Back in November I conceived an idea for a project which developed and evolved and finally got brought to the public this past Friday.
The project, entitled 'FLIGHT', is a creative empowerment photography project. Ten recently arrived refugees and immigrants to Canada were provided with cameras and took three weeks in documenting their first thoughts and interpretations of Canada.
The purpose of the project was multifold: for participants to create their own story of what it is like to start a new chapter in a foreign country and create a visual time stamp of where they are right now; to increase communication of what it is to be a refugee/immigrant in the wider community; and to forge connections and help create communities for participants.
As the idea got discussed, a number of organisations came on board as partners in the project. The first to do so was Cameras4Change (C4C), a Vancouver based non-profit, who use photography as a tool for inspiration, self-expression and empowerment with marginalised and vulnerable communities. In the past, Cameras4Change have worked with communities in Mexico and Kenya as well as LGBTQ youths in Vancouver, and the photographs that get produced by participants are beautifully varied. Stories behind why each image was taken are testaments to the creativity and personal stories behind each photographer. Cameras4Change brought on board Nikon, Lowepro and SanDisk:
Kathryne Racich, who is a board member of C4C and also SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training & Research) then came on board and became an integral and awesome key part of the project, and together, we held workshops for participants of the project, working with two organisations who help recently arrived refugees and immigrants when they arrive into Canada - DIVERSEcity and MOSAIC.
Participants came to Canada from Myanmar, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and had been in Canada from between two months to two years. During the workshops which were constructed as an absolute safe-space and operated from a 'do no harm' frame, the participants talked about their experience of photography, what they were hoping to learn through their participation of the project and they learnt how to use their Nikon camera. At the follow-up workshops, participants shared what was opening up for them and their photos they'd taken, and photos were beautiful! Each person turned their camera and attention to what was important to them, with topics of interest including nature, symmetry, and symbols of the future. This was very much an exercise of 'through the eyes of', rather than having participants be in front of the camera - although if they wished to do so then by all means were free to! It was so great to see participants' confidence grow during the project, and that reflected in the photography they did too.
To chose the final images that would be displayed in the exhibition, participants selected their favourite five they'd taken (which was a tough decision for many) and wrote descriptions to go alongside each. Images were printed and kindly donated by SML Print & Copy.
Yashar Nijati, Founder and CEO of This Open Space very generously donated 'The Playground', a beautiful exhibition space in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown for the week long exhibit.
The gallery opening took place on 1st April and was organised by SIETAR, headed by the awesome Erin Smith, Programming Lead. We had also a selection of delicious food that was donated by Jam Jar, Farmers Apprentice and Safeway. Events kicked off at 6pm, and we had four speakers - Farooq Al-Sajee (Iraq/Syria), Josiane Anthony (Togo/Ghana), Daniel Tseghay (Eritrea), and Yashar Nijati (Iran), who helped educate the visitors of FLIGHT about the realities of the refugee experience. Farooq also serenaded us with his amazing classical improvised talents on the Oud.
Clockwise from top left: Me doing a 30 second pitch of FLIGHT at Creative Mornings Vancouver to get people involved in the project; setting up the exhibit with Kat and Erin; delicious Iranian aubergine dip (with a carved tomato decoration!) made by Maryam, one of the project participants; and Erin, myself and Kat at the opening night of the gallery
At the end of the evening, all the FLIGHT participants who were able to attend came up to the microphone and shared a few words about their experience with the project.
Week of the Exhibition
A star collection of people volunteered their time during the course of the exhibition to look after the gallery space, and we had nearly 300 people visiting. A few of the comments included:
“As a son of refugees and a photographer, this is very hopeful ☺”
“Great exhibition! Wonderful to get a different perspective of all the places I usually take for granted.”
“Thank you so much for this exhibit. The artists should be commended for how far they’ve come, and how far they will go. Continue to strive, continue to prosper.”
“Thank you!! ☺ I see how inspired you are with your life in Canada! Your photos share your insights to the importance of family, children, appreciation of peace, the beauty of your surroundings, and a new start to life! Welcome!! ☺”
“Ethical practice… love that the ‘photographer’ gave the cameras to the subjects. Ref. power dynamics between author and subject.”
Money raised throughout the week of the exhibition was donated to VAST (Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture), and in terms of media mentions the exhibition was talked about on Co-op Radio 100.5FM, and featured on City Breakfast Television: see the clip here, at 4:37.
Some of the feedback from participants on what they liked most about the workshops included:
“I liked the discussions we had together.” - Paw December, Thailand
“This workshop was very awesome because we had a great time together and met other people.” - Maryam, Iran
“More friends. We learnt more about cameras.” - Ku Shee, Myanmar
“I liked the discussion groups, and learning more about photography.” - Eh Hser, Myanmar
“From these workshops I know how to use a camera and I got new friends.” - Hlah, Myanmar
“Always when I took photos I didn’t show them to anybody, but in this workshop I showed them so I liked it! If people like my photos, I might consider studying it and becoming a professional photographer.” - Fatemeh, Iran
“It encouraged us in photography, and gave us the idea to capture our new story, and life on camera.” - Omar, Iraq
“I liked the amount of attention I had to put in my surroundings to capture a good moment.” - Rafi, Afghanistan
The success of FLIGHT was thanks to every single person who was involved, and feedback that acknowledged the importance of creative programs such as this which are often looked but provide the opportunity not just to learn new skills, but for participants to express themselves and tell their own story in their own way. The importance and ripple effect of taking part in a project such as this one can't be underestimated, as learning and being able to express oneself in a creative capacity is empowerment not just in a photographic sense, but in a much wider capacity.
We're now looking at showing the exhibition in different spaces around B.C so as to bring the photos to more communities. We are also looking at working with other organisations where newcomers and other societal groups going through transition would benefit from creative self-expression and dialogue. Thirdly and finally, we are looking at securing funding in order to continue on with this work and bring it to more people. So here's to the future of FLIGHT, and where it may come to next.