An Ordinary Item Tells the Story of an Extraordinary Journey

This video is part of a series of interviews with photographers featured in Moving Walls 21. Moving Walls is an annual exhibit produced by the Open Society Documentary Photography Project exploring a variety of social justice and human rights issues.

When we decided to include Shannon Jensen’s work in Moving Walls 21, her images of the refugee crisis in South Sudan in 2012 had already received a good deal of attention. The situation was ongoing, however, and we wanted to continue to shine a light on the turbulence that accompanied South Sudan’s independence. In fact, in the months between the time we selected the work for exhibition and when Moving Walls opened in January 2014, the situation in South Sudan grew even more dire.

The way that Shannon photographed the refugees was new, and we were drawn in by the simplicity of her photographing just their shoes. Personally, the more I look at the photos, the more I want to learn about the situation and the people who made this difficult journey over many weeks, fleeing for their lives, and leaving loved ones and home behind.

We hoped viewers would have a similar response. I have given many tours of Moving Walls, and the response to Shannon’s exhibit has been nearly universal. Rather than dismiss the story as a crisis happening in a faraway place that has nothing to do with them, visitors are moved by the images. They want to go deeper. 

Shannon has said that she does not want viewers to pity the people who made these journeys. She wants audiences to see their resilience and strength. A visitor recently commented that when she sees a person’s shoes, something we all wear, it allows her to imagine the person wearing them. She then wants to read the individual stories of people who made the journeys and learn more about the crisis. A personal connection becomes the opening to the larger story.

We’d love to hear your impression of the photos. What do you think?

47 Comments

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The shoes refugees wear tell more than the eyes see them. lf only they could talk l wonder how the world would react to their stories. l wish for a peaceful world where people are love and understand each other.

"... a totally different experience than they might be going through" definitely. Also a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

It was a real stroke of genius to photograph the shoes, and surprisingly moving.

Thank you for showcasing Shannon's art. This photography is powerful and should be shared just as the shoes are shared to the landscape they walk across. Simply staring at the diversity of footwear evokes the many individual lives existing in the crisis.

Thank you Greg for the comment. I am so glad that the diversity struck you, as it was certainly one of the things I hoped to communicate.

Thank you for showing the world the reality in Sudan i wish next time to visit western site of Sudan ,

Its a great feature and sympolic artfact which inspires an individual to want to explore more to understand how those refugees made it,their physical and mental wellbeing and their enduring spirit to save their lives.

the world must act now to stop the senseless killings and suffering in South Sudan.

true, the used shoes of the journeying refugees reflected their resilience in hoping for a better community living.

not only in Sudan, look anywhere at the corner streets at the byways in any other alleys or country roads, people are always moving from one place to another to seek adjustments in our changing sociological development.

The photos tell a powerful story of pain, displacement, resilience, poverty, the will to continue living............the people of Sudan have seen it all, war has become part of their daily life.......those shoes have been through many difficult times, but they continue to walk, continue to look for freedom and a better life. May it be granted soon.
Thanks for sharing these very meaningful photos.

Thank you for such a beautifully phrased comment Zipporah.

Shannon Jensen = engaged art = heightened public awareness = progress towards social justice, peace and shared prosperity.

I hope that I can continue living up to that with future work! Thank you Russell.

Better than 1000 words -

Helmut, I couldn't agree more! That's the power of photography.

A very simple way to celebrate and acknowledge the extraordinary resiliency of these men and women, boys and girls, and to bridge the divides that separate our worlds, uniting us in our own humanity.

Absolutely, India. That shared humanity comes through in the comments to this post as well as the conversations I have with visitors to the gallery. Well said.

Thank you for this video it is very good edition for human right in Arab world. We look forward for better democratic world for helping people to eliminate poverty from country which have problems such as Sudan.

hi, first of all am a photojournalist working and based in kenya. i would like to say that this work of jensen was very inspirational...
good work and told very well

Thank you Mbugua! I got my start as a photographer in Kenya, so the country has a very special place in my heart. I hope to return soon for some new work there. I am always glad when my work can serve as inspiration for others' work because this project certainly was born of inspiration from many other photographers. An ongoing dialogue.

Brilliant but perhaps verging on the gimmicky and not comparable in impact with, for example, with some of the Auschwitz pictures

Thank you Ralph. I am happy that these images seem to be resonating with the public in a special way at least in some small sense. The challenge nowadays with the ubiquity of photographs (and the internet) is trying to find new ways of telling these types of stories in a way that doesn't feel repetitive. I'm okay with gimmicks as long as the work feels genuine and humanizing.

Very touching.Could not help but think of the those who walked in those shoes and how the physical pain and discomfort is just a fraction of what they must be going through emotionally , mentally and spritiually. Thank you for this video ,It told an amazing story.

NO BORDERS......IT KEEPS OUT THE POOR, WHILE INVITING NEO LIBERAL CAPITALIST TO CONTINUE THE BANDIT BEHAVIOUR........

Very moving pictures. Stripped of their homes and belongings, the shoes are all they have, in their journey to a better life.

It brings to mind the quote of "do not judge until you have walked in my shoes" ! This is an excellent piece of work to demonstrate the determination and strength that lies within all cultures.

