Typically, photographs of and about displaced peoples focus on individual suffering victims, acts of individualised resilience, or tropes that resonate with the wider genre of humanitarian narratives. As a result, the Refugee Hosts project has adopted what Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh has termed a “Spaces and Places, Not Faces” approach to refugee-photography. As Michelle Lokot explores in this piece, projects like PhotoVoice are similarly challenging the problematic relationship between displacement and photography by centralising the refugee not as the object of photography, but as an active agent taking photographs of, with and about their own communities and everyday lives. Michelle’s research also gives a sense of “the local”, which we are exploring in our “Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda” blog series, and in our research with local communities in Lebanon and Jordan. If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, or visit our Representations of Displacement series on our blog.
Mobility, Hope and the ‘Appropriation’ of Space: Reflections from a PhotoVoice Project
By Michelle Lokot, SOAS, London
The lives of refugees are often represented by humanitarian agencies in overwhelmingly negative ways, focusing on the struggles, challenges and pressures of displacement. When research is conducted by these agencies, it sometimes perpetuates a problem-focused approach to understanding the experiences of refugees.
During my doctoral research, I wanted to challenge some of these approaches to research among refugees. In order to do this, I adapted an approach called ‘PhotoVoice’ which has been used in research among other displaced groups. PhotoVoice is a participatory photography approach, where participants use photography to document their life experiences or raise awareness about issues that concern them. This counters the often extractive, quantitative-driven research methods implemented by humanitarian agencies to understand the lives of refugees. PhotoVoice also represented a way of ‘giving back’ to participants – helping them to develop creative skills in photography.
As part of my research, Syrian women and men were invited to photograph their most and least favourite places in Jordan. This resulted in vibrant conversations about mobility, how refugees spend their time, and the moments of daily life that bring joy. It resulted in unexpected photographs, including this one below, where a young man talked about the hope he had for the future despite the challenging circumstances he faces as a refugee:
This theme of ‘hope’ was echoed by other women and men who spoke enthusiastically about their education plans, work possibilities and the joy that comes from learning new skills.
It was interesting to see how the ‘least favourite’ spaces mentioned by Syrian women and men were ones where they had less power – for example, police buildings or UNHCR commonly emerged as ‘least favourite’ spaces that refugees were afraid to photograph. In the case of UNHCR, it was the time and bureaucratic processes including body searches associated with the space that made people dislike it. One woman explained, ‘There is no place to sit, and the sun is strong above you. If you beg the employee, he will let you in. If you did not beg the employee, you will stay standing outside’. Refugees were subject to the decisions of UNHCR staff, who held the power.
Photography can be a way of reclaiming power. It can be political, as Susan Sontag suggests, to ‘help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure’ – to ‘appropriate’ space. This was perhaps most clear in the photograph one young woman took of a school, which she explained represents the education she cannot have:
Photographing this space was an act of appropriation; a different way for her to access a space she cannot physically enter. Here, it is an act of the state that prevents her from accessing education – a bureaucratic requirement that limits her mobility.
This ‘appropriation’ also occurred to some extent through the photography of other ‘least favourite’ places in Jordan. One woman photographed her laundry in Jordan, which represents hours of difficult work. She does not have an automatic washing machine like the one she had in Syria, but uses a manual machine which takes much more time to wash clothing. The task associated with the space here made this her least favourite place. Here, photographing a space which is associated with a negative connotation may itself be empowering for refugees; they may ‘appropriate’ spaces they find uncomfortable or which represent negative aspects of their lives through the act of photography.
This photography project also challenged ideas of ‘home’ and mobility. Although humanitarian agencies sometimes position the home as symbolic of immobility and disempowerment, in contrast to the outside-of-the-home space which represents economic engagement, Syrian women felt that the home was a place of rest and safety. One woman sought solace in prayer, photographing the prayer rug in her home and explaining the comfort she found in their faith. A few women photographed their morning cup of coffee, explaining how the routine of drinking coffee was important in their lives:
For others, it was the outdoors that represented the places they most loved. Men in particular shared photographs from daytrips they had taken in Jordan, saying that the green spaces reminded them of Syria:
Syrian women and men frequently referred to their ‘nafs’ [psychological state] when discussing their photographs, talking about how their nafs was tired, or how they felt that their nafs had been renewed by visiting new places, joking with friends or through social activities. Each of these reflections on nafs reveals something new about the lives of Syrians that is not present in dominant humanitarian narratives: that building and maintaining social relationships with others, and exploring the new spaces they find themselves in, can provide powerful ways of coping with their changed circumstances, perhaps more than the countless ‘awareness sessions’ or ‘trainings’ that refugees are invited to attend. It also points to interventions more grounded in the wishes of Syrians than some current activities being implemented by humanitarian agencies.
In this photography project, Syrian refugees found ways to actively ‘appropriate’ spaces where they are uncomfortable, using photography to voice their concerns and feelings. Photography was also a means of creative expression – a way of expressing hope or the peace they feel when they visit certain spaces. Through photography, what emerged is also the safety, routine and peace associated with the home, challenging current humanitarian representations of the home and suggesting that mobility is not always positive and ‘immobility’ can also help refugees to cope. This project emphasised the importance of providing opportunities for Syrians to explore new and old friendships, as well as their new surroundings. This exploration of everyday life and physical space, like other pieces including Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s piece on shared spaces, and her provocation that we explore displacement through attention to ‘Spaces and Places, Not Faces’, highlight that the experiences of refugees need to be viewed in more complex ways. Refugees are making homes in the host countries they find themselves in. They are adapting, connecting, and finding ways to make meaning. Changing the way we ask questions and understand their lives can provide completely new narratives.
If you have found this piece of interest, you may consider reading these additional essays on the Refugee Hosts website:
Antonopoulou, A. (2017) ‘The Virtual Reality of the Refugee Experience’
Blachnicka-Ciacek, D. (2017) ‘Refugees Present/Absent. Escaping the Traps of Refugee (Mis)representation’
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Introduction to the Representations of Displacement Series: Spaces and Places not Faces’
Harsch, L. (2018) ‘Giving Refugees a Voice? Looking Beyond ‘Refugee Stories”
Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) ‘Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey’
Zbeidy, D. (2017) ‘Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan’