“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”Robert Capa
By Virginia Valenzuela, Arts Editor
The concept of what is ‘normal’ is informed by where people come from, the history they learned, the foods they ate, the sounds that lulled them or awoke them from sleep. For children across the world who live amid chaos, that idea of ‘normal’ changes with each day. But as documentary photographer Rizacan Kumas shows us, there is still so much to love about life, even when that life is constantly disrupted. As Mr. Kumas told SuperRare:
“When you grow up [in a first world country], you go to school, you have friends, and the biggest sin you might see is cigarette smoke that your parents are trying to hide from you. The biggest thing in your life is trying to learn something. They don’t know about the other side of the coin.”
The people Mr. Kumas documents live in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, places where the sun is blinding, and the reality is too. War, violence, political unrest, displacement, and loss make up the backdrop for so many of his images. But the thing that shines through is not sadness; it is hope, happiness, and childhood wonder. The children featured in his latest drop, “Unrecognized Emotions,” followed him around as he documented the refugee camp in Pakistan where they lived. It was 2018, and they had left their homes in Afghanistan for a chance to live more peaceful life.
“When I was talking to the grown-ups I saw those children following me and giggling with each other. We understood each other, not with the same language, but in an emotional way. I turned to them, smiled at them, and showed with my hand that I wanted to take their picture, and they smiled. They posed like that, in such a natural way. Every child [in the picture] shows a completely different emotion.”
Not fear, not resentment, not envy. The children look into the camera without direction, without care of how they looked or how they would be perceived. These are children who don’t have playgrounds or daycare or even organized schooling. They find adventure, and friendship, in curious places.
“Normal children don’t play in the sewers,” Mr. Kumas told us. “Kids in these areas play in sewers, surrounded by filth, but these kids play in there, live in there, they have fun in there. In the end, they are children. They want to play, they want to learn, they are innocent. When they see someone who comes from another world, they see you with curious eyes.”
Mr. Kumas came to documentary photography because he wanted to share these parts of the world, these untold stories, with other people, so that they would be pushed to do something about it. He wanted to share images of an unfiltered existence so that those of us who live privileged lives might see the world anew. “Other types of photography allow you to reproduce everything,” he told SuperRare. “You can hire the same model, build the same lights, the same set. It’s not 100% reproduced, but you can get very close. But in documentary photography, when that moment is gone, it’s gone. It’s a super unique moment in time. You cannot touch it, you cannot change it. Every element in your frame tells that story.”
And what story is that exactly? So often we see privilege and poverty living almost hand in hand. We see city streets where modern apartment buildings overshadow dilapidated homes. We see suburbs that change from white picket fences to broken windows in the blink of an eye. In places like Pakistan, we see just how close the two sides of the same coin can be.
“We are living in the same world, but we are not living in the same world, Mr. Kumas said. “When I was there, I was staying in a really luxurious place, in the middle of Islamabad in Pakistan. The refugee camps are just 20 minutes away from the city center. Everything is so amazing, and after a short drive you arrive in another world. I spent hours and hours there and I listened to their stories, and after that I came back to that luxury place, and I asked myself: why is it that I can live in luxury here, and they can’t?”
Documentary photography brings you to dangerous places, but it challenges you to find beauty, to make art. It helps to connect people all across the world, those of us who are lucky enough to have the means to travel, as well as those of us who do not.
Whoever comes in with the highest bid for “Unrecognized Emotions” will not only own a piece of history, but they will also help shape the future. “He or she will donate money to the Malala Fund,” said Mr. Kumas, who is donating all proceeds of the sale to charity. “And I say, if you are generous enough, I will send you a 1 of 1 edition in the real world, a signed art print.”
For someone like Mr. Kumas who has learned so much about what people, especially women and children, go through in the darkest parts of the world, giving it all back came naturally. “I’m earning money from their backstories. If you are not changed by those stories, you are a selfish person. Selfish people don’t have a place in the art world because artists, [especially those in documentary photography], should have a responsibility to the world, and to help people who are suffering.”
“As the famous documentary photographer Robert Capa said, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.’ I have modeled my career after that quote,” said Rizacan Kumas.
“Unrecognized Emotions” sold this morning for 9 ETH, or $30,690. To join Mr. Kumas in giving back, you can visit the Malala Fund’s donation page below.