In the movie industry, they call it range. In sports, it makes you a utility player. In photography, it’s what guarantees brilliant images whether the subject is Iggy Pop or a hamburger. And whatever the word for that is, Salwan Georges has it.
Georges, 26, is already racking up awards and bylines in publications across the country as a photojournalist, but he’s quick to credit his time on staff at the Detroit Free Press as the opportunity that changed his life and helped shape who he is as a photographer.
After a five-month internship in 2015, he was hired as a staff photographer for the Freep, and in one year on the job, he captured countless pictures of people and life in and around the city of Detroit.
He’s snapped his way through a local skateboarding legend’s halfpipe moves. He’s visually cemented moments of victory as people cross the finish line at the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon. He’s been invited to the breakfast feast that 79-year-old Detroiter, Roger Heard, hosts annually for 150 friends. And whenever Detroit claimed a best of something – whether it was entertainment, food or businesses – he was often tasked with giving audiences vivid visuals to accompany the story.
Even some of his most mundane assignments have resulted in images worthy of framing. The Target shopping cart in his series of photos for “12 weird things left inside Northland mall” is just begging to be used as an album cover.
With a portfolio that includes images of U.S. presidents and rock and roll celebrities, it’s hard to believe that the subjects Georges is most interested in are refugees.
A former refugee himself, Georges knows the story well. Struggle, sacrifice, loss in many cases.
“It’s important for Americans to know … the background of all these people,” Georges says.
And while it could take hours of conversations or pages of text to get to know a person’s back story, when told through images it’s a faster and sometimes more impactful read. At least that’s what Georges thinks. And if his movie-screenplay-worthy life story is any indication of what others have gone through, you might just need to see it in order to believe it.
Born in Iraq in 1990, he spent his early childhood processing the harsh realities of the Gulf War through the eyes of a curious little boy, wondering if the flashes in the sky at night really were fireworks, as his mother told him.
He and his parents moved to Jordan briefly before landing in Syria as Iraqi refugees and finding shelter in a monastery near Damascus. Georges slept on the floor of what had been a guard’s room, his education limited to what he learned while working alongside a priest and sharing meals with students of the monastery.
“My main job, aside from playing soccer by myself … was taking care of olive trees with a priest,” says Georges.
When he finally arrived in Southfield, Mich. as a teenager – a journey that took his family 10 years to complete – he didn’t speak any English. But, inspired by his uncle’s advice to eventually go to college, Georges persisted, graduated and earned two degrees: an associate’s in photography from Oakland Community College and a bachelor’s in journalism from Oakland University.
And by that time, he had already started working on what he says will eventually be a book that documents his own story supplemented by the stories of other Iraqi refugees in the U.S., demonstrating what they go through to become Americans and what it’s like to grow up as a refugee in America.
“Refugees live in two worlds. Are you Arabic? Are you American?” Georges says. “I always wanted to represent both countries.”
His collections of photos depicting the refugee experience in metro Detroit frame that philosophical crossroads in a way that is highly relatable even for non-refugees.
There are Iraqi women in traditional clothing reflective of their home country but slightly Americanized with additions such as flannel or fur-lined winter coats. In one image, they push strollers across a neighborhood baseball diamond.
Another shot captures a Sudanese teenager playing with a soccer ball in a Detroit neighborhood; and as the sunset creates a subtle silhouette, it becomes less and less obvious that this place has not always been his home.
In fact, a strong sense of home away from homeland is part of what makes metro Detroit such an appealing place for refugees.
So much so that Michigan ranked 4th highest among states in the U.S. that resettled refugees in fiscal 2016 (October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016) and 2nd highest for Syrian refugee resettlement, according to the Pew Research Center.
“They really love [the] Detroit area,” Georges says. “The Arabic population here makes it almost a perfect place for them to resettle.”
In addition to religious and educational centers located throughout metro Detroit, there are many organizations dedicated to supporting refugees as they resettle – coordinating critical resources such as furniture and supplies for refugee housing, securing transportation assistance when they first arrive in Michigan, and providing ongoing cultural and language education.
Nationally, nine nonprofits and 315 affiliates work with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees, according to www.state.gov.
Detroit-based Samaritas, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Detroit field office are some of the agencies working to support refugees in Detroit in the midst of an uncertain political climate. They are all part of the robust resource network that makes Michigan an especially welcoming location for resettlement.
