Azerbaijan International

Spring 2000 (8.1)
Pages 22-23

Portrait of Loss and Courage
by Betty Blair

What does it mean to be a refugee? And is it possible that a single photographic image can capture the psychological pain and loneliness, the disappointment and betrayal of being pushed off one's land and stripped of everything one owns?

Tim Georgeson, a photojournalist from Australia, dared to take on such an assignment and to capture such images with his camera. Nearly 1 out of every 8 people living in Azerbaijan is a refugee. World Press Photo 1999, the prestigious international annual photo competition, recognized Georgeson's efforts and awarded him one of the top prizes in the category of "Portraits Singles", which was announced this March. The recognition is one of highest honors a photojournalist can achieve.

Photo: Gulnar, refugee woman from Jabrayil, Azerbaijan, 1999 World Press Photo Prize by Tim Georgeson, Australia

This year's World Press Photo competition was stiff. A total of 3,981 photographers from 122 countries submitted their work to be judged - a total of 42,215 entries. The contest has 18 categories ranging from spot news, sports and people in the news to daily life, nature and the environment.

Georgeson's prize-winning photo shows us only the face of Gulnar khanim, an elderly Azerbaijani refugee woman. Her weather-worn features are bathed in natural light as she gazes off into the distance. We have no idea of the context, the lonely trappings of abject poverty and abysmal conditions under which she lives. Her illuminated face makes us pause, causing us to wonder what deep sorrows this woman has managed to live through.

Georgeson heard about Azerbaijan's refugees for the first time last year when he was on assignment in Kosovo. He wanted to meet these forgotten people after realizing that somehow most of them had managed to survive against great odds for the past seven years (since 1992 and 1993) living in make-shift shelters on the desert plains of Azerbaijan.

Photographing Refugees
"I knew little about Azerbaijan," admits the photojournalist who stems from Sydney. But it didn't stop him from finding ways to get himself halfway around the world and spending two weeks with refugees who had settled into abandoned train boxcars parked along the railway sidings near Imishli, a town near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. The settlement there has 475 boxcars, accommodating 632 families and 2,109 people, according to World Vision, a humanitarian organization that works with these refugees.

"Everyday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., I photographed and talked and ate and drank tea with them, totally immersing myself in their life and culture," says Georgeson. "Of all the people I met, probably no one had lost as much as Gulnar. Small and wrinkled, her gray eyes strained as she tried to remember her age. 'I was born in 1917, I think,' she had told me.

"Her hands trembled as she poured 'chai' (tea), the drink of hospitality, and told me and an accompanying photojournalist, 'You are my grandsons now. I can be your grandmother.'"

Gulnar fled from Jabrayil in the far southwest corner of Azerbaijan in 1993 when Armenian troops, set on capturing Nagorno-Karabakh, deliberately attacked surrounding regions as well and occupied her village. Gulnar has survived two wars. In WWII, she lost her first husband and brother and was forced to leave her job on a Soviet collective farm to become a teacher. "They wouldn't even let us burn candles in our classrooms for fear that Hitler's army would see us. But this past war has been much harder on us," she admitted. "In WWII, we didn't lose our homes."

Recent Tragedies
Gulnar's second husband died in the boxcar last year, as did her son, a road worker, and her daughter, who used to pick cotton. Gulnar believes her one surviving son, whom she doesn't name out of disgust, headed off to Russia last year. "I don't know where he is," she spits.

But her neighbors know that he was killed in a plane crash last year. "She has lost too much," they confided, "and she's old. If we tell her that he's gone, too, she'll die, too."

Nights in the boxcars are unbearably cold during winter when electricity is sporadic at best. To enter these windowless, airless boxes, which were not built for human beings to live in, many refugees have to scramble up roughly hewn wooden ladder-like steps to reach the sliding doorway. They sleep on cotton mattresses laid out on the cold steel floor.

Gulnar khanim's stoicism and courage deeply impressed Georgeson. "She has lost everything and everyone - a husband, four children, her house. Yet she battles on, despite all this loss. Somehow there's triumph in her mere survival."

It's not the prize money that made Georgeson so excited when he realized he had won a prize with World Press Photo. It was the honor. Even the Grand Prize, which this year went to Denmark's Claus Bjorn Larsen who photographed Kosovo Albanian victims of war, only draws 15,000 Dutch guilders ($6,650) in prize money.

As for Azerbaijan, Georgeson's dedication and commitment will enable exhibition viewers throughout the world to see the tragic plight of their refugees. Gulnar's photo will be part of a traveling exhibition that makes its rounds to countries such as Sri Lanka, Italy, Germany, Iceland, Uganda, Poland, Chile, Spain, France, China, Peru, Japan, Zimbabwe, the U.S., Canada, Bangladesh and Taiwan. The World Press Photo Foundation is sponsored worldwide by Canon, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Kodak.

"I found the Azerbaijani people very passionate and overwhelmingly hospitable," says Georgeson. "I'm hoping, if the funding comes through, to go back and continue documenting these people in greater depth."

Georgeson works for Propaganda Pictures London and is currently based in Sydney, Australia. His trip to Azerbaijan was sponsored by Kodak Australia and World Vision Azerbaijan, a humanitarian organization that has been working with the refugees in Azerbaijan since June 1994.

Azerbaijan International (8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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