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The Horrific Plight of Ethiopian Migrants in Yemeni Smuggling Camps: Photojournalist Michael Kirby Smith Speaks on Capturing an Underreported Story

Photo credits: Michael Kirby Smith

"Photography can serve many roles, including as a social service to provide the news, exposing injustices, and educating people outside of their worldview. This particular Yemen project for the Human Rights Watch report will be read by US and Yemeni officials and potentially engender some change. Through that report, there could be a direct effect on the things that happen to the Ethiopians, or at least that’s the hope."  - Michael Kirby Smith


One Saturday in late March, I had the pleasure of interviewing photojournalist Michael Kirby Smith about his latest work, a photo series focusing on a widely underreported topic: a ring of smugglers in Yemen that hold captive, torture, exhort, and even rape Ethiopian migrants attempting to make the perilous journey from Ethiopia to Yemen and beyond. 

In addition to regularly contributing to The New York Times, Michael’s work is syndicated through Redux Pictures and has appeared in publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek, National Geographic, and Time magazine, among others. His work has also been featured in reports by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. Additionally, Michael works on personal documentary film and photography projects. One of these personal projects documents social issues in Yemen following the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. 

When sitting down with Michael, he showed me the body of work derived from his four visits to Yemen, focusing specifically on his latest photo series on Ethiopian migrants. Michael shared his powerful images with me, including the portrait of an Ethiopian man disfigured after the Saudi army poured acid on his limbs and a landscape shot of a mass of Ethiopian migrants surviving outside in the elements with no shelter whatsoever.

Below are excerpts from our interview:


Tess Ranahan: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in photography. When did you start becoming interested in and practicing photography?

Michael Kirby Smith: I grew up in Dallas, Texas and studied art at The University of Texas at Austin. I first started taking pictures when I was a troubled teenager, although I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I just roamed around the states meeting strangers and documenting these solo trips. The memories from this period in my life were largely influential in my decision to pursue a career in documentary photography, along with a growing interest in politics after 9/11. After deciding to pursue photojournalism, I moved to New York and learned almost everything through assisting and working as a photographer.    

TR: When and why did you start working in Yemen?

MKS: I started working in Yemen in late 2011 before former President Ali Abdullah Saleh left the country and shortly after the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] agreement. When I first arrived, it was very tense. Most people, including myself, didn’t think Saleh would leave and a larger conflict would break out. I was interested in Yemen because there is direct US involvement in the country, and it is very underreported.

TR: Can you give us a brief overview of the concept behind your latest photo series?

MKS: The majority of the migration from Eastern Africa to the Middle East and beyond comes through Yemen. That includes people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and other countries. This particular project is about the Ethiopians that are migrating to and through Yemen and about the human rights abuses that have happened to them. I focused on the Ethiopians, as opposed to Somalis, because the Somali story is being covered very well (and by people that I admire).

TR: How did you hear about this issue–is it something you heard about previously or did you stumble upon it while you were in Yemen?

MKS: I was interested in what was happening in the south of Yemen and ended up outside of Aden, one of the major port cities, to cover migration, which is a major added strain on the infrastructure of the country. While I was there I ran into a large Ethiopian group. They told me that they had no help, no resources–that there were no organizations helping them and they asked who they could talk to to help them… and I had no idea, other than UNHCR [The UN High Commissioner for Refugees]. As I began to travel and learn more about the situation, I realized that there was an astounding number of Ethiopians coming into the country. I researched and talked to people about the situation and [realized] the scope of the problem. Later, when another trip led me to the north of the country–that’s when I learned how bad it was.

TS: And what did you see, in terms of the way the Ethiopians were being treated?

MKS: What I learned is the Ethiopians are part of a gigantic smuggling ring. There are multiple legs on the journey from Ethiopia to Yemen–each with a fixed amount that the Ethiopians need to pay in order to get through to the next leg. Along the way there are people [smugglers] that are lying and recruiting. If the Ethiopians don’t have enough money for the next leg, they end up in a smuggler’s camp, where they are tortured and extorted for money until those smugglers get paid and then pass them on to the next smuggler. It is this long chain of complex smuggling and horrible things that happen along the way. Not to mention that the journey alone is brutal.

TR:  Did you have access to the smuggler’s camps?

MKS: I did, yeah. When I was in the north of the country, I visited two camps. One of the camps was raided by the government shortly after a Yemini soldier, who seemed to have been involved with the smuggling, was shot. I went there and photographed, and had a better idea of what a smuggler’s camp looks like, where it is, how they used it, where the smugglers slept, where the people slept, what they did to torture the people… I also got the smuggler’s journals, which show Ethiopians’ names and numbers–their book-keeping.

TR: So did you ever have the opportunity to take pictures of a smuggler camp when it was still filled with people? If so, what was that like?

