Catch up: Nish Nalbandian – A Handful of Dust

On Tuesday 17 April, the Frontline Club hosted award-winning photographer Nish Nalbandian with documentary filmmaker and journalist Matthew Cassel, to discuss Nalbandian’s latest book, A Handful of Dust, and his experiences documenting the lives of Syrian refugees resettling in Turkey, followed by a Q&A with the Frontline audience.

Most images of the Syrian refugee crisis flooding western media outlets are of the camps. Photographs showing families with young children cramped in tents covered in tarpaulin sheets.

In his new book, A Handful of Dust, Nish Nalbandian has tried to portray a more nuanced representation of the Syrian refugee experience. “Ordinary life for refugees goes on, which we sometimes miss when trying to tell sensational stories,” says Nalbandian.

Everyday activities are captured by Nalbanidian’s lens, a girl playing with DJ decks, a young man working at a local radio station and a former judge happily posing on a motorcycle wearing a baseball hat, as he was self-conscious that he was losing his hair – glimpses of ordinary life in extraordinary situations.
“Syrian refugees in Turkey have multiple existences…not everyone is living in camps.” Nalbandian says, “I left with the feeling that people are doing well because of their resilience and they still maintain their dreams regardless.”

One of the challenges Nalbandian found when approaching a highly charged issue, like the Syrian refugee crisis, with subtlety is that editors of news outlets rarely pick up these types of images. He has said that at times he has to adjust his eye to see what the editors want to see. “Sometimes I have a problem with pictures because they’re not always representative…but we take them, as it could be what editors want to see.”

And this issue was a question that some audience members wanted a clearer understanding of: Why do news consumers not see images of Syrian refugees in varied everyday situations? Nalbandian suspects that in the age of social media platforms, like Instagram, news Editors are less likely to pay money for less sensational images, and noted that he felt fortunate to find a publisher for this body of work. “ I was lucky to find a publisher…it is hard, but it wasn’t a huge problem for me.” But mentioned that it is harder for photojournalists to make a living due to news editors not regularly commissioning this type of documentary photography.

Those in attendance were engaged by Nalbanian’s experience in Turkey, with many curious about the relationship between Syrian refugees and the Turkish communities that they now inhabit. When asked if there was any hostility between the two communities, Nalbandian responded that. “There are sometimes tensions between the Syrian refugees and people in Turkey in terms of job opportunities…but I try not to get into the politics of things.” But brought up one instance he had witnessed working relationships developing between the communities, one example being a Syrian bronzesmith who made elaborate pieces for mosques in collaboration with Turkish artisans.
Nish Nalbandian is of Turkish and Armenian heritage, and he recognised the parallels of the experience between the Syrian refugees and Armenian diaspora in the early 20th century, “It struck me what was happening now was something which had happened previously with the Armenians.” The Syrian communities that he mentioned this to seemed to agree with the similarities of experience.

Link to photographer Nish Nalbandian’s website