For the cover story of this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, writer Mac McClelland visited a camp for Syrian refugees in Kilis, Turkey, that is anything but typical. “Many of the world’s displaced live in conditions striking for their wretchedness, but what is startling about Kilis is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination. It is orderly, incongruously so,” writes McClelland.
The camp, comprising neatly arranged containers, is not only immaculate but also boasts electricity, playgrounds, and schools. “No one I spoke to—not the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, not academics, not even the refugees—denies that the standard of living here is exceptionally high,” he writes. “When I later listed the amenities to a refugee expert, she replied, ‘I’ve never heard of such a thing.’”
To capture the essence of this unique refugee camp photographically, director of photography Kathy Ryan and associate photo editor Clinton Cargill turned to Tobias Hutzler. Here, Tobias takes us behind the scenes of this challenging assignment, touching on everything from how he achieved his overview shots to how his past experiences photographing in refugee camps came into play, as well as the young refugee whose story and spirit inspired Tobias to make a portrait of him…
What was the assignment, and how did you approach it?
In the first conversations with Kathy Ryan and Clinton Cargill, I was fascinated with the assignment: photographing a new concept for refugee camps that can be a model for the future to deal with this problem worldwide. A refugee camp is meant to be a temporary structure, but in reality, people stay many years. There is simply no place to go back to—homes, cities, families, communities, and cultures have been destroyed and eradicated.
This specific camp is like a built microcosmos, like a real city with grocery stores, supermarkets, cafes, communities, and community centers. Refugees aren’t treated as such but rather as guests, citizens of this camp. The assignment was to capture this camp in an unusual way.
Wasn’t it dangerous?
The location we worked in was directly the border between the NATO country Turkey and Syria, in which one of the world’s cruelest civil wars has killed many thousands. It is a surreal place: Combat isn’t far away. This was back in November, and the situation in this exact spot was expected to escalate any minute. We wanted to get the project done before anything happened, and I knew we would have very little time to do so.
I was a tiny bit scared at first, but I made a commitment to myself, and from there on everything in me was geared toward completing the project successfully. Everything from the equipment to the production was triple checked. It was key to be prepared for any situation that we might encounter.
Who did you travel with?
I was traveling with the writer, Mac McClelland, and a small team. We needed to be very flexible, as the situation could change any minute. It wasn’t easy dealing with the bureaucracy. Simply getting access took many negotiations. In every step of the process, I worked closely with Clinton, and we had all the support we needed on the ground.
What were you expecting Kilis to be like?
Imagining a location is always abstract. I have all these pictures from the news in my mind. I made myself let go of these predetermined images in order to create a clear and empty mindset. I was prepared completely, and the moment I set foot on the ground, I simply observed and photographed what I really saw.
How did you approach the assignment?
I wanted to show the location, the space, the people, and how they interact with the space. For that, we needed a special custom-built device that would allow me to shoot from above, to get a certain angle and point of view. We designed the structure and welded it together here in New York, on the West Side Highway. I assembled it on the ground in the camps.
You’ve photographed refugee camps several times before. How did those experiences inform this assignment?
It was such a surprise seeing this new concept of a refugee camp. I have photographed in tent cities, in dust and mud, but this place was nothing like that. It was organized and clean.
And what were your observations of the people?
In the makeshift cafes, many rebel fighters were sitting and resting from battle. Many commute between the camp to the front lines in Aleppo. There is a constant coming and going to and from the camp.
I made a portrait of one of the people I met: a young man who got injured in battle and retreated into the refugee camp. He is paralyzed but has a very strong mind. Under huge efforts, he wanted to communicate to me and say thanks and honor his fellow fighters from his unit. He lives with his family now in the camp.
The people were remarkable. They went through so much, lost everything, and made it across the border without anything. As in many other situations, it is the poorest who are the most generous and hospitable.
Below, some of Tobias’ favorite photographs from his shoots. See the images chosen by the Times here.