January 14, 2013
The field of journalism has been subject to a lot of critique in recent years for doctored photographs, opinions serving as news, poor or no fact-checking, and about as many controversies as news stories. While the twenty-first century has presented several existential obstacles to the profession, there are still many journalists producing quality work. New York–based Italian photojournalist Gabriele Stabile—who has shot for the New Yorker, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal—is among these professionals.
In March 2009, just two months after Israeli troops withdrew following the Gaza War, Stabile traveled to the Gaza Strip to chronicle the aftermat.1 While in the territory, Stabile staged himself at Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital, photographing the hospital’s patients and the surrounding environs. His photographs from the series appear a bit aged, though they possess none of the conspicuous qualities of an Instagram nostalgia filter. These photos humanize their subjects. Stabile documents lives, not events. Instead of just seeing news items in the sleek images of a theatrical photojournalist, I see individuals.
A graphic photograph shows a young patient, probably in his early teens, with a deep and bloody laceration on his back. He appears calm as a doctor examines him—not exhibiting the pain one would expect but nonetheless annoyed to be visiting the hospital. The photograph itself provides no details about how the boy became wounded. Did he succumb to an accident doing work around his house? Is the gash a result of the world’s most fiery geopolitical conflict? A caption tells the viewer that in fact the boy was stabbed in the back on his way to school. The tragedy of this photo is the likelihood of any of these episodes sending a child to the hospital.
In a less ambiguous photograph from the series, a Hamas militiaman wears ad hoc fatigues and holds an assault rifle as he peers through the curtains of a hospital room. The curtains are dirty and wrinkled, suggesting poor conditions within. The man pulls the curtains to his face to wipe away his tears. A caption tells us that the unseen patient with an unknown condition is a relative of the man. Momentarily, the politics of war and occupation subside and the grief of a single human is manifest. Along with the rest of Stabile’s Gaza series, these photographs present a complex world; not war porn, they nevertheless depict a place brimming with suffering.
Stabile’s most recent project is a collaboration with New Orleans–based journalist Juliet Linderman for the San Francisco publisher Voice of Witness. Their book, Refugee Hotel (2012), is a collection of photographs and interviews documenting the intimate moments of arrival and adjustment for recent refugees to the United States. The most popular notion of refugees conjures images of blue United Nations tents and trekking women with their possessions delicately balanced atop their heads. These images are indeed a reality for many of the world’s thirty-five million refugees—internally displaced persons, stateless persons, and asylum seekers. But the experiences of refugees are as varied as the nations from which they come. The simplified view of refugee life can lead many of us to neglect the fact that the family next to us at the airport baggage carousel or our neighbors may have just fled war or persecution.
Stabile’s photographs in Refugee Hotel shine a light on the often unseen or unnoticed junctures in a refugee’s life. He documented the journeys of several individuals and families, beginning with their arrival at airports in one of five cities that serve as U.S. ports of entry for refugees: Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Newark, and New York. After their arrival, these refugees spent a night at an airport hotel before traveling across the country to their new hometowns.
One photo depicts a Bhutanese refugee as he rides a bus from LAX to a nearby hotel. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine what is going through his head as I look at the image of him gazing out the window at the traffic, billboards, and strip clubs of Century Boulevard. The mix of melancholy and excitement must be penetrating. His life will never be the same. He hopes, I imagine, that this move will provide safety and stability, but he cannot be certain that it will. As with his Gaza photographs, Stabile has imbued the image with a sense of intimacy. I see the subject as a man with emotions, fears, desires, successes, and shortcomings; I do not see a statistic, one person out of thirty-five million.
One heartbreaking photograph shows no fewer than ten Somali refugees huddled in a hotel hallway. Though they had been provided hotel rooms by the International Organization for Migration, they chose to sleep in the hallway out of fear of being forgotten and left behind in the morning. The nauseating glow of hotel lighting illuminates the family as they wait idly for something to happen. The physical setting may be familiar to any viewer who has ever taken a trip out of town, but the experience pictured is inconceivably foreign. An unsettling juxtaposition, the image offers a narrow entry point into the refugee’s circumstance.
In another photograph the same family’s arrival to the Howard Johnson in Newark is documented: donning hijabs and lanyards presumably indicating their refugee status, the women usher a small child into the hotel lobby next to a luggage trolley transporting their possessions. Specks of snowflakes dot the photograph; the New Jersey winter is surely a change from hot, equatorial Somalia. When their anxious and frightening night in the hotel hallway had abated, the family was not forgotten; they picked up their belongings and headed back out—to Minnesota.
Stabile’s photographs exhibit a tender neutrality. They do not sensationalize, glorify, or villainize; instead they treat their subjects as individuals. This is a sensitive and difficult balance for a journalist to strike, as empathy is often mistaken for endorsement, collusion, or propaganda. But, among other things, it is the proper role of a journalist to understand his subjects and impart that understanding to his readers or viewers, as Stabile has done.