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Photography Professor Documents Suffering, Strength of Overlooked Ethnic Group

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Photo of Burmese Chin by Steven Rubin

In the eastern Indian state of Mizoram live approximately 100,000 Chin refugees, who fled the neighboring country of Burma to escape ethnic, political and religious persecution under a brutal military regime. The Burmese Chin make up 10 percent of the population of Mizoram, but on paper, they don’t exist. Their living arrangements range from cramped apartments to bamboo huts, and most resort to manual labor, farm work, maid service and other odd jobs to eke out a living.

Despite their stark financial situation and depressing living conditions, the Chin maintain a quiet dignity. And that is what Steven Rubin hopes to capture when he spends January–May 2013 in Mizoram photographing the Chin, supported by a Fulbright-Nehru grant.

“When photographing a group like this, you want to show their compelling need without turning off the viewer, while keeping the subjects’ integrity intact,” explains Rubin, an assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts. “The Chin people that I’ve met are just lovely. They have a beautiful spirit. I’m drawn to them.”

Rubin’s project, “Borderline Existence: Burmese Chin in Mizoram State,” is an interdisciplinary documentary project incorporating photography, audio and narrative text. He says he hopes it will draw more attention to this population, one of the least-known ethnic groups in Burma.

Rubin first photographed the Burmese Chin in 2001, when the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service invited him to Guam to document the Chin’s living conditions there. Many had escaped to Guam because they could apply for political asylum without a visa. Ultimately more than 90 percent of those refugees were granted asylum in the United States.

About ten years later, Rubin was invited to join a group traveling to Mizoram, including Matthew Wilch, a U.S. human rights lawyer; Jenny Yang, director of advocacy and policy for the Refugee and Immigration program at World Relief non-profit organization; and Zo Tum Hmung, a Chin community activist from the United States. They visited in April–May 2011—just a few months after restrictions were lifted that allowed foreigners to visit the Indian state.

Rubin took photographs that were included in a 134-page report issued in December 2011 intended to raise awareness of this highly overlooked ethnic population. And this spring, he will return to Mizoram to continue to document the plight of the Chin, focusing on social, cultural and economic dynamics, as well as the strong religious and ancestral ties and tensions they hold with their Mizo hosts.

“The Mizos say the Chin are like their brothers and sisters, but they are an undocumented people,” Rubin notes, adding no international body has provided protection for this group. “There are far too few NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] working on the Chin’s behalf.”

Rubin recalls a comment from a Burmese Chin during his spring 2011 trip to Mizoram, which was right after the devastating tsunami in Japan. The man had been living there for 20 years, but was still in constant fear of anti-Chin activities that could lead to widespread arrests and deportation, Rubin notes. “At a town hall community meeting with the [visiting] delegation, he said, ‘We live like the Japanese; at any moment, another tsunami can strike us.’”

Photographing refugees has been a theme throughout Rubin’s work. Before joining the Penn State faculty in January 2008, he worked for more than 20 years as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, traveling to Iraq, Rwanda, Kosovo, Pakistan, Thailand, Chile and Cuba, among other locations.

He says photographing refugees can be challenging because sometimes viewers develop “compassion fatigue,” meaning they become somewhat immune to images of suffering. “I try to show that the people are in need, but not deprive them of their dignity. I want to show that they still have strength.”

Much of the Burmese Chin’s strength comes from their strong faith, Rubin explains. The majority are Christian, much like the Mizos. Numerous churches dot the landscape of Mizoram, which is a region of rolling hills, valleys, rivers and lakes.

Rubin will stay in the capital of city of Aizwal, where he will be affiliated with Mizoram University.

While the Burmese Chin have been largely ignored on an international level, Burma has gained more attention in the wake of the 2011 dissolution of the military dictatorship. Later this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will return to Burma, this time with President Barack Obama, marking the first visit by a U.S. president.

“Hopefully the timing of my trip and my own project will contribute to more attention being paid to Burma,” says Rubin. “I hope I can do more for the Chin by exhibiting my work.”

For more information on the Burmese Chin, including photos Rubin took during his spring 2011 trip to Mizoram, visit chinseekingrefuge.com, a website created by Matthew Wilch and Zo Tum Hmung and designed by Penn State alumnus Michael Palmer.