May 2002

Images of Africa: Book by Student Photographer Focuses on Refugee Crisis
by Michelle Baltus

Photographer Daniel Cheng Yang was only 10 years old in 1994 when the African country of Rwanda was devastated by mass genocide. Television footage of the atrocities didn't just shock the Inver Grove Heights resident&emdash;it compelled him to action. The result is a book called Kakuma-Turkana, Dueling Struggles: Africa's Forgotten Peoples, Yang's photographic account of refugee life in East Africa.

Weathered faces, starving children and other human casualties of war are candidly documented in this beautifully haunting book, which is to be published next month by St. Paul-based Pangaea books. For Yang, now an 18-year-old senior at Harding High School, the refugee issue hit home: his father is a Hmong refugee from Laos. As far back as he can remember, Yang says, "stories of fleeing have always surrounded me."

While his friends were listiening to Little Red Riding Hood and other bedtime tales, Yang heard firsthand from his father how the family was forced to dodge bombs and navigate dense forests in their effort to reach safety. "One of the fondest memories of my childhood is just sitting down and listening to his stories," says Yang. "And his stories really came from the heart, and he didn't leave anything out. When you hear how a relative was washed down a river or died of hunger, it instills an appreciation for what you have and what people have done for you."

The genocide in Rwanda was a turning point in Yang's life. He resolved to do something &emdash;anything&emdash;to help ensure history would not be repeated. So at an age when most kids are preoccupied with baseball cards and afternoon cartoons, Yang spent hours researching and reading up on the plight of the world's refugees. The country of Sudan, where almost one out of every five southern Sudanese has died as a result of a decades-long civil war, captivated him. He began taking pictures on family vacations with the goal of expressing what he saw and reflecting what his subjects were feeling.

"He's a sponge for knowledge," says his publisher Bonnie Hayskar. "And he has an acute sense of justice, which is evident in his photography."

When Yang rached high school, he knew he had a decision to make: immerse himself in teenage life, attend parties and football fames, or make good on his promise to help increase awareness of the world's refugees. The gifted student, who recently was awarded a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota, kept that promise with repeated phone calls to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Nairobi, Kenya. Yang was eventually granted permission by the UNHCR to visit the Kakuma refugee camp near the border of Sudan and Kenya, which remains a safe haven for the thousands of Sudanese fleeing their war-torn homeland.

At the camp, Yang began photographing the refugees and the desperate existence of the land's indigenous people, the Turkana. Surrounded by starving children, grieving widows and men who'd been mutilated by war, Yang called on his background, his empathy and his camera lenses to help him express with compassion &emdash;and honesty&emdash;the hardships he saw.

"I thought if I could take images that stick in people's heads, I could create change," Yang says. He struggled often with the question of how far to go in his quest to document reality. For Yang, the answer was obvious. "As soon as one begins to ignore any aspect of suffering, the whole truth cannot be shared," says Yang, who has traveled to kakuma five times.

"You oould pick any one of those refugees, and what they've gone through and what they've done is 100 times more than what I'll eer do or get done," he says. "It really humbled me and pushed me to give their plight jutice. Not only because they have become great friends, but because of what they have gone through."

During his last trip to Kakuma in April 2001, Yang witnessed a riot that claimed the lives of several refugees, including a man who was shot in the head. As Yang began to photograph the body, the violence and chaos around him seemed to vanish and his mission became more focussed than ever. "Everything got quiet, and I thought, 'This is why I'm doing this project. I don't want there to be another him.'"

© 2002 Minnesota Parent