Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

If a photo says one thousand words, then what do one thousand photos say?

This is the second half of a consideration of asylum and refugee politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand by Murdoch Stephens. He wrote ‘Asylum Seekers and Refugees at the end of the world’, published by GRAMNet on December 9th.


In this article I am going to explain the extraordinary events that led me to run this campaign. This quota has not increased since 1987. The facts of the campaign speak for themselves: a raise of New Zealand’s refugee quota is inevitable.


I am running this campaign because from June to October I exhibited a series of photos at Pataka Art + Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. I took these photos from an archive of over 1000 photos of Afghan families who had been incarcerated at the Anjirak Afghan Prison, in central Iran, between 1989 and 2005. I literally took them – I did not take photographs. I collected them from an abandoned prison.

I had been travelling overland from India, through Pakistan towards the Middle East. I arrived at the prison by chance. There was no expectation of what I’d find. It simply appeared on the horizon as my vehicle was traveling cross-country through the desert.

Anjirak 2

Backing onto a craggy mountain range, Anjirak Afghan Prison is not a new place. It was built in the 17th century by Shah Abbas I of Perisa as part of nine hundred and ninety nine caravanserai dotted along the Silk Road. Caravanserai functioned like a motel: each was spread out at the distance a camel caravan might cover in one day.

The caravanserai had slipped from being a sanctuary for traders into a desert fortress. A thick steel door, once the barrier between incarceration and freedom stood languidly ajar. It looked like it should be swaying in the breeze, but as an entry point, it required a good shove from my shoulder.

I cautiously edged into the courtyard, broken glass splintering further under my feet. There was no sig of other life for kilometres around, but I was still nervous. This was, after all, part of the military complex of the Iranian government. I paused, listening for any sounds that might suggest we were not alone. I half expected to hear the sounds of a military jeep; I half expected to hear the sounds of the ghosts of the prison. But all was quiet.


The first room I entered was furnished by a dozen cloth wall hangings of Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionary propaganda: a burning hammer and sickle commemorating the 1979 Herat uprising alongside a poster promoting an early 1980s Islamic Revolutionary Party of Iraq. The caravanserai, I later learned, had held prisoners of war during the Iran-Iraq war. When that war ended in 1988 it was used to house refugees who had fled the war in Afghanistan and lacked ‘sufficient paperwork’.


I moved on, stepping over a twisted metal gate, torn from its hinges, and into a room foot-deep with scattered ashes. The edges of a few documents remained, but it was impossible to reconstruct any meaning from those scraps.

Beside this room was a room of manila folders strewn across the floor. These were the complete forms of what had been burnt in the adjacent room.

The papers documented Afghan refugees who had been imprisoned in the caravanserai.

Scattered in the piles, one page caught my eye. Most documents featured a passport photo of a single man, a universal marker of migrant labour. The page that caught my eye featured more: a photograph of an entire family. They stared out from the photo, one part indignant at having been arrested, the other part scared of what was to come.


Over the next few hours I took all of the photos of families. The logic was something akin to ‘women and children first’, but the political point was already embryonic: family photos are infinitely richer than solo photos. The individual reacts to the camera and the surroundings; the family must also work to hold themselves together as a unit. Hence, drama. Hence, interest. With some luck I exited the country without having to explain where the 1179 photos came from.1

Months later an Afghan friend and I talked about the prison. This man is a second-generation refugee who lived in Iran much of his life. He offered some key information about the function of Anjirak:

We used to call it Anjirak Afghan prison. It was not the only prison of its kind. My uncle had been there and it was a very scary place for Afghans. My uncle was arrested because he no longer had any status documents. He was taken there along with the people who illegally migrated to Iran. They were all arrested and taken to the same place, a remote area in the desert. If the prisoners could somehow prove that they had papers the soldiers would let them go back to their place. My father went to this place to give my uncle some money and food. Nobody could go there without official permission. Otherwise they would be shot as soon as the guards saw them.

New Zealand

In New Zealand I started talking to local experts about refugees, Afghanistan, and the archive. I talked with academics, students, art curators, photographers, refugee groups, other NGOs, activists, friends, family and Afghan refugees and immigrants. Each person had a unique perspective on the photos, but I didn’t yet have a narrative about why they were important, particularly in a New Zealand context.

The general consensus was that as long as the images were exhibited with ‘due respect’ then it would be alright. But I struggled with this ethical ledger and started to feel that these photos were simply a documentation of a very sad situation and that showing them to people would not do any good.

Principally, I felt strange about not having permission of the people in these photographs to show their images. I felt, like Ramzy Baroud, that “a photo, on its own, no matter how artistic, compelling, captivating, even incensing, is not enough. It must be combined or followed by solid actions and a clear strategy to ensure that someday no such tragic contexts exist for photographers to freeze them in time and place.”2

And so my research began. What was New Zealand doing for refugees? What were we doing in the war in Afghanistan? How would these photos speak to these issues?

There is a fine line between the cultural and the political for most publicly funded galleries. The cultural was welcome, but the political was not. Luckily I found Bob Maysmor and the team at Pataka Art + Museum who understood these sensitivities. I am proud of our portrayal of the images – eleven back-lit sheets 2.4m x 1.2m, curving in a half-circle surrounding the viewer3 and exhibited for more than three months to thousands of visitors.



The Pataka exhibition has finished. Now I want to show these photos to an international audience. For these photos to retain the power of the Pataka exhibition I’ve learnt that this will require the active work of two groups: professional arts curators and local activists.

First, I will need to work with a professional curator who understands the spatial arrangements of images and the power of the active viewer in contrast to the passivity of those represented in images. That said, the power of these images is that they stare directly at the camera. Their stares embody the power Roland Barthes ascribes to photography, in contrast to film, in Camera Lucida: the frontal pose and a subject’s look that demands something from the viewer. At Pataka the half-circle functioned like a panopticon so that on top of the subject’s demanding look, there was the sense that the viewer was surrounded by these images.

Second, to exhibit these photos in New Zealand, I had to learn a lot about our country’s relationship to Afghanistan, much of which was dependent on my own history of understand New Zealand as a culture. This will be impossible for me in exhibiting overseas. I will, therefore, need to work with local activists, advocates and educators to make sure these photos are connected to real struggles, rather than glossed over as some images outside of history.

There remain almost one million official Afghan refugees in Iran, and almost two million Afghans there, but who are unregistered. These family portraits give faces to those faceless statistics. And yet these faces are unlike most others: they do not speak.

panel two detail

A picture says a thousand words. But it seems that a thousand pictures do not speak, in turn, one million words. These one thousand family portraits, for the flood of all possible words, have so far been silent.

All of the people in these photos have grown up, lived their lives. Some will have passed away.

Would those who remain recognise their younger selves?

I hope that one will.

I hope that someone will write to me and say ‘My family was in Anjirak. You have a photo of them.’ And I will reply ‘yes’ and perhaps that photo will finally speak.

by Murdoch Stephens

family and australasia
Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaigning to double New Zealand’s refugee quota from 750 to 1500 places. Find out more at and follow them on Twitter and on Facebook.

1. I describe the story in more depth in an interview here and in my own words here.

2. “Photographing Tragedy: What Victims Actually Want” at

3. More images from the exhibition can be found here:


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This entry was posted on December 23, 2013 by in Comment.