refugee Radio Network rises in Europe despite xenophobia | 2016 ivoh fellow Heidi Shin explores the reality of being an asylum seeker in the U.S.