I wanted to write while my emotions are close to the surface. I was surprised when I felt tears welling-up as I watched photo after photo of shoes. Shoes for god sake. Compelling, moving ... There are no words. Thanks to this wonderful photographer for her vision and talent.

Thank you so much Catherine. It is wonderful to know that this simple work can elicit such a powerful response. Trying to find the most authentic and effective way to tell someone's story is an endeavor frequently fraught with frustration and self-doubt, so it's profoundly gratifying to know that this depiction of the experience of the Blue Nile refugees deeply resonates with many people. I certainly have learned a lot from how this work has been received and hope I carry those lessons into future projects.

I like the photographs but I think that the situation in Sudan could have been shown more effectively . I would like to see the people who belonged to the shoes. I think the photographer missed an opportunity.

While not their faces, Shannon did include text with their stories and those captions can be found in the slideshow on our website: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/moving-walls/21/long-walk

She also has a body of work that is more than just shoes and shows the people and their situations. She found it hard, though, to get the media to respond to those images. Looking at photography is an individual experience that elicits different responses. It's subjective and I appreciate hearing your perspective.

The pictures are extremely moving and paint an impressive and lasting impression of what people will endure to find safety. As a refugee sponsorship coordinator for my Diocese I intend to ensure that it gets screening at our Synod in late May.Thank you.

Beautiful and touching. Thank you.

These shoes makes me to remember so many things, not only because I have been through this situation before but also because I know what they are going through. I see exactly the message of the photographer. Doing my master in development studies at University of Manchester now, I wish for a world without refugees. I wish I could help people in war zone countries. Hope we find answers to end war in Africa and all nations.

This is outrageous, totally unacceptable situation.

I have seen alot and heard alot. I have a friend that is a doctor, and she went to Sudan for six months and showed me photos and told me stories. It is very sad and all those that suffer are always close to my heart but I also believe that if more Christians can stand together for the right reasons God will heal Sudan. But the world has lost what is important and that is money instead of God and no matter what we do until people can stop be selfish and only care about themselves first we will not heal Sudan and it will start in our own country.

Great work indeed! The images should move from one wall to other walls!

As my own experience and grown up as a refugee child in Pakistan during the Russian invasion on my country, Afghanistan. I know what it means to live as a refugee. The shoes refugees wear tell more than the eyes see. Everyone will have a lot to tell about their refugee lives and the hardship they are going through. Children and women are the most vulnerable groups in such situations. Among five of my other siblings it was only I and my youngest sister who could make it to go to school. These pictures remind me of my old bike and my sandals that I was wearing while I was going to school in cold winter and my cracked feet were bleeding. Some of my classmates were asking if I was living nearby the school. I can never forget my old bike that even now my classmates refer to it while they communicate with me. It was that old that thanks to one of my classmates who was more often my walk mate as he also was living as a refugee and was taking the same path to school. He was helping me by pushing my bike after it was getting stacked in the mud in heavy rains. I have this unpleasant experience which will never be washed out of my mind. I wish for a peaceful world without any sufferings where people could live happily ( I am so sorry for my English. I know there will be lots of mistakes)

Saleem,

Thank you for sharing this deeply personal perspective. I also wish for a more peaceful world -- situations such as yours and those Shannon depicts are a tragedy.

terrific idea. Anyway you could hotograph the feet that are in the shoes too?

The shoes not only tell a story of hardship, but also of humanity. The colors, design, patters, and textures of each shoe is a metaphor or the hopes and desires that have been trampled up. Would love to see large prints of them. Really need to see and feel the texture.

Yes, looking at them printed on the walls of our exhibit space, you can get close to them and see the rich detail in each shoe. The stitching, repairs, and handiwork are testaments to resilience and creativity.

Thank you for all of the responses you've written to the post. What you've written is what I've been hearing since we opened the exhibit. If you want to come see them in person, we welcome you to our gallery at the Open Society Foundations, 224 West 57th Street, New York, NY. We are open to the public for free from 10-4 Monday-Fridays except holidays. The exhibit is also free. Please come by.

Having worked with Sudanese refugees, it is remarkable to note their resilience, spirit, and determination. I continue to pull for them through yet another devastating time in their country. I honor the photographer for a warm and thoughtful representation of the refugee plight.

I'm struck by the way the dust and the dirt, the frayed edges of the shoes are so evocative for me. They conjure up the larger story of each individual and make me curious about the places and experiences they had to walk through to get to where they are now. They convey the time and distance traveled, and the way we all carry the evidence of our experiences through the wrinkles, scars, dust and dirt we gather as we move through life. Yet how sobering these are as symbols of lives lived in a very harsh and unjust circumstance.

i can see some of the shoes and individuals in my own district of Arua (north west Nile region) how ever the suffering is evident of frequent movements and persecution in south Sudan which calls for every body Spiritual, Religious, Politicians, Civilians, and NGOs to take actions for their emergency.

This photographies remind me the KOSOVO WAR, albanian people and serbs violence. As my own experience during long walking after I and my family was moving awey do to serbs violenc I can say that same album is still fresh in my mind. I honor the photographer for a warm and thoughtful representation of the refugee plight.

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