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Photo Series Brings Plight of Syrian Refugees to the Streets of Britain

Patrick Widdess writes poetry, prose, and arts and travel features. He is based in Norwich, UK.

Zsofi Bohm

Zsofi Bohm

"Refugee Crisis"

Zsofi Bohm does not like the term refugee crisis. “I think it fails to express that the crisis is our collective responsibility,” she said. The Hungarian photographer’s 2017 project drives this message home with stark news images of Syria and refugees projected onto the streets of Britain.

“The project seeks to merge the virtual and the real in order to challenge our imagination,” Bohm said. What if this was happening right here at our doorstep? What if we became victims of a power game between higher forces and were forced to leave everything behind? And what if we had nowhere to go?”

Zsofi Bohm

Zsofi Bohm

Bohm, who was in her second year of studying Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales when this project was put together, came face-to-face with the crisis in Hungary in the summer of 2016:

“After the Hungarian government placed anti-immigration billboards all over the country and then blocked asylum-seekers from westbound trains in Budapest, I visited the train station. I saw thousands of people everywhere on the floor (many families and little children too), I felt horrified at the cruelty of Hungarian government. The majority of them did have tickets (to Austria and Germany) but the trains had been cancelled for six days. On the other hand, I was delighted to see that there were so many volunteers helping them, sharing food, sleeping bags, tents and clothes, playing and singing with them.”

Zsofi Bohm by Giuseppe Iannello

Zsofi Bohm by Giuseppe Iannello

She decided to tell their story, taking inspiration from Shimon Attie’s series Writing on the Wall, in which pre-war photos of Jewish street life in Berlin are projected onto the locations where they were taken.

Zsofi Bohm

Zsofi Bohm

Back in Britain and armed with a camera and projector, Bohm spent two months completing the challenging photo shoot. “Since I had to take the photographs either at dusk or dawn, timing became crucial, allowing me to create one or two pictures a day. For a couple of weeks, I was working with a portable battery pac designed to power flash lights. However, this provided the projector with power for only 5 to 10 minutes and then I had to charge it for 8 hours. This caused a lot of trouble and unsuccessful evenings.”

Some of the shots presented additional challenges: “When I was projecting on the motorway, I had to be very careful not to blind the drivers with the light of the projector. So I covered the lens with my hand and, as soon as there were no cars approaching, I shot. I had to be very quick.”

Zsofi Bohm

Zsofi Bohm

Bohm started her career in 2008 when she came to London “to try my luck.” With the money she earned, she began her formal education in photography in Budapest. Under the guidance of Hungarian greats—including Zoltán Vancsó, Imre Zalka, Vivienne Balla, Gábor Sióréti, and Zsófia Pályi—she developed an understanding of photography as a tool for self-expression through both analogue and digital techniques.

After graduating, she took her camera further afield on a three-year stint travelling in Europe and Asia. She ended up in the Documentary Photography course at the University of South Wales. “I heard about it from a Spanish girl, picking strawberries beside me in Denmark,” she explained.

She was accepted in the course on the strength of another project called "Recyclers" about people living on the margins, albeit in happier circumstances. "Recyclers" documents a community in Tenerife where people live off the grid in caves, enjoying a lifestyle that is basic but free from the financial pressures of modern society. “I was going to go there anyway to spend some months by the beach, living in a cave and meeting nice people,” Bohme said. “I spent five months there without money.”

Asked what draws her to documenting life on the fringes she said: “I am trying to find a balance between living in the society and completely off the grid. I am examining my own questions with photography. People who live on the margins need more support and compassionate attention instead of discrimination and persecution.”

Bohm is already looking for new subjects to turn her camera on. But given the happy-go-lucky nature of her career, it is just as likely that those subjects will find her. “There are so many issues to talk about!” she said. “As long as I am free to work in my way and photograph things I find important, I am happy.”