American photographer Gregory Constantine’s jovial demeanour clashes with the image one would have of a man who has seen a decade of strife around the world.
Constantine, 45, admits he himself didn’t plan on becoming a documenter of human rights abuses and also bringing images of war-torn countrysides to a wider audience.
He was a music industry exec for most of his 20s. However, a feeling of restlessness led him to backpack through Asia to find himself. Unlike Eat, Pray, Love’s author Elizabeth Gilbert, Constantine’s journey of self-discovery was decidedly less of a coming-out story.
During his second Asian/Europe tour in 2000 – travelling from Beijing to Istanbul– Constantine saw many people who reminded him of his father, specifically stroke victims who had the same look etched on their faces.
“My father had a stroke when I was 16,” shares Constantine in an interview in Kuala Lumpur. This prompted him to seek out stroke victims, in order to share their stories through photographs and newspieces written for related NGOs.
Seeing the response the stories received, Constantine was galvanised to continue in journalism.
“I also realised writing wasn’t my thing, so I stuck to telling stories through photos,” he admits, laughing heartily.
In 2006, Constantine moved to Bangkok and started working on a long-term project titled Nowhere People, in which he documented the struggles of stateless groups in the region.
Constantine has done photo essays on stateless people in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and even spent time (in 2006/2007) among the stateless children of Sabah. In 2008, he expanded his scope to Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Ukraine, Serbia, Italy, Netherlands and the Dominican Republic.
The documentarian says he was drawn to the issue of statelessness at it was often the root cause of most human rights abuses.
Unsurprisingly, the Rohingya people form a major chapter of his ongoing project. Refered to by the United Nations as “one of the most persecuted people in the world”, the Rohingya’s plight offered a worse case scenario look into the world of statelessness.
He began documenting the Rohingya in southern Bangladesh in 2006, tracking their exile from Rakhine, Myanmar and the resultant refugee camps.
“North Rakhine itself is a blackhole, no one is allowed in. Working around these limitations, I instead documented the stories of those pushed out of Rakhine,” says Constantine.
However, when anti-Rohingya violence broke out in Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, in 2012, Constantine decided to travel to the eye of the storm.
There he encounted what he describes as “the genesis of where hate leads”. In late 2012, thousands of monks and student activists took to the streets to march against the Rohingya, cheered on by the general public.
“I’m not saying all Rakhine are like that. But there are certain quarters in Myanmar that are pumping out this hate,” states Constantine.
Unlike other reporters that would cover crisis zones as and when there was a flare up of violence, Constantine took an unorthodox approach of recording it as an ongoing story. His hardwork paid off, earning him the trust of residents in the refugee camps.
Constantine recalls in 2009, when he heard news that a teen had died of typhoid. The residents invited him to document the usually private burial rites.
“The boy was only 16, and he died of typhoid, a disease that should have been easily treatable! The boy’s father told me ‘he was born in Myanmar, died in Bangladesh, but not recognised in either country. It was like the world refused to acknowledge he existed’,” says Constantine.
These images taken at those events are among the dozen or so photos on display at the Prototype Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, as part of a continuing Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya tour that had previously visited London, Canberra, Brussels, Jakarta, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Geneva.
Taking advantage of the unique cavernous space on Wisma Central’s fourth floor, the gallery set up a projector that shone some 150 images onto the wall.
Constantine says the exhibition feature a mix of images from his book Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya (released May 2012) and from his time in Sittwe (post-2012).
He shares that he would be finally releasing a book of the Nowhere People project later this year, after devoting the last nine years of his life to it.
Constantine says that though he was putting out a book, he would continue to work on the project as the issue of statelessness was still far from solved.
Gregory Constantine’s photo exhibition Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya runs until May 1 at Prototype Gallery, Wisma Central, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.