Born in Kenya, Khadija moved to Texas when she was 10, and returned to Kenya as a sexual and gender-based violence social worker after college. There, her interactions with the residents of Dadaab became personal, and she decided to pick up her camera to tell their stories.
Dadaab is a city in Kenya like no other; it’s a refugee city, being home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis. Having been in existence for over 25 years, the Kenyan government is moving to shut it down. But what’s life like in a refugee camp? The Tempest interviewed one of the few women photojournalists, Khadija Farah, to find out more about the residents in Dadaab.
The Tempest: What was your motivation to become a photojournalist in Dadaab?
Khadija Farah: Working as a social worker, I saw journalists visiting the camp, staying a few days and writing one sided stories about the refugees. It’s because of this that I started taking pictures more regularly while there, in the hopes that I could portray not just the negative aspects of being a refugee but their daily lives.
How do you push back against the hostility and negativity refugees face with your work?
The problem with some journalists is that they lump the refugee experience into one narrative without exploring what else comes with being a refugee. Refugees open businesses, have sports teams, join youth groups, engage in camp politics. I want to show them as productive members of society who can give back to our economy, something that I feel is lacking in the media coverage of refugees.
Do you think photojournalism is an effective medium to share the stories of refugees?
Yes, I do. Photojournalism can have an impact not just on social opinion but can affect policy as well. Nilüfer Demir’s image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi became the symbol of countless dead refugees. Although public empathy/sympathy is often short-lived, they provide a ‘lightbulb moment’ or challenge public discourse.
Are there particular types of photos that you like to take, so someone can look at them and know you’re the photographer?
Unfortunately, I haven’t developed my signature style yet. I like to play with light and movement—many of my images are mid-action. The idea of freezing a moment in time is one that greatly appeals to me.
What’s your philosophy on editing photos? What tools have you been using lately?
If it’s for photojournalism, I believe in minimal editing—light manipulation, cropping; it’s important to maintain the integrity of the image so it can reflect the situation as close to reality as possible. I mostly use Lightroom, VSCO, or Enlight to edit my photos.
What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?
It’s extremely important to have more female photojournalists, especially African ones. Currently, the field is dominated by white males and sometimes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they drive the narrative to their own bias. Asmaa Gamal, Hadeer Mahmoud, Eman Helal, Tasneem Alsultan, and Malin Fezehai are some of the ones I’m obsessed with at the moment and they’re all either Muslim, African, or both. The work of the late Leila Alaoui, however, is what constantly inspires me everyday.
What are people’s reactions when they find out what you do?
Photography in my culture is still not considered a sustainable career. In the camp, I would get a lot of stares and people would be confused because it’s not common for them to see a woman in hijab taking pictures—most of their encounters have been with male photographers. But that perception is slowly changing.
Name one place you’d want to visit to photograph.
I’d love to go to my ancestral homeland, Somaliland. Somalis have a very oral tradition so I would enjoy pairing that with some of my photography.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Hopefully still with a camera hanging from my neck, documenting a different underreported story in an equally remote part of the world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Images are courtesy Khadijah Farah, @farahkhad