Human spirit is captured by photographer Jean-Marc Caimi in the Mberra refugee camp, where a rich musical culture flourishes against all odds. Titled “The Sound of Refugees”, the series focuses on a camp situated in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, just miles away from war-torn Mali and hosts 50,000 refugees. Despite having lost their homes, Tuareg and Arab musicians inhabiting the camp are determined not to lose hope. Even in the shade, temperatures reach 45 degrees, but undeterred by the merciless heat, the community play on.
Caimi captures subjects in the full-intensity of the midday sun. Electric guitars look out of place, even superimposed, in their hands. “The African photographic iconography for musicians has a long tradition of capturing men with their instruments,” he explains. “In particular, Tuareg musicians perceive themselves as warriors, their songs serve as motivation for people fighting or struggling for the independence of Azawad. I wanted to follow that tradition and photograph musicians with their weapon of freedom.”
“They’re waiting to go back home, but in the meantime they’re living a life like the rest of us” – DJ Khalab
Recognising the power of music to inspire hope, humanitarian association Intersos wanted to find a musician to record Mberra Camp’s culture. “Afrofuturist” Italian producer DJ Khalab seemed like the best fit for the role. “Khalab was already deeply involved in African music,” explains Giovanni Visone from Intersos. “As someone who mixes traditional music with innovative sounds, he was the perfect choice for this project.”
The producer, who had mostly experienced musical culture in western capitals, was fascinated with Intersos’ proposal. “I couldn’t not go,” he said. “It was a unique opportunity from both a musical and humane point of view. In the collective imagination, a refugee camp is just a bunch of tents crammed with people waiting for something. It’s true; they’re waiting to go back home, but in the meantime, they're living a life like the rest of us.”
“I am where the desert is/I ask my soul to hold on living” – Tuareg refugee song
Reflecting the vitality that Khalab found in the Mberra Camp, Caimi’s subjects look determinedly through the lens. They stand tall holding their instruments with pride. An orange robe, or a red guitar, jumps out against the arid backdrop, where the only flowers in sight are those dizzyingly repeated on hanging patterned sheets.
Close-up portraits are interspersed with shots of the dry earth, as Caimi acknowledges the desert as a character in itself. The lyrics of a Tuareg refugee song go: "I am where the desert is/I ask my soul to hold on living;" Amongst a community which has seen such hardship, the cruel heat of the desert becomes a symbol of communal strength.