Muhammed Muheisen: Hope Amidst Despair

Pakistan's Chief Photographer Muhammed Muheisen shows Afghan refugee children how the camera works, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo)

For people living in first world nations, it’s easy to take our opportunities for granted. Whatever problems we may have pale in comparison to the turmoil experienced by people in third world and war-torn countries. We’re often only vaguely aware of their plight, and we merely fret over the unrest in these regions. Much of the media coverage, which focuses on violence and political strife, overshadows the struggles of innocent human beings. In stark contrast to many major media outlets, photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen has utilized his photography to raise awareness about people who’ve been displaced and victimized by warfare. His award-winning and impactful photographs authentically examine the lives of individuals striving for serenity.

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Since joining The Associated Press in 2001, Muheisen has taken photographs of people from a variety of regions. He’s gone on assignment to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, China, France and South Africa. Most notably, he’s covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Yemeni revolution, the Iraq war, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the funeral of Yasser Arafat. He’s also won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the wars in Iraq and Syria in 2005 and 2013 respectively. For the past four years he’s been AP’s chief photographer for Pakistan, and he was recently named the chief photographer for the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. His photographs have been exhibited worldwide and in 2014 his photographs of refugees were exhibited at Festival des Libertés, a music and documentary film festival held annually in Brussels. Most recently, his works were featured in the outdoor photographic exhibition THE FENCE in Brooklyn, Boston, Atlanta, and Houston in 2015.
While Muheisen has had a very accomplished career, he also has a genuine concern for the well-being of the people he photographs. Because he was born in Jerusalem and is a Jordanian national, Muheisen feels a special connection to the Middle East and its people. He’s witnessed civilians trying to survive in the midst of unrelenting catastrophes, which is why he’s taken it upon himself to convey their personal stories to the world. Many of his photographs focus on families and children because they are the ones that have suffered the most. Muheisen, however, does not solely focus on their despair. Instead, he captures a gamut of moments and emotions.

A Palestinian boy reacts as youths frighten him by pointing their toy guns at him, in an alley in the West Bank refugee camp of Al-Amari in Ramallah, Tuesday, June. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
A Palestinian boy reacts as youths frighten him by pointing their toy guns at him, in an alley in the West Bank refugee camp of Al-Amari in Ramallah, Tuesday, June. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

As Muheisen explained to British newspaper The Guardian, “If you go through any camp or any story there are two sides—there is the side where you show the dirt, you show the poverty, and there is the side that shows how life goes on. So I point my camera, and I try to show how life doesn’t stop, even in the middle of these difficult circumstances.” One of Muheisen’s photographs shows a young Syrian refugee girl named Zubaida Faisal in a settlement near the Syria-Jordan border. Zubaida is wearing a Spongebob Squarepants t-shirt and jumping rope while other children around her are playing and dancing. Their living conditions are far from idyllic, yet these children are simply enjoying their time together. This brief moment of joy is a well-deserved respite from the chaos that forced them from their homes. In another settlement on the Syria-Jordan border, Muheisen photographed two Syrian refugee children who were smiling at the camera. Far off in the distance, a rainbow shines from the sky illustrating that hope exists for these children and other refugees.
A particularly poignant photograph, taken in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, shows a young Afghani girl named Laiba Hazrat. Laiba is cloaked in a raggedy, green blanket, and her face is covered with dirt. Her intense gaze encapsulates the pain she and others have experienced on their turbulent journey to a better life. “It’s just a small introduction, but I think her haunting beauty, which is mixed with the hard environment, makes you as an audience think: ‘I wonder what life could be like through the eyes of an Afghan child,’” Muheisen told The Guardian. Muheisen makes a point of learning about the people he photographs. He doesn’t make his subjects spectacles because he wants their personal experiences to serve as endearing testaments of perseverance. Muheisen has frequently travelled to refugee camps and interacted with the people residing there. Understandably, many of the people Muheisen encountered were reluctant to be photographed. Nevertheless, Muheisen persisted in gaining their trust in order to accurately portray their perspective.

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In an interview with The Associated Press, Muheisen discussed the importance of his work and photojournalism in general. While showing his photograph of a child refugee, he explained, “This child […] he’s a survivor of a bombing in his own home. He got totally burned, and he’s not only a survivor, he’s displaced right now living in those conditions. So, I’m walking around, people really [don’t] want me there. But, I mean you have your way to convince people how important it is to be a photographer to document what’s happening here. Because, if this picture doesn’t go out, it never happened.” In 2013, Muheisen, along with fellow AP photographers Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, and Khalil Hamra, won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for their coverage of the Syrian civil war. Muhammed Muheisen is doing remarkable work and his efforts are helping increase awareness about people affected by the Syrian civil war and other conflicts. As Maya Alleruzzo, AP’s regional photo editor for the Middle East, explained, “We understand more about the world through his photographs of the daily lives of people—from the slums of Pakistan, on the front lines in Syria, refugee camps in Jordan to the streets of the West Bank.” Muheisen’s focus on refugees’ humanity supersedes media biases and sensationalism. Refugees and people living in poverty deserve to be treated equally with kindness and respect. As people across the world become invested in and aware of their struggles, they’ll be more inclined to help others in dire need of hospitality.

-Elijah Yarbrough