Roble, Abdi

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Abdi Roble


Documentary photographer

Born and raised in Somalia, Abdi Roble is an important contributor to contemporary documentary photography. Through his work he is recording the Somali Diaspora—the emigration of his people from their native land to escape poverty and civil conflict. In particular, Roble has documented the immigration of fellow Somalis to his adopted country, the United States, and their attempts to maintain their cultural identity in a new land. In 2007 he began compiling a similar record on Somalis relocating to Europe.

Using black-and-white photographic film and natural light, Roble captures images of recent immigrants who are still engaging in their native cultural practices but are beginning to adapt to their new lives. Roble began his work in 2003 in an effort to document this ongoing event, to help draw worldwide attention to the plight of the Somali people and others who are forced to leave their homelands, and to provide the Somali people with an archival record of this life-changing experience. In doing so, Roble is not only documenting history, but he is also making history: Never before has the diaspora of a people been documented as Roble is doing.

Immigrated to the United States

Abdi Roble was born in Somalia in February of 1964. During his childhood Roble traveled the countryside with his father, a veterinarian who provided free care for the farm animals of the poor. As Roble grew, his interest became focused on playing soccer. His ability to play the sport with great skill soon brought him international acclaim. Nonetheless, Roble left Somalia and his status as a soccer star due to the poor political and economic conditions in the country, which had been stricken by decades of civil war and regional conflicts. He first moved to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and then in 1989 to Washington, DC. In 1990 Roble settled in Columbus, Ohio, after fellow Somali immigrants described the city as less expensive and less crowded than the nation's capital. Columbus is where Roble developed an interest in photography.

When he first arrived in the United States, Roble bussed tables in restaurants and worked in hotels to make a living. However, browsing through a flea market in Columbus one day in 1992, Roble saw a camera among the wares, and it piqued his interest. He bought the camera and taught himself the craft.

Within a few years, Roble was a freelance photographer for Columbus-area newspapers. In addition, Leica View, a publication of camera manufacturer Leica, published some of Roble's photographs. While gaining a foothold in the photography profession, Roble augmented his income by working at the Midwest Photo Exchange, a Columbus photography store. During the late 1990s Roble formed two photography groups: the Focus Group in 1998, an association of students and professionals, and the African American Photographers of North America in 1999, a group that works with young people to interest and involve them in photography and the arts.

Roble traveled extensively, viewing the world through the lens of his camera. His personal photographic journeys included trips to Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, and Uruguay. He used photographs from his trips to develop exhibitions supported by Leica and Midwest Photo, including One Month in Europe with Leica in 2000, Leica Portrait of Cuba in 2002, and Japan: A Leica Perspective in 2004.

Formed the Somali Documentary Project

In 2003 Roble created the Somali Documentary Project along with writer Doug Rutledge, editor Stanley Kayn, and project manager Tariq Tarey. Thus began the heart of Roble's career—documenting the dispersal of the Somali people from an economically depraved and war-torn land to places of hope and prosperity. Roble was motivated by his interest in social justice and love for the people of his native country. In May of 2005 the first collection of Roble's documentary photos, Scenes from the Somali Diaspora, comprised a lobby exhibition outside the Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery in Columbus. In 2006 Roble's work was exhibited at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the title Against Forgetting: Beyond Genocide and Civil War, along with works by Paul Corbit Brown and Mike Rosen. Together these photographers captured images of people struggling to survive against extreme adversity.

In the fall of 2007 the Columbus Museum of Art presented Stories of the Somali Diaspora: Photographs by Abdi Roble—the first major solo exhibition of his work on the Somali Documentary Project. Of his work, Roble told the Associated Press in November of 2007: "My role was a photographer, and all I have is a roll of film and a camera. That was my philanthropy. The idea was to archive and educate the hosting community and bring international attention to the plight of Somalia." The Roble exhibition traveled to the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine; the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. In addition to these exhibitions, the Somali Documentary Project compiled The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away (2008), a book that presents photos by Roble and narrative by Doug Rutledge.

Roble's work on the Somali Documentary Project began with recording the Somali immigration to the United States, focusing on families that settled in Ohio, Minnesota, California, and Maine. In the summer of 2007 he began photographing Somali refugees from the Dadaad refugee camp in Kenya who settled in new homes in Germany, Greece, and Malta. In this phase of his work, Roble planned to compare the U.S. and European immigration experiences.

Roble and the Somali Documentary Project have brought together a group of Somalis and Americans from the Columbus, Ohio, area, to form the Friends of the Dadaad. In 2007 the group raised $25,000 for schools at the refugee camp. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is helping determine how best the money can be used in the schools. Thus Roble and the Somali Documentary Project are doing more than their groundbreaking work in recording the Somali diaspora; they are aiding Somali refugees during their transition to a new life.

At a Glance …

Born on February 2, 1964, in Mogadishu, Somalia; son of a veterinarian and a housewife; dual citizenship, Somalia and the United States; single; no children. Religion: Muslim. Education: Ohio State University, attended for two years during the 1990s.

Career: Professional soccer player for the Mogadishu team, 1980-85; freelance photographer, 1995-98; Midwest Photo Exchange, camera salesman, 1997-2007; documentary photographer 1999—.

Awards: Individual Artist Award, Ohio Arts Council, 2004; Individual Artist Award, Greater Columbus Arts Council, 2006; Arts Freedom Award, South Side Settlement House and Huntington Bank, 2006.

Addresses: Email—[email protected].

Selected works


(With Doug Rutledge) The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.


One Month in Europe with Leica, MPX Gallery (Columbus, OH), 2000.

Leica Portrait of Cuba, MPX Gallery, 2002.

Japan: A Leica Perspective, MPX Gallery, 2004.

Scenes from the Somali Diaspora, Verne Riffe Center for Government and the Arts (Columbus, OH), University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Study (Minneapolis), Sibyl Center (Stanley, ND), and CHARISM Neighborhood Resource Centers (Fargo, ND), 2005-06.

(With Paul Corbit Brown and Mike Rosen) Against Forgetting: Beyond Genocide and CivilWar, Intermedia Arts (Minneapolis), 2006.

Stories of the Somali Diaspora: Photographs by Abdi Roble, Columbus Museum of Art (OH), September 2007 to November 2007; Bates College Museum of Art (Lewiston, ME), January 2009 to May 2009; Weisman Art Museum (Minneapolis, MN), June 2009 to September 2009; Plains Art Museum (Fargo ND), October 2009 to January 2010.



Associated Press, November 21, 2007.

Columbus Dispatch, April 25, 2000, p. F8; June 16, 2005; May 6, 2006, p. B3; October 8, 2006, p. D2; November 1, 2007.

PR Newswire, December 1, 2006.

Washington Post, November 22, 2007.


"Abdi Roble," Intermedia Arts, 2007, (accessed September 3, 2008).

"Bios: Abdi Roble," The Somali Documentary Project, (accessed September 3, 2008).

"Columbus Museum of Art Presents Stories from the Somali Diaspora: Photographs by Abdi Roble," Columbus Museum of Art, July 17, 2007, (accessed September 3, 2008).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Abdi Roble on September 18, 2008.

—Sandra Alters

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