Muhammed Muheisen: “Photos are never just pictures, these are voices, these are messages, and these are testimonies that live forever”

Muhammed Muheisen: “Photos are never just pictures, these are voices, these are messages, and these are testimonies that live forever”

Interview in english and greek by Ifigeneia Sakkou

Greek version

Muhammed Muheisen, world-renowned photographer, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and photojournalist for National Geographic with many distinctions and numerous international awards in his career so far, talks to Ifigenia Sakkou for, about his belief that photography can act for a good cause and how through his passion for it, he has made it, his life’s purpose to help our fellow humans in need. Photos for him are not just images, they are voices, they are messages and testimonies that live forever. Since 2001 he has recorded with his lens the most important events in missions around the world, he has covered wars and conflicts, he has followed the migratory flows of refugees, and he has been confronted with danger and death, with scenes of mass cruelty, human pain and sorrow. Even in these adverse conditions he looks for smiles and beauty in the chaos, as he typically states that even in the middle of a conflict, life never stops but continues.

An Afghan refugee girl holding her younger brother sits on a wooden-cart looking at her friend playing with a balloon on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

Mr. Muhammed Muheisen, it is with great joy that we welcome you in It is such an honor for us to have an interview with you and to be able to present you and your remarkable work to the greek audience.

You are a world-renowned photographer, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, a National Geographic photojournalist with many distinctions and numerous international awards in your career so far. Please share with us how this journey started and what was the thing that first drawn you to photography. Has it changed since then?
I fell in love with photography at an early age, it was the moment that I met my grandmother’s polaroid camera. This magical box that when you press a button, a piece of paper comes out documenting that exact moment which we carry with us our whole lives. I was obsessed with trees and nature, everything had its own beauty, I used to see colors and those colors made me dream to be someone, someday who’s able to share these colors with the world and color their world.
I am a deep believer in the power of photography as a force for good. If something happened and was never documented, it is like it never occurred. Half of my life now been traveling the world to document stories that matter. The mediums changed however, credibility, ethics and integrity will always remain the keys.

Nikol, a 12-year-old Ukrainian refugee from Kharkiv while waiting with her mother Maryana and her 6-year-old brother Vladyslav in a bus after crossing the Ukrainian-Romanian border in Siret, Romania. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

Since 2001 you have documented major events around the globe from Asia, Middle East, Africa to Europe and the United States of America. You have covered wars and conflicts, you have witnessed the migratory flows of the refugees, coming face to face with danger or even death, you have seen massive cruelties, the human pain and sorrow. Even in these particular moments your camera is not only focusing on a documentary coverage of the events but also is seeking for the beauty of the human existence, for glimpses of a life that still goes on. How do you manage to combine these contradictions in your photos?
I am a human being photographing other human beings, this is what always rings in my head every time I point my camera. In every conflict that I documented and every event that I covered, if the news was right in front of me and I just turn around I would witness a total different scene, a scene full of life instead of death, as whenever there was a funeral on my right there was a baby just being born on my left. It is like a smile in the middle of the rubble, I focus on life, I look for smiles and I seek beauty amid chaos as even in the middle of the conflict, life never stops but keeps going. This became the theme of the photography that I do.

Demonstrators run to avoid tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops during a demonstration against Israel’s separation barrier in the Palestinian village Bilin, near Ramallah. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen.

Behind the numbers of casualties and disasters there are people. People who suffered and survived and their untold and unheard stories. What do you think is the role of a photojournalist?
We are there to inform the world, we are there to bear witness and we are there to make a difference big or small, at least we start somewhere. I’m a deep believer in the power of photography as a force for good. If something happened and was never documented, it is like it never occurred. More than two decades of my life I have been aiming for that.

Syrian refugee Zahra Mahmoud and Afghan refugee Laiba Hazrat. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen.

Children, in your own words, are the real victims of conflict. Please share with us your thoughts about this and the purpose of the photographic series “Victims of war”. How do you approach them, what are the things that they reveal to you?
I personally believe that children are the real victims of conflicts, children don’t get to choose where they are born or the circumstances surrounding them, children all over the world share the same things in common, they seek fun, they seek joy and happiness no matter where they are from. By focusing on them I raise their voice and make it echo in the world and show the world no matter where you are from a child will always be a child.

A Syrian man feeds his daughter while sitting in front of his partly damaged house, in Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

In both series “Precious Education” and “Brick Factories” you highlight critical social issues, such as the importance of the education and children’s right to it, under any circumstances and the child labor which has a profound effect on their physical and psychological development. Do you think that photography has the power to raise public awareness?
In my opinion and personal experience there is no better way to make a difference than photography, as these are never just pictures, these are voices, these are messages, and these are testimonies that live forever. With these photographs I spread awareness, change stereotypes, and raise the voice of the people seen in my photographs and most important make a difference, big or small at least we start somewhere.

An anti-government protestor looks on while praying with other women during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

Europe’s migrant crisis, burst in 2015, finds you in Greece as a photographer for Associated Press. For those who have survived, their story continues, in fact it is when their story starts, as you have mentioned. Part of it, is said through the series “Cells for Refugees” and “Memories from Syria”. Please share with us your thoughts and introduce to us the main idea behind them.
For me, every story begins the moment the major media platforms move somewhere else, to keep shedding light and reminding the public of what’s happening around them I continue my documentation of the refugee crises. The story doesn’t end here but it begins. I want to keep reminding the public that behind these images there are people, people who were forced to leave their homes and hopes their families and memories behind and go search for a new, safe home.

