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An Ordinary Item Tells the Story of an Extraordinary Journey

A pair of worn shoes
2:48
© Shannon Jensen/Reportage by Getty Images

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?

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