Michael Cohen’s “Open Minds, Open Doors” Captures the Dignity of Syrian Refugees

All images by Michael Cohen. Used with permission.

The plight of the Syrian Refugee crisis is only part of the story; Michael Cohen’s “Open Minds, Open Doors” helps tell the world a more complete one.

After a 25-year hiatus from Photography, Michael decided to return to the world of photography with a deep seeded need to use photography as a tool to contribute to his community. While Michael has the typical repertoire of Street, Wildlife, and Landscape images; his work has helped tell the stories of many non-profits in fields ranging from education, to felon rehabilitation, to inner city youth. Through it all, Michael’s camera is fixed on telling the stories that would otherwise get lost in a sea of instant information – helping us connect to the human beings that are captured by his lens.

One such project is his most recent project, “Open Minds, Open Doors” documenting former Syrian refugees who’ve successfully resettled in Germany. Michael’s “Open Minds, Open Doors” is a reminder that people are more than their circumstances; we are more alike than we believe ourselves to be if only we’re open to the idea of getting to truly know one another.

Phoblographer: Tell us about your journey into Photography; how long have you been shooting?

Michael: When I was lucky enough to retire at a reasonably young age, my interest in photography, long dormant, was rekindled. In addition to lots of street shooting, wildlife and landscape, I also had a deep need to use photography to contribute to my community.

Phoblographer: How did that desire to help your community shape your work as a photographer?

Michael: So, in 2013 I ran an ad in a non-profit journal offering my services to help organizations tell their story through photography. They came out of the woodwork and I have been privileged to work with about a dozen non-profits in fields ranging from education, to felon rehabilitation to inner city youth. The more of this work I did, the more I saw that I can make a difference using my camera.  During this time I watched with horror as the Syrian war escalated and the refugee crisis reached unimaginable proportions.

Phoblographer: Was this the catalyst that made you decide to start the “Open Minds, Open Doors” project?

Michael: Last year three events came together for me. The first, an independent documentary film called Salaam Neighbor about a month in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the second a Pugh Poll showing the majority of Americans were not in favor of Syrian resettlement in the US and the third, a presentation at my Synagogue by a Jordanian born college professor who had been researching the cell phone usage of Syrian refugees.

Phoblographer: Did you feel that media’s portrayal of Syrian refugees denied them of their dignity? Did you feel as if we were only being told a small part of their stories?

Michael: What hit me was that the images we had been bombarded with by photojournalists portrayed Syrian refugees in such a way that made them hard to know and not necessarily the people you want in your neighborhood.  Sure you were sympathetic, but you didn’t want them in your town.  By the end of the professor’s presentation I had the idea formed to travel to find and meet successfully resettled Syrian refugees, photograph and interview them, and present them as a traveling exhibit to show US audiences what happens when refugees are allowed into an environment where they can thrive.

Phoblographer: “Open Minds, Open Doors” was a collaborative effort, what were some of the logistics behind a project like this?

Michael: The professor was in on the spot and Open Minds, Open Doors was a newborn project.  Over the next several months we brought in a journalist, created a questionnaire, raised money (boy is THAT hard) and conceived of the images.  Next we reached out, networked, contacted, cajoled and worked with UNHCR and lots of NGO’s in Germany to identify participants that we could meet with.

In December the three of us, a soft box, a pair of Nikon D810s and a Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (what an incredible tool) lens went to Berlin.  We spent 9 days driving, shooting, freezing, laughing and crying while meeting and talking to 14 wonderful people who have endured and persevered more than any of us every could.

Phoblographer: What’s next for you and the “Open Minds, Open Doors” project?

Michael: We’ll be headed to Toronto this month to shoot more and have one family in the US that we’ll shoot in April.  We are working with several large groups here in the US to line up exhibition space and I think that we should have our opening exhibit with 20 sets of images of refugees by late spring.

The motivation is that one person, with an idea, and a will and a lot of hard work, can turn a camera into a change agent.

You can read more about Michael Cohen and his photography on his website. For more on the “Open Minds, Open Doors” project including behind the scenes shots of Michael and his team, be sure to check out his personal blog.