With his camera serving almost as a natural extension of his body, award-winning Hazara photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor once documented his own attempted boat journey to Christmas Island. More recently, he has trained his lens on the thousands of Hazaras living in Melbourne in a new photo essay series The Heartlands.
Born in Quetta, Pakistan, Batoor worked as a freelance photographer in Afghanistan. Little did he know that one of his photography assignments would single-handedly change his life forever.
He began working on The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan in 2010, a project that exposed the sexual exploitation and abuse of young boys at parties held by warlords who would often make them dress in women’s clothing and dance. Batoor was well aware of the risks associated with scrutinising powerful warlords, but was determined to tell this story. He was also curious as to why it had never been told.
Five months into his six-month project deadline, Batoor had no photos to show for his efforts. Sensing the hopelessness of the situation and feeling disappointed with his lack of progress, a chance encounter introduced him to one of the dancing boys. Over time they developed a friendship, and Batoor gained access to the exploitative parties and spent some time gaining an understanding of the boy’s life.
Once the essay was completed and exhibited in Kabul, as far as Batoor was concerned, his job was done. It wasn’t until two years later, when Batoor was working for The US Embassy, that the story attracted worldwide attention after being published in the Washington Post. It was only then that the real consequences of his bravery became clear.
“I started receiving death threats. It was scary. I couldn’t sleep at night because I knew the people behind these things are really powerful,” he says, eyes widening. “They can kill anybody without any hesitation.”
The US embassy fired Batoor soon after, offering no protection. Feeling cornered, Batoor decided he had no choice but to flee Afghanistan back to Quetta, with his family.
But the situation in his hometown had changed dramatically and Hazaras were being targeted by suicide attacks and killings. “It was almost unliveable. We were not safe,” he explains. “Every day when you left the house, you weren’t sure if you were coming back home.”
Batoor packed his camera, documenting his journey as he was smuggled for days on end via road and air from Pakistan to Thailand to Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) and at last, to Bogor in Indonesia. A month after arriving, he joined a group of 93 other asylum seekers on a boat journey to Christmas Island.
On the second night of the journey, the weather turned. Waves violently tossed the small boat about and it was severely damaged.
“Our boat was floating like a matchbox in the water. We all lost hope. We thought it was the end,” he says, pausing momentarily for a deep breath. “We were just waiting for the boat to sink because the water was coming in fast.”
While everyone was crying and shouting, Batoor kept his camera in hand, continuing to document what he thought were their final hours.
The captain was forced to turn the boat around and after six hours of despair at sea, the boat crashed on rocks in Indonesian waters. As Batoor scrambled into the water, he slipped and dropped his treasured camera. The journey he had documented – which had never before been captured– was seemingly lost to the sea.
Miraculously, the memory card survived.
“This is a second life. I was able to save my photographs and show how people risk their lives and what they suffer back in their country,” he says. “I can be a voice for the refugees – to tell the firsthand account of the people who are misinterpreted by the media or politicians.”
Batoor resettled in Australia just over a year ago, and has since won two Walkley Awards (an annual award recognising excellence in journalism) for his work.
Australia has the fourth-largest Hazara population in the world. Across the states the community is most heavily concentrated in Melbourne. Batoor hopes his new exhibition, The Heartlands, which depicts this community, will help people understand that if asylum seekers are given a chance and treated humanely, they can play a very vital role in contributing to our society.
“Asylum seekers are being tortured psychologically,” Batoor says, frustrated by current government policy. “They should not be traumatised any more than they already have been. They’ve gone through enough in their own countries.”
The Heartlands runs June 12 –22 at FCAC Roslyn Smorgon Gallery, Footscray Community Arts Centre, 45 Moreland Street, Footscray.