Sebastian Rich, Photographer
I have tattoos; far too many. But doubts over my decision to be inked extensively vanish in the world’s refugee camps. Children from many cultures have never seen tattoos and the sight of this rather large photographer, sleeves rolled up, with a veritable cornucopia of butterflies, flowers, and dolphins, causes much intrigue and mirth in little eyes. For a few minutes while I am photographing and playing with the little ones they forget the horrors that brought them here, intrigued by the ink. The braver ones touch my arms and run away, then come back cautiously with huge smiles. Then it starts, all the children giggling at once, my interpreter bombarded with a hundred questions about my tattoos, as their smiles grow and grow.
Recently in a camp managed by the United Nations refugee agency in Maban County, South Sudan, a young girl of about seven years had been following me around as I photographed daily life. Every now and then a tiny warm hand would hold me gently by the wrist. I looked down to see her intently studying several butterflies. I asked my interpreter Mohammad what she was saying, to which he replied: “It is nothing Sebastian, just silly children’s things.” I persisted and eventually Mohammad, somewhat embarrassed, told me. “She is saying it is so dirty in the camp with all the dust that she would like to take the butterflies from your arms and put them in her pockets to keep the wings clean and soft!” I stopped in my tracks. I have seen so much horror in my time as a photographer and most of it, thankfully as a self-protection mechanism, has been filtered out, but this little girl’s innocence caused my world for a few minutes to crumble around me.
Acclaimed British photographer and cameraman Sebastian Rich has worked in current affairs for more than 30 years. After joining Independent Television News (ITN) in 1980, he covered some of the world’s biggest breaking stories. He later pursued a freelance career. Over the years he has also spent time focusing on humanitarian issues, and collaborates with the UN refugee agency in Africa and the United States.