With terrorist attacks worldwide, and a fear-mongering presidential candidate, growing xenophobia in the United States has muddled our conversations about the refugee crisis. Rarely in discussing the vetting of all refugees or closing off our borders do we remember that these people, who flee the atrocities in their own homes, are just that — people.
However, commercial photographer Gabriel Hill is rerouting the conversation with his touching photo series, “ImPORTRAITS,” in which the Switzerland native features refugees with their most valuable possessions.
"Many refugees are facing distrust while being here," Hill wrote about his project. "Its easier to feel with someone if you know him and his/her story."
Hill is based in Basel, Switzerland, and his studio is located right next to a building where refugees live.
Hill told Revelist that he found it weird to photograph rich folks while being around refugees on a daily basis, many of whom own very little. In being touched by the refugee crisis, Hill thought he could use his photography to help the people he saw most.“One client, for example, told me that he's with a start up firm that just sold… Another client of mine was a big guy from the oil industry who flew in from Netherlands just for the shooting,” Hill told Revelist. “This contrast was quite interesting but also very sad… I strongly believe that photos are more powerful than words so it was logical for me to do something with portraits.”
fled from Bosnia, 1992
"I took that bunny everywhere. When the war began, everything went so fast I could neither understand what was going on nor think about what I wanted to take with me when we fled. That's how I forgot my bunny when we left. My dad stayed behind, and I wrote him so many letters saying things like: 'Did you find my bunny? I miss you!'"
fled from Eritrea, 2013
"I couldn’t take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing and a tiny little piece of paper with the phone number of my family on it... My clothes were soaking with sea water and were getting heavy so I had to take them off. They disappeared in the sea. With them the piece of paper with the phone number... The piece of paper with their number was the most important thing that I owned."
fled from DR Congo, 2008
I had to leave my home from one second to the other. Unfortunately, there was no time to take anything with me.
fled from Afghanistan, 2011
"I had a backpack with my belongings with me, but the human traffickers told me to throw it away. The only thing I have left is this little book from the police academy and a necklace my mother gave me. I always dreamed of becoming a police officer. This little book is the only thing I have left of that dream."
Though he thinks it’s important to document how refugees live and travel, Hill told Revelist he feels that photographers “catch” refugees in their most desperate moments while being exhausted, naked, and scared.
Hill wanted to do something different and give refugees a say in how they’re depicted.“They don't have a chance to say if they want their image shown to the world. I wanted to take a different approach and show them with pride and without any dramatics,” Hill said. “In order to feel with someone you have to know a little bit about him and I wanted to make people feel with them.”
fled from Afghanistan, 2007
"I had packed some things from home but the smugglers told us to throw everything away. I didn't have the heart to toss out the photo of my mother, so I hid it under my clothes. I haven't seen my mother since I left, so this picture of her is very important to me."
fled from Sri Lanka, 1984
"I wasn't able to take much with me besides the clothes I had on. Since I had to leave my family behind, these photos were the only things that were important to me, and luckily I could carry them on me. On the photos you can see my parents, my brother and my sister – who's now deceased."
At the same time, Hill finds that it’s easier to feel for a person when you find something in common with them — such as, their most important item.
Hill argues that once people see the portraits, they ask themselves what it would be like to be in that person’s shoes.
“For a fraction of a moment you are in exact the same situation as the ‘refugee’ was,” Hill said. “Besides the dangers of an escape, how hard must it be to leave everything behind that you ever possessed?”
fled from Tibet, 1959
"I arrived in India only with my father and my grandparents – we had lost my sister and my mother on the way. The most important items we had on our escape were the torches illuminating the pass over the Himalaya."
fled from Lebanon, 2014
"Somehow I managed to hide my bible. It's my most treasured possession and gives me strength in hard times. It's been soaked with seawater and it's quite dirty, but I wouldn't want a new one. Here in Switzerland I live in an asylum with predominantly Muslims – my family are the only ones who know I converted. That's why I can't show my face – I'm living a double life."
At first Hill had difficulty getting people to trust him — some were afraid the project would negatively affect their asylum application, and others understandably didn’t want to speak about the bad experiences of their escape.
It took Hill a year to take 10 portraits.
Eventually, people came to his studio to tell him their stories, and in turn Hill removed details that could be taken negatively, only featuring the person’s personality and item instead of writing why they had to leave their country, or through which countries they passed on their way into Switzerland.
“It just about their persona and nothing more,” Hill said. “It is very difficult to find willing subjects therefore I am happy for every single person coming to my studio to be part of the project.”
fled from Afghanistan, 2010
"I was very little when my father was killed, so I hardy have any memories of him. He always wore a golden necklace and after he died, my mother gave it to me. I came to Switzerland by myself and this necklace is everything I have from my family and my homeland. It means the world to me – it makes me feel like I'm not alone, like my father is always with me."
fled from Eritrea, 2014
"I kept a small book with phone numbers and a few photos from my childhood. The phone numbers were very important, because I was held captive a few times and had to pay my captors a ransom for them to let me go. I'm lucky enough to have an uncle in the United States – he'd send me money so I could pay. That made his number the most important thing in my life."
Hill said with “ImPORTRAITS” he hopes to show the real people and voices behind the blanket term of “the refugees,” and allow audiences to get to know the people escaping war, leaving behind their entire families and lives.
While the series is ongoing, Hill ultimately wants to publish a book with his portraits and donate the money in order to actively help refugees with his work.
“I think no one does this [leaves their country] just for fun — and I heard some really horrible stories from their escape,” Hill said. “Most of them had to flee because their life is threatened. Some of them fled because they wanted a better life… I hope people take away from this project that it is a really tough thing to leave your family and everything behind, no matter why you did it.”RELATED: This heartbreaking image is forcing people to confront the realities of a Syrian Civil War