MKS: The first camp I photographed didn’t have people. There were a lot of safety issues to consider getting to the camps, because I was reporting on a subject from which people profit. At the time, I could only arrange to visit an abandoned camp. Even this was really touchy because of the need to be accompanied by the right people with strong relationships to sheiks and the smugglers. The second camp I visited was in the company of a sheik and it had only a few Somalians, [no Ethiopians]. 

These stories are so often about the violation of some basic human right, and photography exposes that injustice in a very visceral, immediate way.

TR: Your work aligns with PROOF’s mission to use photography as a medium to create awareness about social justice issues. Did you set out with an intention to create a social justice-related body of work?

MKS: I didn’t necessarily set out to pursue a social justice theme, but I do feel social justice is inherent when documenting underreported stories. These stories are so often about the violation of some basic human right, and photography exposes that injustice in a very visceral, immediate way.

TR: When you’re taking pictures of people, what’s the protocol–do you ask them beforehand if you have permission to take their shot? Do you ever have situations where people are openly hostile towards you?

MKS: You definitely run into that. But I think most people know that you are there doing a job and they respect that you’re trying to learn about their culture and you actually care enough to be taking those pictures. For the most part, people aren’t confrontational. With that said, inevitably you can’t always ask permission, otherwise you would miss the most dynamic and authentic photographs. Sometimes you do take pictures and people get upset, but you learn through experience when it’s worth pushing and when it’s not.

TR: Do you have a favorite image in this Yemen series?

MKS: I think this is a very strong image. This woman was raped by a Yemeni smuggler and that’s the baby from her attacker. She was so loving, and it was just so touching to see how in love she was with that child. It was her beacon of hope in all of this chaos–to me, that is something really beautiful.

TR: It is a beautiful and powerful image. Speaking of the power of photography, what role do you think photography can play in creating social change?

MKS: Photography can serve many roles, including as a social service to provide the news, exposing injustices, and educating people outside of their worldview. This particular Yemen project for the Human Rights Watch report will be read by US and Yemeni officials and potentially engender some change. Through that report, there could be a direct effect on the things that happen to the Ethiopians, or at least that’s the hope.

TR: Right, that’s so great your photos will provide visual testimony in a significant report that has the power to elicit concrete changes. Can you talk more about how photography, as opposed to writing or other mediums, has the power to change hearts and minds?

MKS: Photography is unique in its ability to elicit an instant emotional reaction in ways that other mediums need more time to establish. You look at a picture and you respond. Because of this, there are certain pictures that have changed perspectives on war, or brought evidence and awareness to atrocities and social injustice. Of course, there are degrees to which photography can be effective. Our generation is living in an exciting time because of how photography is used in new platforms through social media and its direct connection with viewers. 

Michael photographs with a digital SLR and a few lenses. For the panoramics he uses a Hasselblad XPan on 35mm film. He uses a Hasselblad 500c Medium format camera.

TR: For your international stories, how long does it take you–from the genesis of an idea to shooting to editing–to produce a photo series?

MKS:  It varies so much depending on whether you’re on assignment and how much time you have with a subject. With Yemen in particular, I spent over four months there on my first trip. When I first arrived, I was studying Arabic, learning the culture, and taking pictures. Now when I go back to the country, I can accomplish the same amount of work in a much shorter time because I know what the story is, and I know how to work there.

TR: What advice would you give to someone starting out in this field, looking to be an international photojournalist who documents social issues? 

MKS: I would say to know what your story is. Pick a story you feel passionate about and really know what the story is that you want to tell. And just have laser focus on the story and worry about everything else later on. All the photographers who I most admire have done personal projects or are working on projects with that same level of focus. It’s like choosing something that is accessible to you, that you’re interested in, and again, really knowing what the story is that you’re trying to tell.

TR: That’s sound advice. While on the topic, I’m sure many aspiring photojournalists and others are wondering where you obtain the funds to do personal projects. Do you usually obtain grants or does it come out of your own pocketbook?

MKS: I started going to Yemen on my own dollar. I pick up some assignments there, and I’m in close communication with a lot of publications while I’m over there. If there’s a story, they put me on assignment. But Yemen is not a country that’s consistently in the news cycle with the exception of topics related to Al-Qaeda and drones.

TR:  Right. Do you have any ideas brewing for your next shoot? Or do you want to continue your work in Yemen?

MKS: I’ve just started doing research for a project in a new location, but I will continue to go back to Yemen. I actually just got a grant to go back. I got a Pulitzer Crisis Grant to work there this summer.

TR: Congratulations, that’s very exciting! Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and for giving us a window into your work and process. We look forward to seeing what work comes out of your future endeavors.


-Tess Ranahan


Michael Kirby Smith’s series on Yemen, as well as his other work, can be found on his website: His latest photo series is not on his website, as it will soon be published in a Human Rights Watch Report, as well as in other sources.