What Michiel Huisman Saw in Uganda
Michiel Huisman didn’t know what to expect when he traveled to the sprawling Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp in Northern Uganda. Swollen by refugees fleeing the conflict in South Sudan, the world’s largest refugee camp sits in a politically unstable region that endured decades of damages inflicted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, civil wars, and skirmishes over resources before conflict broke out north of the nearby. There’s only so much a person can do to prepare to visit a place like that so Huisman, famous for his role as Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones and acting as an ambassador for Save the Children, got ready to do the one thing he knew he could: Take it all in. He knew he’d have to describe the trip to both his daughter and to others, maybe even people in a position to help. He packed a camera.
When he speaks about what he saw, he does so tentatively. Huisman is aware of his privileged status as a witness and of his own ignorance. There is, after all, a massive difference between witnessing, understanding, and experiencing. Less strident Hollywood activist than traveler, Huisman sticks to descriptions and dwells on the humanity of the people he met. He’s respectful. He talks about the refugees as people, never casting them as hapless victims or describing their experiences as merely the symptoms of a broader problem. For a man who, thanks to his good looks, inevitably plays the most commanding guy in the room, Huisman sounds small. And that’s a compliment.
His manner of speaking seems indicative of both how he thinks of himself as a man and a father–just a guy trying to help–and of the magnitude of the mission he’s assigned himself. Through Save the Children, he’s determined to advocate for kids less comfortable than his own. Fatherly spoke to Huisman about his what he saw, what he brought home, and how he talks to his daughter about the world.
You’re the father of a young daughter and you’re participating in this urgent-feeling work for Save the Children, visiting refugee camps and speaking about that experience. Are those things linked in your mind?
I would probably feel really different if we didn’t have a child. Becoming a father gave me a sense of responsibility that I really hadn’t experienced before. It partially inspired me to be more of an activist or an ambassador of sorts.
You’re walking into these new social environments where you’re an unknown. Have you found ways to interact with people positively? What strategies do you use?
I take pictures and show people the images. This time I brought a Polaroid camera with me and bought eight rolls of film, about eighty shots total. The minute I stepped back in the camp, I realized that it wasn’t nearly enough.
It was amazing to see how some of the kids responded to that. They had never seen polaroids before. First, you look at them and they are completely white. Half of the kids are incredibly bored and then the other half would still be intrigued, but think why is this a big deal. Then, an image appears and everyone is like, ‘What just happened?’ It is a really cool experience.
You are this tallish white man, which makes you an outlier in that environment on three fronts. I’m assuming that makes it easier to break the ice.
It makes it very easy to connect with someone. In my private life, I try and keep a low profile, but in a camp, it opens people up. I try and use that to be able to connect easier and quicker.
It is about 80 percent women and children in the camps I visited in Uganda. A lot of men either are killed or stayed behind or for various reasons. Whenever I leave my family to go to work, I hate that feeling. It is a horrible feeling. I can’t imagine what it must be like for all these dads to be separated from their family.
Do the pictures that you take make it easier to talk about your experiences with your family and, in particular, with your daughter?
I found that taking my own pictures makes it easier to talk about my experience and made it more personal. It is almost like saying this is what I literally experienced through the lens of my camera. I never take a picture without first having contact with someone. Whether a quick conversation or laughing at something they are doing. That’s also why it is also a very intense experience. I come home after a couple of days after travelling and meeting all these people–I mean hundreds of people. It really is a lot for me to take in.
How do you think about the gap in experience between your daughter, who you try and give whatever opportunities you can to, and these children in the refugees camps with vastly different experiences? How do you think about helping these two groups talk to each other as they grow?
I don’t really have the answer to that. These worlds are so different. Maybe I can bridge the gap by traveling to these places and meeting these people. Of course I come home with these experiences and share these images. My daughter is looking at the photos.
I try to describe what it felt like to be there or what it is that the kids are playing with. I try to show that kids are kids. Even in the situation they are in, kids want to play and create little toys. A lof of the boys create the same thing out of wire and they create little cars with like little extensions to the steering wheel…. It amazes me. All I can do is share that with her.
Have you had explicit conversations about privilege or is that you suspect that she will grow into over time?
No. I she thinks she is pretty aware of that. I know that I’m also privileged. I try to set an example and deal with my privilege in the right way.
Having visited these camps, you’re almost certainly familiar with what it feels to be powerless. You are, back in the Netherlands, very famous as a leading man. What side of yourself do you show your daughter?
My daughter is turning ten this week so it is probably more of the latter. I don’t want it to be too heavy yet. I just want her to understand and know that there is a lot of things going on in the world. There a lot of people and kids in the world who don’t have it like we have it.
On Game of Thrones, your character is competent, strong, and quite aggressive. You seem like a thoughtful, quieter guy. How does it feel to be that way publicly?
In a way, it is much more personal and scarier to me, but it is something I want to do.
I am trying to share a really personal experience. I don’t really have much to hide behind. There’s not a role, character, or storyline I’m promoting. I’m supporting Save the Children, but I am really trying to do it in my own words and by describing my own experiences. I guess what you are hearing is that no one else wrote these lines.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.