Abdi Roble is a documentary photographer with a vision for social justice. His photographs of the Dadaab refugee camp cry out for an end to the inhumane conditions, just as his images of striking workers demand culturally sensitive working conditions for refugees. In 2005, he exhibited his work about the local Somali community at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. A year later he presented Against Forgetting, Beyond Genocide and Civil War at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From 2007 to 2010, another body of work about Somalis, Stories of the Somali Diaspora, appeared at museums in Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ohio. The work also went abroad for inclusion in an exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile, entitled 100 Years of American Art: A Social Perspective, 1910-2010.
Roble received Individual Artist awards in 2004 and 2006 from the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. The South Side Settlement House honored him in 2006 with the Arts Freedom Award. In 2009, Roble received the Raymond J. Hanley fellowship Award.
Working with writer Doug Rutledge, Roble provided photography for The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away, a book published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2008. Roble has also presented courses and lectures on Somali culture and the Somali Diaspora at the University of Minnesota, the Museum of World Culture in Frankfurt, Germany, and the universities at Oxford and Leeds in England. Roble is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at Ohio State University.
The Somali Documentary Project grew out of a developing set of related needs: those of refugees to tell their stories and the needs of hosting community members to understand their new Somali neighbors and coworkers.
The notion of community for the Somali people is different from that denoted by the English word. Because of their nomadic heritage, Somalis think of communities involving people as opposed to space. In the wake of the Somali civil war, which started in 1991, the Somali community has truly become transnational; husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and cousins are often separated by national borders and languages, but still belong to a larger Somali community.
I left Somalia before the civil war erupted. For me, the idea and challenge of the Somali Documentary Project arose when I saw so many refugees arriving in Columbus, Ohio, where I live. I wanted to tell the story of these refugees, but felt that in order to do so I should document the entire transnational community. I decided to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota, the largest Somali community in the United States as well as to Anaheim, California, and Portland, Maine, so I could follow the resettlement process of refugees and their secondary migrations.
More importantly, to tell the stories of these refugees completely, I also had to travel to the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees attempts to provide sanctuary for people as they flee the civil war in Somalia. When I went to the refugee camp in 2005, I had been away from Somalia for nearly 20 years. Like most Somalis, indeed most refugees, I missed my homeland. Now, because of the civil war, the closest I could get to home was the camp.
Encountering the people I had left behind and seeing them in such terrible conditions was a very emotional experience. The first people I met were unloading grain. When I saw how hard they worked and realized what a pitifully small reward they received, I cried. The workers warned me. “We’re the strong ones,” they said. “If we make you cry, please don’t go inside the camp.”
I realized that if I was going to do my job and tell the story of these people through photographs, I would have to overcome my emotions or turn them into an artistic statement. But how should I portray my own people in these conditions? The last time I saw people in my homeland, they were happy and prosperous. Somalia was an important country on the Horn of Africa. But today many of those Somalis who try to escape the war are confined to refugee camps. I had to be truthful to the inhumane conditions I witnessed, but I also had to capture the integrity and the dignity of these people I knew so well. The camp, with its harsh light, also presented a number of technical challenges, but the bigger issue I faced was the emotions inside of me. Instead of emphasizing the refugees’ suffering, I found a beauty in the way they made their difficult plight into something that contained the daily rhythms of an ordinary life.
I offer my images of the Somali people to reveal both their dignity and their suffering.
—Abdi Roble, November 2011