Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees

10th Jan 2013

© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures for IRC-UK

“I photographed the refugees at night to use the darkness as a metaphor for their current situation,” says photographer Andrew McConnell, a two time Sony World Photography Awards shortlisted and winning photographer. “I want to suggest that we live with refugees around us in our cities but we don’t notice them, they seem hidden to us.” 

McConnell’s most recent project, “Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees” debuted Sunday in London’s St. Pancras Station. Funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department in partnership with the International Rescue Committee UK, Hidden Lives examines the lives of 40 refugees from around the world, across eight cities, on four continents.

© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures for IRC-UK
© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures for IRC-UK

Over half the world’s refugees inhabit cities or large towns and face unique challenges that often go unnoticed by the greater public. While most might imagine the typical refugee positioned in a tented campsite in their neighbouring country, those brought into the light under McConnell’s exhibition reveal the new faces of refugee life coupled with urbanisation. As urban centres are rapidly changing in the wave of globalisation, the vulnerabilities of all their inhabitants likewise continue to grow. While many individuals around the world continue moving to urban areas in hope of finding a sense of community, safety and economic independence, many are instead faced with entrenched poverty and a new slew of security, health and economic risks.

Moreover, refugees in urban environments are at risk to slip through the cracks of their host nation, often leading them more exposed to potential crime or exploitation. Whilst many refugees find themselves lost in the cities they inhabit, the series’ images likewise appear to dwarf the subjects, drowning them in a sea of darkness, as a way to punctuate their experiences.  

Through photography and multimedia productions, McConnell works to tell the stories that often go unrepresented in mass media. Formerly a press photographer in Northern Ireland, McConnell says he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of depth in the work he was producing. “I was also disillusioned by the stories I was covering and felt a deep sense that there were so many more important issues that deserved attention and so much more I could do with my photography,” he says.

McConnell says Hidden Lives, among the other stories he has produced since transitioning to freelance photographer, is deliberately outside the mass media’s field. In Hidden Lives, narrations by refugees punctuate his short films, depicting the lives individuals wished to flee, and the often harsh realties they encountered upon reaching their expected location of asylum. Hidden Lives touches the soils of the United States, Jordan, Malaysia and beyond; it is the story of where people flee when all is lost is changing.

© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures for IRC-UK
© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures for IRC-UK

Produced by Panos Pictures, a London based photo agency whose photographers seek to provide contemporary perspectives on social and global issues, the exhibition offers viewers yet another level of intrigue given its unique location. On display in the international hub that is St. Pancras Station, the free exhibition is situated to attract the widest possible audience. “As a general precept we try to do this whenever possible with our exhibitions to maximise the reach of the message,” Panos’ Director Francesca Sears says.

“With the ultimate goal of challenging the negative perceptions and long held stereotypes of refugees, we knew that the best way to do this would be to put it on display in a prominent public venue,” McConnell says. “In any large city, a train station is going to be a focal point and when you consider how many refugees must pass through train stations of their journeys into exile, including St. Pancras, it made perfect sense to hold it there.”

“It’s quite incredible actually. I was there the first morning of business, if you like, Monday morning rush hour, and people were still making time to stop and read.” Sears says it is exciting to see that already the exhibition has sparked great debate about “what is a refugee and why their needs and situations are different to migrant workers and economic migrants.”

McConnell says St. Pancras Station is only the beginning, and there are already plans to move the exhibition to other cities around the world, including Geneva and New York.  

On display now through 31 January 2013, the exhibition is free and open to the public. For more information on the project and organisations involved, please visit www.hidden-lives.org.uk.



Author: Kaley Sweeney
January 2013