NEW YORK -- Ask documentary photographer Brian Sokol why he started taking photos of refugees, and he'll give you a simple answer: "They're real people. They're not numbers."
Sokol has been traveling to countries in the Middle East and Africa since 2012, documenting the journeys of refugees fleeing war and poverty in search of a better life. He started a project called "The Most Important Thing," in which he takes a photo of the people he meets with the most important object they brought with them when they left home. The project includes refugees from Syria, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, and Angola so far.
"It allows an emotional space for people who haven't had a similar experience to put themselves in the shoes of refugees," Sokol says of the project. "Anyone can imagine what they would have brought if they had to make a similar journey."
The photos and the stories that accompany them are often striking and tragic. One shows a Syrian man with keys to his apartment which likely doesn't exist anymore. Another is of a woman with a pole over her shoulders, two baskets hanging from it so she can carry her six children on their three-week trek through Sudan. Many people brought symbolic objects like Bibles, Qurans, or photos -- others brought survival tools like a pot or sword. "It's an examination of what people value," Sokol says.
Sokol hopes the project can provide a sense of humanity to the refugee crisis, which he believes is often overshadowed by "statistics" and reports of large numbers of people migrating. "For every single one of those numbers, there's an individual," he says. "They're not statistics."
"The Most Important Thing" exhibit is currently on display at Half King Photo Series in New York City through November 8th, 2015. Sokol also plans to travel to Europe to document the current wave of refugees desperately seeking safety and asylum.