[Workshop Reflection] Voice of Witness: Refugee Hotel

Meet the authors of Refugee Hotel:

Current OHMA students had a conversation about careers, interviewing, and the relationship between oral history and journalism with Gabriele and Juliet before their public talk. Watch a video of the talk here. Here are some highlights:

Q : We were struck by the size of the book, how did you choose the style and format?

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Q: How did this project develop. What inspired you to do this project? 

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Q: How did you get involved with Voice of Witness?

Q: What were you told is the difference between oral history and journalism?

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A Personal Reflection on the Voice of Witness:  Refugee Hotel

by Maye Saephanh

In an effort to shed light on the lives of refugees starting from their point of arrival in the United States, journalist Juliet Linderman and photographer Gabriele Stabile offer a collection of photographs combined with text narratives in their new book, Refugee Hotel.  As part of the Voice of Witness series, the book takes an oral history approach to collect the stories of refugees from Myanmar, Burundi and South Sudan to give context and narrative to the pages of stark images. It is an interesting way to merge the fields of journalism and oral history.

The field of oral history often emphasizes the creation of meaning and narrative as a subjective process that occurs between the interviewee and interviewer.  In the example of Refugee Hotel, this emphasis is seen in the testimonials provided in the text where the voice and presence of the refugees themselves are shared.  The stories as narrated by the refugees provide a first-hand account of the challenges and bewilderment they experienced upon arriving in the U.S.  In contrast, the images captured in the book give a startling visual account of these same experiences--but through the lens of an experienced Western photographer.

The testimonials by the interviewees in Refugee Hotel conjure up memories of my own family arriving in San Francisco, CA.  Although I was only six years old at the time, I can remember the foreboding sense of the unknown that awaited us on the other side of the “arrivals” corridor.   Born and raised in the refugee camps of northern Thailand, I didn’t know one English word and nor did my parents.  We were shepherded between each leg of our flight by stewardesses and assistants coordinated by the UNHCR and the U.S. government.  I remember a long night spent laid over in a high rise hotel in Hong Kong.  As I looked out the window of our hotel room, the bright lights of that great city glared back at me, leaving me in shock.  We had been transported—overnight—from the cramped, dirt grounds of the camps in rural Thailand to a lit up concrete jungle where the entire world laid below our feet.

It was bewildering.  It was fascinating.  It was incredibly foreign.  In my six-year-old mind, it was a world straight out of a scene akin to the animated show, The Jetson’s--an image I could only articulate years later after watching enough American television.  My parents no doubt felt some level of fear and a great deal of anxiety over the unknown that awaited us on the other side of the Pacific.

Based on my personal experience as a refugee, the images found in Refugee Hotel fill me with an array of conflicting emotions. Looking back on that journey, I cannot imagine having those moments of uncertainty and anxiety captured on camera.  As refugees who had lived in dire camp conditions, getting our photographs taken were considered special occasions when my parents went to great lengths to make sure we were scrubbed clean at the public baths and then dressed in the finest clothing we owned.  Candid shots of our day-to-day existence in settings we did not willingly choose to place ourselves in were not welcomed.   In fact, I remember most of the refugees would shy away from the cameras of foreigners unless they were dressed in their finest.  How they were presented in photographs mattered a great deal even if they never saw a copy of the photograph themselves.

Although my family was placed in a decent hotel in Hong Kong while we waited for the next leg of our resettlement journey, I still can’t imagine having our feelings and experiences captured in a book.  If we were to permit any kind of documentation of that experience, I know my parents would deem it important to have a voice in deciding which pictures ended up getting published. Instead, as uneducated and illiterate refugees who were unaccustomed to dealing with Westerners, my parents would not have felt comfortable voicing their real feelings or opinions.  In their minds, Westerners were authority figures because they represented the educated class.  They saw themselves as inferior to all white foreigners. My parents would likely have asked themselves, “Who are we to know what is best when the white foreigners are the ones who can write down our names and birth dates?”

Linderman and Stabile want the voices of refugees to be heard. They reached beyond the traditional protocols of journalism by incorporating an oral history approach to capture the narratives of the refugees.  Therefore, they intentionally included the refugees as part of the storytelling so they are not relegated to simply serving as subjects of a story. However, this is an incredibly challenging endeavor.  The power differential between those who hold the camera and those standing in front of the lens cannot be overlooked--even in spite of the best intentions of the most experienced oral historian or journalist. Could there have been greater consideration of these issues within Refugee Hotel and a more expansive explanation of the role refugees played in shaping their representation in the book?

It is impressive so many refugees agreed to participate in documenting their transition to life in the United States by granting interviews and agreeing to be photographed.  Their experiences and views are important and need to be heard in the public sphere.

Post by OHMA students Kyana Moghadam, Sam Robson, Maye Saephanh