Award-winning photographer Malin Fezehai captures Malala's travels around the world
"I try to photograph every refugee like they’re the president of their country."
Malin Fezehai took her first picture at 16 years old — an assignment for a photography class at school.
“It was a picture of my friend’s little sister,” she says. “In the photo, she’s about 5 years old and standing under a bridge. It’s still one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken,” Malin adds. “And after that, I became obsessed with photography.”
Today, Malin is an award-winning professional photographer with a client list that includes the United Nations, The New York Times, Nike and Malala Fund. She has 365,000 followers on Instagram and has travelled to more than 30 countries documenting the daily life of refugees in Kenya, surfers in Senegal, Chinese opera in Thailand, climate change in Pakistan and much more.
“I love to travel to Brazil. Bali is one of my favorite places on the planet,” she shares. “And I’m always keen to work anywhere in West Africa and Senegal. I find the people there so beautiful and it’s such a dynamic place for photography.”
Before Malin travelled the world, she spent her childhood in Sweden. Her father, an immigrant from Eritrea, met her mother at a dance club. Her mom spilled her drink and her dad came over with the mop.
“My father became a nurse and my mom was a cleaner,” she says. “I grew up in a Swedish suburb, a very diverse neighborhood. We had neighbors from everywhere around the world, Kurdistan to Chile. Half the population where I lived was born somewhere else — different cultures, food and realities weren’t strange to me as a child.”
But when Malin was a teenager, she went to a high school in Stockholm — and realised that her reality was at odds with the wider culture. “Only then did I understand that I grew up in a segregated bubble. That my immigrant community wasn’t like the rest of Swedish society,” Malin recalls. “I became aware of housing segregation, specifically who is placed where and why.”
When she travelled to Eritrea for the first time last year, Malin says her dad was confused. “He doesn’t really understand my job!” she says with a laugh. “He worked so hard to flee conflict in Africa and now he sees his child flying there for work all the time.”
“It was a very emotional trip for me. My grandmother used to sell food on the sidewalk in the capital — and I’m coming there as a reporter for The New York Times,” she says.
The Times sent Malin on assignment to Eritrea to document families reuniting amidst the Eritrea and Ethiopia peace agreement — ending 20 years of conflict between the two countries. “I was following people who were separated when the war broke out,” she shares. “Some people were caught on one side of the border with their family on the other side. In all this time, there were no flights and even phone lines were disconnected between the two countries.”
“And now these families were reuniting after 20 years. Some people were meeting their children for the first time! I photographed a boy coming to meet his grandfather and all his aunts were waiting at the airport to greet him. I wanted to be there to document the moment and what lies ahead for these people,” she says.
Malin’s work in Eritrea reflects her larger philosophy on photography. Through her photographs, she aims to connect people around the planet and show that victims of war and poverty are not defined by their surroundings.
“I tend to do projects that touch on displacement and refugee issues,” she says. “I think a lot of the time when people in these situations are photographed, their dignity is taken away from them. I try to photograph every refugee like they’re the president of their country. I want them to feel like they’re their best and in an equal stance with everyone else.”
“Photographs work in the same way that words do; they depend on context. If your message in making a picture is, ‘This poor person, we have to help them!’ you’re not showing the complexity of the world. That creates a disconnect, a beggar and giver dynamic,” she says. “Look at these people as equals. They might have a different circumstance as you, but they want the same things. Photograph a full person, not just their poverty.”
Malin shares her tips on travelling and photography with Assembly readers:
“It takes me two or three days to pack for a long trip. I always ask myself, ‘Do I really need this?’ I’ve learned to make things very compact. I also try not to check anything. If you lose your luggage, it can mess up your entire trip.”
“Sometimes being a woman traveling alone can be to your benefit. A lot of people feel inclined to help you. But you are more vulnerable too. I use references for drivers or a ride-sharing app, if it’s available. If you’re getting into a car in a place you haven’t been before, you should be cautious.”
“If you’re learning photography, you might begin by taking portraits. People usually start out taking pictures of people and flowers — I did! Take a portrait by a window, a white background or a wall. Look at the light and how it hits your subject’s face.”
“But if portraits aren’t your thing, figure out what you’re interested in doing. If you want to shoot cats, just photograph a bunch of cats! Photography is a hard profession — and photographers sometimes feel like they need to make themselves relevant to survive. But I believe you should focus on the stories you want to tell and what you’re passionate about doing. Stay true to that.”
“More and more people are using Instagram for social good. I recommend working with organizations you care about. You can volunteer with them and document your experience on Instagram. I think of Instagram as my journal. I make a note — I take a picture. It helps me both keep track of my travels and bring attention to different issues around the world.”
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About the author
Taylor Royle is Malala Fund’s Interim Co-CEO and an Amanda Gorman superfan.