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Through His Lens

Matt EdmundsonFrom refugee camps in Kenya to the streets of Tehran, Tufts' undergraduate Matt Edmundson is using his camera to give voice to what he sees as the world's most pressing international issues.


Slideshow of Matt's Photos in Africa

Surrounded by 80,000 refugees in the Kenyan camp of Kakuma, Matt Edmundson is busy shooting photos. The Tufts senior and budding photojournalist is capturing lasting images of the fleeting culture of the Somali Bantu people, who temporarily call the sprawling camp home. Fleeing a civil war and slavery in their native Somalia, the refugees are en route to the United States where they will be resettled by international aid groups. Edmundson made the 7,000 mile journey to the Kakuma camp to document their lives and culture before it is permanently uprooted.

"I tried to film as many important elements of Bantu culture as I could - from tribal dances to daily prayers - because when the Bantus come to the U.S., everything is going to change. The people will be dispersed among a few dozen cities - and so will the dance troupes, the women who have met since they were children to sing together every week, all these important elements of their traditional life. By making this footage accessible to the refugees when they arrive, we're trying to preserve the memory of this soon-to-be-lost culture. Later, the Bantus can show their kids, look, this is where we came from."

Edmundson also brought along disposable cameras for the refugees to capture their own stories.

"Sasha Chanoff, a Fletcher School student who provided me with contacts in the camp, suggested that I also bring cameras for the refugees. He was right - they took some really fabulous photographs, pictures I would never be able to take, nor any outsider for that matter, because of how comfortable they are with each other. With a camera, suddenly, they're not these supposedly "powerless" people. Once you give someone a camera and say to them, 'You can take a picture of anything you want' - you're starting to treat them as an equal rather than someone who's not."

The photo and video record may be one of the most important links that the 15,000 Bantu refugees have with their former lives.

"When the Somali Bantu children show up at American schools, they are going to be in complete culture shock. Their way of life compared with what is generally practiced in the United States is radically different - many Bantus, for example, may have never seen a stove, or even stairs, before coming to the U.S. We're trying to create an orientation video describing the Bantu's lives, to be shown to American teachers and students in schools the Bantus will attend. Hopefully, it will help with their transition."

To get of much as an insider's perspective as possible, Edmundson immersed himself in the daily lives and routines of the refugees in Kakuma, where the land is tough and the lives of its people are difficult.

"It was really, really gorgeous. But it's a tough climate. The heat is sometimes unbearable and it's really dry. The rare times it does rain, it floods because the land doesn't absorb the water."

Like the passing storms, waves of new refugees flood through the camp regularly. Already home to some 80,000 people, Kakuma is tightly packed with displaced families and orphans living in mud huts. Water and food are often in short supply.

Beyond the basic challenges of survival, Edmundson's four-week trip to the camp was punctuated by other risks.

"Traveling back to the camp at night was a bit worrisome because that's when the bandits come out. There, the bandits rule. Without a police escort, we would have had our car stolen, and we would have either been shot, or thrown off the side of the road, stark naked, two things I really wanted to avoid."

Matt Edmundson

"In EPIIC, you're reading two books a week that deal with cutting-edge, emerging international issues. Then in class, you're engaging in dialogue with the authors and editors of the books you just read. It's an infusion of knowledge, it's jumper-cables in your brain. I've never learned so much in so little time."

Putting himself in unpredictable situations is not unusual for Edmundson, who sandwiched his journey between trips to Israel and Iran. Dangerous travel is an occupational hazard of many of the photojournalists Edmundson strives to work alongside. During his sophomore year at Tufts, Edmundson had an opportunity to meet one of the industry's best.

"I went to a Tufts lecture by one of my idols in photojournalism, James Nachtwey. After the presentation, the director of EPIIC (Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship) invited me to join them for coffee. I asked Nachtwey for an internship in his studio the following summer, and he said, 'Yes.' It really was that easy."

EPIIC has done more than just open doors for Edmundson. Often described by its participants as an "intellectual boot-camp," EPIIC - celebrating its 20th anniversary this year - is a year-long class that brings together students from different areas of study to closely investigate international issues. With a motto of "thinking beyond boundaries, acting across borders," Edmundson and EPIIC were a match meant to be.

"In EPIIC, you're reading two books a week that deal with cutting-edge, emerging international issues. Then in class, you're engaging in dialogue with the authors and editors of the books you just read. It's an infusion of knowledge, it's jumper-cables in your brain. I've never learned so much in so little time. It's hard, hard work, but it really opens your eyes to everything that is going on in the world and the nuances of these issues."

That kind of educational experience was exactly what Edmundson was looking for when he applied to college. The Florida native turned down a scholarship from a top photojournalism school to enroll at Tufts.

"You have to learn something, I think, other than just photojournalism or photography. That's the beauty of Tufts, I can combine my interests in photography and my passion for global issues."

Despite a demanding academic course load, Edmundson found time to play on the rugby squad and contribute to a weekly campus publication, the Tufts Observer.

"The Observer was really wonderful - that was interesting because I could shoot a cover, color, every week that was just mine. That was really important for my development as a photographer."

Between semesters at Tufts, Edmundson uses every break he gets to travel the world. While in the Middle East during a winter break with students from EPIIC, Edmundson shot photos and a documentary film about the ongoing dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli students and the conflicts in the region.

In June, Edmundson used part of his summer break to join eight other Tufts undergraduates and Fletcher School graduate students for a historic trip to Iran - becoming the first student delegation from the United States to visit the country since the fall of the Shah in 1979. The students' two-week visit organized in conjunction with Tufts' Institute for Global Leadership included a stay in the capital city of Tehran where they engaged in dialogue with Iranian students and faculty on issues including security, international relations and human rights.

"The goal for Iran was to go on a fact-finding mission to see on the ground what's happening there. It was truly an unbelievable experience. I went in not knowing what to expect, and I was wowed by the country and its people. I hope the person-to-person relationships that we've formed will continue to flourish."

Heading into his senior year, Edmundson is already thinking about life after Tufts. He doesn't want to jump into a desk job, so he's planning another journey instead.

"I'd love to head back to Africa and work with refugee issues. In particular, the Congo is planning to hold it's first free elections next summer, so I'm real interested in documenting that. The first free elections ever in the Democratic Republic of Congo! That would be tremendous."


Profile written by Daniel Black, Class of 2005

Daniel Black, a native of Wayland, Massachusetts, is a comparative religions major and a communications and media studies minor. He was the news editor of the Tufts Observer for two semesters, worked as an intern at the Boston Phoenix and was a reporter for several local newspapers in the greater Boston area. A member of the Class of 2005, Black works at a local area synagogue where he teaches and is the youth group director for high school students.

This story originally ran on Sept. 13, 2004