It started when she looked into the eyes of a little Haitian refugee girl seven years ago on a trip to the Bahamas. She was dressed simply in a slightly weathered white sweater that matched the beads in her hair. Though a bit shy, the girl effortlessly smiled for the camera in the middle of the simple refugee camp.
More than a smile, it was an epiphany for Winter Garden-based photographer Sue Thompson.
“In the beginning with my photos and everything, I said, there is enough of this abuse on TV, there’s enough of the hatred being promoted,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “So, with my camera, I’m going to show a different picture. And even that little girl in Haiti that’s hungry and living in a refugee camp, smiling, shows you the resilience of the children and shows you what we need to be protecting — it’s all children.”
The vibrant, sunset-colored dress she wears along with her charm are just glints of her passion for finding color and hope in places devoid of them.
Thompson’s trip to the Bahamas was to document the construction of a school for Rotary International. To her, it was the catalyst that urged her to travel and photograph conflict-ridden areas throughout the Middle East, such as Gaza in Palestine, areas of Kuwait and Iraq and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. She has also photographed local marches and rallies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, and the 50th anniversary March on Washington in D.C. Books on civil rights and social justice line her shelf, many signed by their authors, like Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray.
Still, if you ask her how she ended up where she is now, she will laugh. And if you ask her how she ended up with a particular photo, she’ll laugh even harder. To her, certain shots are the result of just being at the right place at the right time.
“I didn’t choose this — it chose me,” she said.
She was always charmed by the world, sketching people from other countries when she was a girl: colorful Spanish flamenco dancers and Arab women in their scarves. Thompson went on to pursue a bachelor’s in art at UCF. Though she still paints — a vibrant and emotive painting of her late daughter hangs on her wall, as well as a simple silkscreen of her father — Thompson has focused her work on photographing situations of social significance.
“Even though I’ve been in most of the conflict areas, I go with an open heart.”
Recalling a visit to the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, which has more than 80,000 refugees, Thompson remembered a woman whose husband was severely injured by an IED. The woman led Thompson to her tent, signaling that she wanted her to take a photo of her husband, who was covered in a traditional checkered kuffiyeh and a blanket. The woman kept insisting that she take a photo of her husband, and Thompson hesitantly agreed. But the photo was never published — the moment was too intense for Thompson, though the couple elicited a sense of peace after the photo was taken.
“How can I help? What can I do? I think this is a question that most of us ask. They look at all this happening in this world and feel hopeless or impotent to do anything about it,” she said. "And if that [photo] just helps feed one of them, then that’s success. … I’m successful in it just because they know I care.”
“She doesn’t stage her photos, she doesn’t make the situations more nice or more dangerous,” said UCF Art Gallery Director, Yulia Tikhonova. “She stays true to events and true to people. This very sincere and truthful view of the world makes her work very compelling and attractive.”
Thompson’s work will be featured alongside two other photographers, Keith Kovach and Rama Masri Zada, in a UCF Art Gallery exhibit titled Witness: Picturing Social Justice. The exhibit will run from Sept. 27 to Oct. 9.
Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_ or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.