A Syrian refugee woman and child are wrapped with thermal blankets to shelter from the cold after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

It is then in 2015, that sensitized by the refugee crisis, you have established the Dutch non-profit organization, based in Amsterdam “Everyday Refugees Foundation”, to which you hold the position of the chairman. What is the vision and mission of this organization and what are the actions through which the above are accomplished?
At the beginning the foundation mission was to inform the world, raise awareness and share the stories of the people who were forced to leave everything behind in search for a new, safe home. Shortly after I realized that here is much more that I can do and can be done than just being the messenger or the guy who brings simple kindness. I committed all of me to the cause of helping those in need simply through my passion photography. Now with the foundation we managed to help and empower tens of thousands in need, spread awareness to millions around the world and educate hundreds of boys and girls with the right of education. We launched tens of projects and campaigns to document, educate, help and empower refugees, local communities, and internally displaced people by conflict, poverty, discrimination and natural disasters in different parts of the world.

A Syrian refugee woman tends to her daughter while cooking inside her tent in a tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

Most of the time you are photographing under harsh and adverse conditions, where the adrenaline and tension are at high levels, away from home and your beloved ones. How do find balance within you? Are the series “Carpets” and” After the Sunset” made in your seeking moments of calmness and peace?
I always remind myself how lucky and blessed I am to be the one capturing the picture and not the one in front of the camera as at the end of the day I have a home to go back to, a roof to sleep under and a warm meal to have, opposite of most of the people seen in my photographs.
The best way for me to cope is continue taking pictures, and once in a while find a colorful, hopeful story that has a message behind and shows the beauty of the world that we live in, stories such as “Carpets” and “After the sunset” and others, and this is for me the best way to keep positive and productive.

The last full moon of 2018 rises above the ancient Acropolis hill in Athens, Greece. Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

In your Instagram account, one can see beautiful images of some of the most famous Greek landmarks, the sacred rock of the Acropolis, and the temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion under the full moon, photos of Meteora Unesco World Heritage Site. What is your connection with Greece?
My relationship and connection to Greece began in the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015 when I discovered the kindness of the elderly men and women who were in the island giving a hand to those in need and a few years later, early in 2018, when I needed a break, I decided to have a vacation in Greece. However, this vacation ended to be more than 3 years as I fell in love with the people and the country, the history and the present. I felt welcomed and part of the landscape and as a photographer who always is in search for beautiful moments to capture, I documented the beauty of the country through moments in time.

Muhammed Muheisen at his photo exhibition “Bearing Witness” in Athens, Greece. Courtesy of Muhammed Muheisen.

The Greek audience had the great chance to view your photo-exhibition “Bearing Witness” which is one of the ongoing campaigns of the “Everyday Refugees Foundation” and was hosted in Athens, Greece between 18-22 December, for its first stop of its international tour. Please share with us what is the aim of this campaign and what are its next stops.
“Bearing Witness” is a reminder for the current and coming generations of major events that took place the last three decades in our world. A look back at major events and hope we will never repeat them, spread awareness, change stereotypes and deliver these untold stories and remind the people how lucky and blessed they are to be born, grew and live in a safe environment. The basic things that we take for granted are precious for others and more. Following a very successful launch in the Greek capital, the exhibition’s next destination is in Amsterdam in March with the same goals.

Muhammed Muheisen surrounded by Afghan refugee children while explaining to them how the camera works, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan. Courtesy of Muhammed Muheisen

Up to now, you have received great honors and distinctions in your professional career, from International Institutions like National Geographic, UNICEF, TIME magazine, to mention just a few. At the same time you are a public speaker, a portfolio reviewer, lecturer and mentor, and jury member in international photo competitions. In 2023 you have received the National Geographic Wayfinder Award, dedicated to individuals who are pushing boundaries of science, exploration, education and storytelling to transform our world. In March 2024 we will have the chance to watch through platform Disney+ a documentary film dedicated to you, as the one of world’s seven most unique photographers and visual storytellers. How do you feel about all these accomplishments and what is your advice to the young photographers who are admiring your achievements and want to pursue your steps? What are the qualities that a photographer has to develop in order to stand out?
Being a two-time Pulitzer prize-winner and a world-renowned photographer gave me a global credibility which made it easier for me to approach decision makers and people who can make a difference. The voice of my photographs became louder and the reach became wider.
The best advise that I can share with young photographers is to be passionate, committed and to believe in the power of photography as a force for good. Work hard, believe in yourselves and follow your heart, it is not a hundred-meter sprint, it is a marathon. Make mistakes and learn from it, challenge yourself and learn as knowledge never stops. Set up the goal to make a difference but not to collect awards, recognition and awards will naturally come with hard work.

Mr Muhammed Muheisen, we are deeply thankful for the special honor to host you in and for having this very interesting conversation.

Muhammed Muheisen is an internationally acclaimed, world-renowned photographer. A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, a National Geographic photojournalist and Explorer and a National Geographic Wayfinder Awardee. Among his numerous international awards are the UNICEF Picture of the Year, the TIME Magazine’s Best Wire Photographer.
Since 2001 he has documented major events around the world, in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the United States of America. For over a decade and a half he has been documenting the refugee crises around the world.
Since 2015 he is the founder and chairman of  the Dutch non-profit organization “Everyday Refugees Foundation”  The foundation’s mission is to document, educate, help and empower refugees, local communities and internally displaced people by conflict, poverty, discrimination and natural disasters in different parts of the world.
He is a Global Ambassador for Jordan Tourism Board and Canon. As a public speaker, Muheisen delivers lectures, seminars and motivation speeches to live audiences across the world
FB: Muhammed Muheisen
Instagram : @mmuheisen

Self portrait of Muhammed Muheisen.