Muhammed Muheisen is perhaps the only Arab photographer and journalist, as far as I know, who has won the coveted Pulitzer Prize, which is like journalism’s Nobel. The distinction is doubly special considering Muheisen has won two Pulitzers -- for his coverage of the war in Iraq and then for shining the light on Syria’s humanitarian-refugee crisis, an issue that has troubled the world community and hogged the spotlight over the past few years. Time magazine named him the Best Wire Photographer of the Year in 2013.
I met Muheisen on the sidelines of XPOSURE International Photography Festival, hosted by Sharjah Media Centre, this past week where his breathtaking, award-winning work was showcased.
Success and fame came early in life for the Palestinian-Jordanian photojournalist, who is in his mid ‘30s and has won numerous awards and accolades for his work. Now the chief photographer of Associated Press for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Muheisen grew up in Jerusalem and has been no stranger to uncertainties of conflict and war. Having experienced the pain of dispossession and displacement firsthand, he knows what it is to be without peace and one fixed address in a dangerously arbitrary world.
After the tragedy of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, which shook the world, he has tried to chronicle the desperate journeys of refugees from their points of departure in Middle East and Africa to their destination across Europe.
In one instance, he followed a Yazidi refugee family hailing from Sinjar in Iraq, all the way from the Greek island of Lesbos to their final refuge in Germany, traversing nine countries and negotiating dozens of check posts.
Muheisen first photographed Samir Qasu and his family at the beginning of their epic journey in December last year, after they reached Lesbos in a dinghy, from Turkey. They are seen crying as they hug each other, still in their orange safety vests. He closely shadowed them throughout their perilous rites of passage, perpetually nervous about losing them in the melee while he went through his own immigration checks. He finally photographed the family when it eventually reached Germany and found asylum.
Recently, Muheisen even went and stayed with the Qasus, who have settled down happily in their new country, with children going to school and trying to blend in. He excitedly shows me pictures in his phone of his recent reunion with his friends.
It is a surreal experience to go around Muheisen’s exhibition where his work competed with some of the greatest masters for attention, focusing almost entirely on conflict zones and extraordinary stories of their extraordinary people.
While studying photography and an early passion for the camera may have brought him into the profession, it’s clearly his empathy and genuine desire to understand and portray people in all the shades of their existential struggles with rare sensitivity that makes him stand out as a lens man.
Again, perhaps his own experience of growing up under Israeli occupation with his dual identity as a Jordanian passport holder helps him view and identify with victims of violence and homelessness like few of us can do. After all, he began his career by covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its traumatic uncertainties.
You’re struck by his enduring fascination, almost bordering on obsession, with refugees. And it’s not always about their struggles for survival or unpredictable journeys on high seas and over land. There are unconscious peeks into their day-to-day lives and celebrations of their small joys and victories.
Many of these rare moments are captured in Pakistan where Muheisen spent five years and frequently visited refugee camps in Peshawar and elsewhere. Pakistan has been hosting nearly 3 million Afghan refugees for more than three decades; it is the second largest population of refugees anywhere in the world.
“Afghans are some of the proudest and private people anywhere in the world. Yet they welcomed me into their lives. After my repeated visits I gained their confidence and trust. I would visit them day after day, until I became part of their landscape. I never breached their privacy, nor did I ever photograph them without their consent,” says Muheisen, adding it’s important for a successful photographer to win this trust. “Pakistan was a transformation point in my career,” he says with a smile.
There is life and beauty in the chaos and poverty of these conflict zones, he says. He brings it all out in his images. In 2014, Time magazine approached him to photograph Afghan women on the World Women’s Day. “I managed to do it, because of the trust that they had in me. I entered their homes,” he says with a smile. “You need to invest yourself in your story. It’s not like taking a camera and start shooting. It’s all about trust.”
The photographer says his interaction with refugees over the years has helped him in many ways: “It has made me a better person and helped me appreciate what I have. Being grateful for what I have. It’s made me open up to new people, total strangers! The way these people deal with a smile with life’s challenges is fascinating!”
When you identify so strongly with your subjects, is it possible to maintain professional objectivity?
“Good photography is all about feelings; it’s not about a great camera or good techniques. At the same time, you have to be unbiased to report a story in all fairness,” he explains, recalling his experience of covering the Palestine-Israel conflict.
He joined AP in 2001 and covered the 2003 Iraq war as his first international assignment at the age of 22. “In Iraq, I realized I didn’t know much about my trade or life. I almost got killed while taking that picture of the ‘man atop Humvee’ which won me my first Pulitzer.”
What about the reception of refugees in Europe, given the rising instances of Islamophobia and paranoia in the continent?
“Look, I know no politics. There may be some issues here and there but in general Europeans have welcomed them, opening their hearts and homes. Germany has been the most generous and welcoming of all,” says Muheisen. He recalls how German authorities helped him at every stage when they realized he was documenting the journey of these refugees.
“I have been going back to Europe to see how these people who abandoned everything they had and fled with their children are trying to survive in their newly adopted countries…how they are adapting themselves and integrating with host societies. From here, I am flying to Greece once again,” he says.
Integration cannot be easy for people who come from a totally different cultural milieu. “It is never easy,” he agrees. “But it’s better than the uncertainty of life in war zones. At least, they are safe. Life goes on.”
Life indeed goes on through the ups and downs of war and peace. Hope springs eternal. And the photographer’s lens seems to capture it all, in the blink of an eye, faithfully and with compassion. This may be why they say a picture is worth a thousand words.