According to Georges, it’s important for a place to have elements that reflect the people and lifestyles that refugees are accustomed to. Without that familiarity, the culture shock can be severe.
And while there can be some interesting juxtapositions of culture in Georges’ images, there are many instances of worlds aligning rather than colliding.
There are photos of men – refugees from Iraq – meeting in a local coffee shop to make small talk. They play Taolee (Backgammon) and drink soda. There are others that showcase platters of traditional foods being enjoyed as part of cultural and religious traditions that have followed refugees from their home countries to cities like Detroit, Dearborn and Troy.
And still others paint a picture of refugee life that is not entirely dissimilar from American life. A refugee family sits around a dining room table sharing dinner. A grocery store owner who came to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago is mid-sentence in a conversation with a customer at his Southfield store. Meals are presented in anticipation of new refugee families arriving.
All of it – the old tradition and the new adaptation – is part of the fabric of what eventually becomes daily routine for resettled refugees in Detroit and the surrounding community.
And because this mixing of cultures is not new to Detroit – the automotive industry has been attracting immigrants to the city for more than a century – the transition is less jarring for the refugees and their American-born neighbors.
“I think what makes it great is the established community here,” says Georges. “People (in the Detroit area) already live with refugees. It’s not something new for them. … If you come down to the people that really live in the city and have neighbors – for example, Hamtramck – people love refugees.”
Georges focuses much of his time on this kind of observation. As a photojournalist, his projects are a mix of the daily assignments he gets from his editors and the ideas he comes up with on his own and pitches. When he’s off the newsroom clock, Georges says every story he chooses has a personal connection.
“The photographing is me reconnecting with my culture,” he says. “I never really had the chance to grow up there (Iraq).”
In fact, it’s not uncommon for Georges to spend more time interacting with his subjects than he does photographing them. In some instances, it’s these genuine attempts to first connect with people that have made the photography possible.
“I don’t want producing the picture to be more important than telling the story,” he says.
This approach made all the difference when he was on assignment for The New York Times, photographing a Syrian refugee family with an agency worker there to serve as translator for the reporter. The family spoke only Syrian; the translator spoke only Iraqi. Georges quickly realized the disconnect and – being fluent in both languages – was able to put the family at ease by translating directly.
“A lot of times I forget to take photos,” he says. “I’m just into the conversation, trying to know about their life.”
That concept of trying to understand someone else’s life is the common thread through Georges’ work but also through his approach to dealing with the tensions, anger and even violence that sometimes stem from a lack of understanding.
“[People] decide on a person without knowing where they came from,” he notes. “We should really talk to each other.”
And there is data to support that. According to 2017 Pew Research Center polling, “Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group.” And given the tendency to associate refugee populations with their religious beliefs as much as their countries of origin, understanding of one can impact response to the other.
“A lot of refugees sacrifice their life, their profession, for their children,” Georges says. “That’s all that matters – their future, their kids.”
His own grandfather left a career as a doctor in Iraq only to become a dishwasher in the U.S. initially. “Why would a doctor leave to become a dishwasher?” Georges says. “Would any doctor in America do that?”
Getting people to consider such questions is part of Georges’ personal and professional mission. That, and introducing audiences to the realities of the refugee experience – which includes years of processes, paperwork and security clearances before they have an opportunity to resettle in America.
And while Georges’ ultimate success remains to be seen, his career thus far has already built significant momentum.
He’s been on assignment for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press in the past two years. And, in an age of repurposing content across multiple media platforms and affiliates, his work has spread into online pieces for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, CNBC, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and The Root.
His work in 2016 alone earned him 12 industry awards from the Michigan Associated Press and the Michigan Press Photographers Association, including MPPA Multimedia Photographer of the Year.
And later this year, he’ll travel to Colorado to teach a workshop titled “The Art of the Social Documentary” at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, home to a highly respected visual arts program and artist community.
But it’s the potential for impact that drives him, not accolades.
“You have to know what your work can do,” he says. “What it can impact. What it can educate.” With photography, he adds, “You can change people’s lives – you can make them better.”
While Georges left Detroit to join The Washington Post as a staff photographer in April, he speaks as though his roots will always be here.
“Detroit … has given me a second chance in life,” he says. “I love it. It’s my hometown. It’s where I grew up.”