Trupal Pandya, Photography ’16, trained his lens, and his ear, on refugees in the Middle East

In January 2016, the United Nations Development Programme sent Trupal Pandya, Photography ’16, to refugee camps in Iraq to document the struggles of the thousands displaced by ISIS. Over the course of one transformative week, he took several striking portraits and listened to the refugees’ moving stories of imprisonment and abuse. Here he shares one woman’s story.

“The assignment seemed straightforward. I knew it would be somewhat emotional, considering the purpose of the shoot. But my focus was on my equipment, visas, logistics, and planning what I hoped to capture.

“When we got to the Sharia Camp in Dohuk, my mind was still very much on the technical, even given the state of the tent camp, the somberness of it all. The camp houses 18,000 refugees in 4,000 tents. I set up my backdrop. As I handled the large screen, I was introduced to my first subject.

“She was stoic, hardened, but calm. I asked some introductory questions through the translator. The woman’s voice was softer than I imagined. Then the translator told me her words: ‘They would beat me every single day. They treated us like animals.’ My attention pulled away from my camera. I asked a few more questions. “Not only had she been beaten, she had been repeatedly raped. The ISIS rebels had used heavy weapons to subdue her and her family, forcing her children to learn Sharia Law. ‘They took my husband and my children away,’ she said. ‘Please help me find them.’

“This woman in front of me, her freedom taken at gunpoint, had suffered many months of being controlled, brutalized, and beaten by men with an agenda. I too had an agenda. I am a man with a camera, used to directing people to bend and shift for my lens. But I could not dare to be one more man to give her orders. I had to do what I was there to do with great tenderness.

“I took a deep breath. I knew I had only one shot. Anything more would have been an injustice to her. I told the translator, ‘I just need her to face me.’ I smiled at her as kindly as I could. I held my breath as I snapped and let it out as I checked the view screen. I thanked her and she walked away.”

Click on the audio links to hear Pandya tell the stories behind each of these images of refugees in Iraq.

This social worker was the first person Pandya photographed, in the Ashti camp in Sulaymaniyah. She opened a restaurant, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme, and employed only refugee girls who had been abused. “Her job did not end as soon as these girls went home,” he says. “She was also a counselor, she was a mother, she was a mentor, she was a friend.”

This family had been held captive by ISIS for 13 months; their relatives had to pay a $35,000 ransom to free them. But the scars remain, both physical and emotional. The daughter still has teeth marks on her arm where militants bit her. And just a few days before Pandya took this photo, the youngest son was “playing” with his sister by holding a knife to her neck.

We are all trying to get there
Unlike most women in the camps, this woman was eager to have her picture taken. She said, “I don’t know what has happened to humanity. We are all trying to get there. How does it matter which route we take?” For a long time, Pandya puzzled over her words. What did she mean by “there?” He realized she meant that no matter how they prayed, people from all religions wanted the same thing: to live without suffering and to find spirituality in their lives.

On the last day of the trip, the UNDP caravan was driving through the Tal Afar district when Pandya saw boys playing soccer by a bombed-out pickup truck. In this juxtaposition he understood that terror cannot subdue the human spirit for long.