The photograph captures the very definition of desolation, a black and white panorama of mud-soaked, utterly barren land that stretches from end-to-end and into the horizon. At the center of the image, a long line of children crosses the emptiness. There is an exhausted boy at the front dressed in drenched, filthy clothes. Like most of the staggered group of figures who follow, he is carrying something. What looks like a heavy bag is perched behind his head and steadied by his arms, which stretch behind his shoulders and hold it firmly in place as if it is life. His eyes are lowered to the ground below him as he climbs a jagged hill strewn with rocks. He is wearing no shoes.
The caption reveals that the boy is a seven-year-old Rohingya Muslim. He and the others have no citizenry to claim, no education, and little or no belongings. The bag he is carrying contains mud. That’s his job in the Internally Displaced Person camp where he ended up after fleeing relentless persecution: Hauling mud day in and day out.
The Rohingya in Myanmar have been stateless since the early 1980s, but they’ve been out of the news until recently, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the conditions of the Rohingya. Photographer Greg Constantine, however, learned about the Rohingya’s plight 11 years ago, and has spent the last decade documenting the faces and the existence of those he calls “Nowhere People.”
Born in Indianapolis, Constantine was in the music business before he changed careers at the age of 31.
“There comes a point in your life when you recalculate what gives you a sense of purpose,” he recalled. “I fell in love with taking photographs and working on stories which led me, organically, to the path I’m on now.”
Constantine’s raw ability with a camera was self-taught in what he called a “trial by fire.” As he found his footing as a photographer, rather than going from telling story-to story he enveloped himself in the subject matter of more long-term projects.
Thus Constantine began Nowhere People at the end of 2005, after a freelance assignment in which he documented the lives of North Korean refugees in Southeast Asia.
“I met a number of North Korean women who had given birth to children while in China,” he said. “Those children had no legal identity, no birth certificates or passports. I had stumbled on an issue no one was paying any attention to. There was no visual representation of what it looked like.”
As Constantine set out to correct that, the sheer numbers of Nowhere People revealed itself. He never imagined that the length of time it would ultimately take, but as the scope of the project expanded with each discovery of a new population, he was engulfed in their lives and the realization that the world around them not only took citizenship for granted but had weaponized it.
“That first year, I saw entire ethnic communities of people who had been extracted from the fabric of society and isolated,” he said. “The denial of citizenship was a means for people to stigmatize others, to increase prejudices and negative stereotypes. I was totally shocked by it.”
One of the first places the Nowhere People project took Constantine was Bangladesh and the then over 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis who were rendered stateless after the country’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. They remained that way until a Supreme Court ruling in 2008.
“Here is an incredibly poor country to begin with, what is the difference between the poorest Bangladeshi who has citizenship and someone from this community who doesn’t?’” Constantine asked himself.
His camera helped provide the answer.
A room that looks no bigger than ten square meters was filled with a family of seven. Three children were perched on a high bench at the furthest end of the room. Two others sat aimlessly at a small wooden table. From top-to-bottom, the walls of the room were covered in newspaper—as if in an attempt to provide some measure of comfort and home with, ironically, a media that never spoke of the camp or the similar rooms in which people of up to 15 were discarded.
“So much of it is how you identify yourself,” Constantine said. “How you are recognized by other people in society. How your access to certain fundamental things is closed off. Comparatively, those of us in the United States with citizenship are empowered through life however we want to use it.”
But even the massive misery he has witnessed worldwide failed to prepare Constantine for the plight of the Rohingya.
“The degree of suffering that this community is facing is unprecedented,” he said. “Statelessness is not a natural trait, but it is rooted in discrimination, intolerance and racism. That exclusion is something manifested through the policies governments put in place. They don’t want these stories talked about.”
Even though that fact has sometimes placed Constantine in danger, he doesn’t think about it as any more than a hollow comparison.
“The fact is, if I ever got in trouble, I would have an embassy to turn to,” he said. “The people in my photographs don’t. We make these calculations as journalists. We know the possible repercussions. I don’t think there’s any point in talking about the risks because we decided upon them.”
He remembered the funeral of a 16-year-old Rohingya boy who was part of a community with whom Constantine had been working since 2009.
“There was a moment where the young boy was wrapped in a white sheet,” Constantine said. “Only a quarter of his face was showing, and the mother was saying her last goodbyes to her son. Her grief was profound and, after the boy’s body was carried to the graveyard, his father said to me ‘my son was born in Burma with no identity. Now he’s died in Bangladesh with no identity.’ It put statelessness in total perspective. Stateless people know what their histories are. They know where their homelands are. They know where they belong. The tragedy is that a government has said ‘you might have lived here for centuries, but you don’t fit into who we feel we want to belong to this particular nation.’ That snowballs into generations-worth of depravations which most people can’t even fathom exist today.”
It forces the question as to why, with at least three 24-hour cable news stations in the United States, stories of the stateless remain untold outside of projects like Nowhere People and the work of organizations such as the UNHCR and the American Jewish World Service.
“When I think about how world news is presented to people in the United States, I think that the news industry itself is failing,” Constantine said. “But the public is just as culpable in that failure and guilt as anybody else because we’re not interested as a country and as a society.”
He paused and asked incredulously “How could we not be?”
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.