ARTICLE

Muhammed Muheisen: changing the world, one photo at a time

A mother and daughter play with a balloon outside their tent on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan.
Displaced by floods, a mother and her daughter play with a balloon outside their tent on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. "The knowledge that my picture might make a difference – might change something – keeps me going," says Muhammed. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

Muhammed Muheisen is a photographer on a mission. "Why am I a photographer?" he asks. "I'm a photographer not to enjoy being a photographer; I'm a photographer simply to make a difference. That is what I signed up for from the beginning. Pictures are powerful tools for change – that's something I deeply believe in."

The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and National Geographic photographer, currently based in Greece, has been documenting global affairs since 2001. His work has taken him from Nelson Mandela's funeral procession in South Africa, to war zones in Syria and Iraq, and refugee camps across Europe and the Middle East. Over the past 10 years he has focused on refugees and civilians affected by conflict, poverty and natural disasters.

Here, the impassioned photographer and Canon Ambassador explains why he was motivated to set up a charitable foundation to help the people on the other side of his lens, and his enduring belief in the power of the image.

South African mourners hold posters of former president Nelson Mandela.
South African mourners in Pretoria hold posters of former president Nelson Mandela as the convoy transporting his body passes by. "I like natural light, so I hardly use flashes," says Muhammed. "My Canon prime lenses help me to capture those spontaneous moments." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/6400 sec, f/1.6 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

Falling into photojournalism

Muhammed more or less fell into photojournalism. A Jordanian national, he was born and raised in Jerusalem in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing struggle became an obvious subject when he picked up a camera. "That environment played a major role in my life," he says. "I started to document what was happening around me, from events to protests."

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Muhammed went to Iraq in 2003 to cover the aftermath of the US-led invasion. "I had zero experience, of course, but I thought, being born in a conflict, that I knew everything," he says. "I realised that I knew nothing. I entered a dark place."

He continued to travel to war zones, taking conventional conflict photographs, until he had a realisation. "If I was just showing the destruction and the misery, I was not focusing on the other side of the story – on the people, their daily lives, their resilience," he says. "I found myself looking for beauty amidst the conflict – a smile in the rubble."

Muhammed began to focus on covering the refugees' stories, while also spending more time on the ground. "I started diving deeper into people's lives," he says. "The more time you spend in an environment, the more invisible you become, and you begin to earn people's trust. This is when you get a window into people's lives – otherwise your pictures only show the outside, not the depth of the story."

A portrait of a young refugee called Zahra, with her hair in plaits.
Muhammed met Zahra, a young Syrian refugee, when she was just four. "Zahra is part of my life, as I'm part of hers," says Muhammed. "I visit Zahra and her family at least once a year. You can see Zahra growing up in front of my lens." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen
A portrait of Laiba Hazrat, a six-year-old Afghan refugee.
Laiba Hazrat, a six-year-old Afghan refugee living with her family in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. "It's important that you don't just pass by, take a picture, leave and expect this picture to make a difference," says Muhammed. "You need to show that you care. I spent four and a half years in Pakistan and I didn't do the place justice. I could have shown more." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.2 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen

The real victims of conflict

Muhammed also started to focus his camera on children, who he describes as the "real victims of conflict", striving to show commonalities across borders. "Whether you see children playing in a slum in Pakistan, or in New York or London, you find things they have in common," says Muhammed. "It became my mission to portray these children and share their names, backgrounds and hopes, so readers elsewhere in the world could connect with them."

One child, a young Syrian refugee called Zahra, has made a particular impression on Muhammed. He first met her in a tented settlement in Jordan in 2015, when she was just four years old. "It was a couple of months after she and her family had fled the war in Syria," he recalls. "I could see the mental scars all over her face. She was so quiet. I approached her father and got permission to portray her. That was the beginning of our relationship."

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Muhammed's piercing portraits of Zahra, shot over the past five years, as well as those of other children, such as young Afghan refugee Laiba Hazrat in Islamabad, Pakistan, drive home the devastating reality of growing up without a home. "I use a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens for portraits because it allows me to get close enough to show people's stories through their eyes," he says. "The eyes are the door to the soul; I always keep my lens directed at them."

When working in refugee camps where a sensitive approach is required, Muhammed values a camera setup with a low profile. "I like the Canon EOS 5D series and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV," he says. "It's not an intimidating camera and doesn't invade people's privacy when you're walking around with it. You don't disturb people."

His kitbag also includes a Canon EOS R and a range of L-series EF prime lenses, including a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. "I rarely use long lenses because I like to be standing in the middle of the environment and have everything move around me, as if I'm invisible. Shooting at 35mm makes that possible.

"I prefer to take advantage of available light and the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lenses are perfect in low light. They are very sharp lenses, fast to focus and help me to capture spontaneous moments."

A father holding his two-month-old daughter while walking back to his shelter in a refugee camp.
Ahmad Moustafa, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, holds his two-month-old daughter Parveen at a refugee camp north of Athens, Greece. "We fled the war looking for peace and a new home for our children," says Ahmad. Taken as part of Everyday Refugees Foundation's 2018 project A Cooler Summer, which aimed to ease the lives of refugees in Greek camps. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/50 sec, f/1.4 and ISO125. © Muhammed Muheisen

Changing stereotypes with Everyday Refugees

In 2015, the refugee crisis reached Europe and Muhammed was there to witness it. Standing in Hungary, watching thousands of refugees trudging along a railway track, he decided it was no longer enough for him to document their experiences. "I wanted to do something about it," he says.

He created an Instagram account called Everyday Refugees and started sharing what he saw. "There is no better way to tell a story than with pictures. You witness something and put it out there for people to react to, to do something about," he says. "Pictures can change stereotypes and spread awareness. With the existence of social media, you have a very powerful tool that, in seconds, can reach millions of people. People from around the world started to contact me and ask: 'What can we do to help?'"

A year and a half later, Muhammed registered Everyday Refugees as a foundation in Amsterdam and it continues to receive donations. "So far, we have helped thousands of people around the world – through photography," he says. "My biggest achievement in life is creating a foundation that makes a difference."

A 10-year-old Syrian refugee being carried along a railway track by her father.
Bara'ah Alhammadi, a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, is carried on her father's back after crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border. "The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, with its fast-focal points, helps me to be invisible and avoid invading people's privacy," says Muhammed. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.4 and ISO50. © Muhammed Muheisen
Women looking at their babies on a medical table at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghan women with their critically ill infants at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 1/20 sec, f/3.2 and ISO640. © Muhammed Muheisen

Muhammed's images have also helped to forge personal connections. After one of his portraits of Zahra won the UNICEF Photo of the Year Award in Germany in 2017 he received a letter from a young German girl of a similar age. "It was addressed to Zahra, and it said 'I saw your picture in the paper. Why are you sad? If we become friends, would you be happy?'" On his next trip to Jordan, Muhammed gave Zahra the letter. She replied, and the girls became pen pals.

"Those two girls became friends through a photograph," says Muhammed. "It's a simple story of how pictures can connect humans. We don't just take pictures, we give a voice to the people we photograph. You start asking questions about people: who are they? Behind the word 'refugee' are people with names, hopes and dreams just like us. This is how we raise everybody to the same level, simply through pictures."

Автор Lucy Fulford


Muhammed Muheisen's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Muhammed Muheisen's kitbag

Cameras

Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A professional grade wide-angle lens with a natural perspective, an f/1.4 aperture and low light capabilities. "The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lenses are perfect in low light," says Muhammed. "They are very sharp lenses, fast to focus and help me to capture spontaneous moments."

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