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photo-eye Book Reviews: A Million Shillings

A Million Shillings, Photographs by Alixandra Fazzina. 
Published by Trolley, 2008.
A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia
Reviewed by Sara Terry
Alixandra Fazzina A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia
Photographs by Alizandra Fazzina.
Trolley, London, 2008. Hardbound. 248 pp., 100 color illustrations, 6-3/4x9".

Alixandra Fazzina made several brave choices in creating A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia, a two-year-long project about the tens of thousands of Somalian and Ethiopian refugees and migrants who each year literally risk everything in their search for a better life.

First, of course, was the sheer bravery required to create such an exhaustive documentation of the extreme perils faced by these travelers on every step of their journey. Fleeing violence and poverty in search of a better life across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula, these refugees and migrants must survive robbers and rapists, human traffickers, desperate living conditions and a sea voyage in dangerous, overcrowded vessels to reach the shores of Yemen. And with the exception of traveling at sea with them (which would have been sheer lunacy), Fazzina is there every step of the treacherous way, painfully close (without ever being exploitive) -- so that we, too, are close, uncomfortably close, to these desperate individuals and all that they endure to have a chance to make it. Fazzina is there in the midst of it all and does not allow us to turn away.

A Million Shillings, by Alixandra Fazzina. Published by Trolley, 2008.
 But Fazzina has also made another very brave choice in making this book -- one that is not about physical danger, but is nonetheless a bravery that I deeply admire. She has dared to break one of the cardinal rules of photography books: instead of compiling a tight edit of one stunning photograph after another, she has laid out a sprawling selection of photos here, including many that are simply average.

A Million Shillings, by Alixandra Fazzina. Published by Trolley, 2008.

 That Fazzina can make strong photographs is clear, and there are many here: the portrait of a woman whose face is reflected in the screen of a broken television set; the stark beach scene of the bodies of those who did not survive the voyage; the dark, moody shot of refugees and migrants forced at gunpoint into a human chain, tugging on ropes in an attempt to free a smuggler's beached boat. But along with these and other accomplished photographs, she includes a wide spread of images that do not show off her skills as a photographer. These less interesting images, however, are critical to the story -- a meticulously compiled series of photographs, with detailed text by Fazzina, which taken all together create a lengthy, compelling, and ultimately irrefutable testament to a story that deserves global attention.

A Million Shillings, by Alixandra Fazzina. Published by Trolley, 2008.
 In other words, Fazzina has consciously subjugated her own ego -- set aside the compulsion that drives most photographers when creating a monograph -- and devoted herself to a dense, relentless articulation of one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time. It is work that demands our attention -- and our admiration.—Sara Terry

Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (, a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.