Through the lens

20 April 2016

Photographer and alumna Edwina Pickles shares her stunning and unsettling images of Eastern Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp - the largest in the world.

Edwina Pickles on assignment in Kenya.

Edwina Pickles (BVArts ’98) spent three weeks in Africa photographing the lives of people in places of struggle and humanitarian crisis. She was sent
by her employer, the Sydney Morning Herald and hosted by Save The Children.

Pickles says her time at the University of Sydney shaped her photographic vision. “We were taught to find the meaning of things,” she says. 

“I remember tirelessly analysing art from successful artists and student classmates, and learning to make and take criticism. These were valuable lessons in art and in life as well.”

As a result of her studies and professional expertise, Pickles’s work is now widely recognised by her peers. The pictures she took at Dadaab won her a 2015 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award for Best Photojournalism.

Dadaab was established in 1991 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a sanctuary for people seeing the horrific civil war unfolding in Somalia. Later, many thousands more Somalis arrived as Somalia was struck by a devastating drought.

On current estimates, about 350,000 refugees are living in Dadaab, although there could be up to half a million, with many people now from neighbouring countries including South Sudan. If it were a city, Dadaab would be one of Kenya’s largest.

Follow Pickles on Twitter: @EdwinaPickles

"In this desolate landscape two girls are having fun on a see-saw next to their school and playing with a blonde-haired doll. I wondered where they got the doll. As well as schools, there are markets inside the camp and a bartering system. Someone might pay someone else some of their flour ration to take their food back to their tent for them, which can be a long way from the food depot."

"This woman didn’t know where her husband was. He’d gone back to Somalia to fight and she hadn’t seen him in a few years. Now she’s alone with all these children to raise. All she can really do is wait. It’s a pretty common story in Dadaab. But look at her and her children. The people in Dadaab have hardly any possessions, nothing at all, yet they dress well and stand proud. They haven’t lost their pride and I knew this was important to show in my photos."

"There are 200,000 people younger than 18 in the camp and many of these young people are vulnerable to assaults. There are many child brides. This young girl was married at 12 – her family couldn’t support her, so they gave her away to an older man. It was a marriage for survival, but her husband abandoned her when he realised she couldn’t cook or clean. Now she is learning to be a mother even though she is still a child herself. This is not uncommon."

"I was surprised to find there are about 50 schools in the Dadaab camp. When I walked into this one, the girls started dancing as young boys played drums. It was so beautiful because of how colourful they are, and it was obviously a traditional dance. I met someone who was born inside the camp, grew up, then had their own children there. There are people who have never been outside – who have spent their entire lives living in this temporary way."

"People can queue all day to get fortnightly food rations, and sometimes there isn’t enough to go around. On this day, desperately hungry refugees pushed open the gate to the camp’s food distribution centre. There are people in Dadaab who are educated and had successful businesses back home in Somalia, but now they have nothing and have to line up for food to feed their families."