This story appeared in the 2016 Photo issue of VICE magazine.
Pictures of the young Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi surfaced last year after he was found on a beach in western Turkey, facedown, bloodred shirt soaked, drowned. We think of stories like Kurdi's as the sole, horrifying reality of the migrant crisis, but photographer Tamara Abdul Hadi, who has been published by the New York Times, the Guardian, and Reuters, seeks to emphasize migrants' humanity in life, not just their dehumanizing deaths. She sheds a different, less predictable light on the migrant story, showing the diversity of their experience. As an Iraqi Canadian born in the United Arab Emirates, Hadi understands how complex one's sense of identity can be, and the difficulties of living in a world where diaspora has become more and more common. This sense of nuance gives her work on refugees a particular insight and sincerity; the migrants emerge as real people, not just mere causalities of war and hardship.
She doesn't only focus on refugees, however. She often aims to depict those who may have been misunderstood, overlooked, or otherwise neglected. In a photo project titled "City of the Dead," centered on the lives of Egyptians in a Cairo neighborhood called Bab al-Nasr (in Arabic, "gates of victory"), Hadi documents hundreds of families who for the past 60 years have been living among the graves of their ancestors. The neighborhood—in effect, a slum in the middle of a graveyard—is colloquially referred to as the "cemetery of the living."
Another photo in this series presents two neighborhood boys playing a video game, sitting in a room scattered with portraits. They appear as two spots of color set against the backdrop of a deep-blue wall. In another photo, an Egyptian father and son embrace, smiling directly into the lens. Still another shows a mother lounging in a ragged colonial-era chair with three young boys gathered behind her.
Much of Hadi's photography explores the complexity and idiosyncrasy of minority communities that are often subjected to stereotyping. She generally photographs men, portraying them with a strange and beautiful emotionality, especially in a series called "Picture an Arab Man," in which her subjects are candid, nude, and vulnerable.
Hadi's latest photo series, "Fade to Black," was taken on a street called Neve Sha'anan, near Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv. Struck by the barbershop culture and fashion of the African migrants who had begun to call this neighborhood home, she began documenting their styles, their looks, their fresh cuts, fades, and impeccably mastered Afros. One man wears a red-checkered dress shirt, another a star-spangled black-and-white tee with detroit stretched out across the chest, like a banner. It's reminiscent of 90s hip-hop culture, reborn right into modern-day Israel. The migrants are mainly Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Sudanese citizens seeking asylum, or simply a home. Many have either fled compulsory military service in Eritrea or suffered through the war in Darfur, and have arrived in Israel through the canals of Egypt. Some are undocumented, while others have temporary, renewable visas.
"Fade to Black" displays the vitality of these migrant communities. Despite enduring war and devastation, they've created a sanctuary where they can offer their creations to the community. They've brought their food, their fashion, and the traditions of their homeland, submerging all of it in Israeli culture, transforming the neighborhood. By emphasizing all of this, Hadi challenges the idea of the pernicious migrant. How they find beauty in peril, a home in a country with its own complicated geopolitical history, is inspiring.
Hadi's ability to capture the particular qualities of her subjects, to show them in a state that is both natural and revealing, brings to mind the Hollywood portraits of Sam Taylor-Johnson (then Taylor-Wood), who photographed famous men crying. Yet Hadi's images have a more democratic element. To see these men whose lives have been so thoroughly upended not in states of distress, but rather in moments when they're free, happy, and unworried—despite the somewhat dire circumstances—is moving. It's a reminder, too, that stability is a right afforded only to some, when it should be guaranteed to all.
Words by Fariha Róisín