What I saw made me no longer take photos of fashion shows and yachts

I’m an Aussie. Sydney born and bred. I live on the Northern Beaches, am a surfer, a former surf lifesaver, and swim every morning at Australia’s iconic Manly Beach. But my work reflects something other than postcard Australia.

As a photographer and journalist, I have worked in the humanitarian sector, both freelance and with various NGOs, for the past 15 years. I now work with Baptist World Aid Australia.

Over those 15 years, my day has involved Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh; neglected tropical diseases in India; emergency obstetric surgery in Nigeria; multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in Cambodia; child soldiers in Uganda; HIV in Kenya; child drowning in Vietnam; sex trafficking in South-East Asia; avoidable blindness in Ethiopia; poverty, vulnerability, disease, death.

Why do I want to do this job? Because I’ve seen these things. And once you’ve seen them, you can’t unsee them – and it’s compelled me to just want to see more. And to do more.

My humanitarian work started in 2006. It was a time of civil war in Uganda, sexual abuse was extensive, and many girls found themselves pregnant, alone, and scared. My church was involved with a crisis pregnancy centre in Kampala that helped the girls.

When I heard about their situation, something went off inside me. The centre needed some building work done and I thought I could help. But I realised God didn’t need me as a labourer. He was calling me to tell the girls’ stories – and others.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under Joseph Kony, was wreaking havoc in the north. Children were being abducted and used as child soldiers or sex slaves. Thousands of families had been displaced for years, and many children knew no other home than that of an internally displaced person (IDP) camp.

‘There are no children here. They’re not allowed to be children.’

I based myself in Kampala and travelled north to Gulu to spend a few nights in a shelter for the children who became known as night commuters. Night after night these children emerged from the darkness, some walked in alone, others in small groups. They came in pyjamas, they came in shorts, they came in rags. They came because the LRA was moving through nearby villages at night grabbing children. They came to be safe.

More than 1,300 children every night.

Counsellors worked with heavily traumatised children who had lost parents to the fighting, or had lost brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends to the LRA. As one counsellor told me, ‘There are no children here. They’re not allowed to be children.’

From Gulu I went to an IDP camp, inadvertently causing a small commotion as children, excited at seeing an Australian photojournalist dripping with cameras, started running in from everywhere. A man raced out of his hut, angry, afraid, grabbing the children, questioning them. He saw me and calmed down, shook my hand, and laughed with relief. A translator explained: the LRA had shot up the camp a few days before, the IDPs fleeing into the surrounding bush.

When the man heard the children’s commotion, he ran outside with one frantic question: ‘Do I need to grab my family and run?’

Returning to Sydney I knew I could no longer photograph luxury yachts and fashion shows like I had been doing. God had revealed his plan for me and set me on a path.

Within a year, I was back in Uganda and Kenya on another freelance assignment. Soon I was working with NGOs and getting to the field as often as I could to document humanitarian issues.

In 2017, I covered the breaking Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. About 400,000 Rohingya had fled violent ‘clearance operations’ and crossed over from Myanmar in the previous weeks. Hundreds of thousands of others would soon arrive, thousands came every day. They are still there.

Within days I had seen food and water trucks swamped by starving refugees. A man stole the last supplies in a desperate attempt to provide for his family, only to be chased by an angry mob. I ran with him, hoping my presence as a photographer would stop him being beaten. It did.

I photographed and interviewed women who had seen their husbands shot before them; and I photographed severely malnourished children, one so close to death that we commandeered a vehicle and arranged for the child and mother to be taken immediately to an emergency feeding centre. I heard later that the child survived.

But when I returned home, and even some months later, many looked puzzled when I mentioned the Rohingya. They had neither heard of them or the crisis.

It is crucial that NGOs tell these stories, and it is crucial that we have ears to hear.

We must each determine what we can do for those who live on the margins.

It is hard not to feel guilty when diving into the ocean each morning, especially when I am reminded of Luke 12:48: ‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.’ As Australians, we have been given an extraordinary amount and that, in my understanding, comes with responsibility.

In John 13, Jesus says, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another.’ Philippians 2 teaches us that we should ‘value others above yourselves’ and to not look to our own interests ‘but each of you to the interests of others.’

James, too, warns of showing favouritism to the wealthy and asks rhetorically in James 2 how a person of faith can ignore someone who is ‘without clothes or daily food’. In this, James’ famous ‘faith and deeds’ passage, James stresses that our faith must be accompanied by actions.

This is not to say that everyone should take up their camera and follow Jesus. But it is to say that we must each determine what we can do for those who live on the margins.

It is an honour and privilege to bear witness and be welcomed into the lives of so many people. But they are not refugees; they are not night commuters or starving children; they are not girls defined by rape or men by violence. They are people — God’s people, made in his image — they are our brothers and sisters, and we are called to love them.

Our choice is whether we do that or not. If my life were only about ocean swimming it would be a shallow life indeed – and so too my faith. My faith must be accompanied by deeds. It is why I must keep telling stories. It is why I must keep asking God to send me back.

Matthew Smeal is a photographer and writer who tells stories about the people inside humanitarian issues. He now works as a Communication Specialist for Baptist World Aid Australia.

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