Rich Wiles’s intimate, evocative photography has been praised as art that gives voice to the voiceless. That’s a compliment Wiles couldn’t be less happy to receive. For the longtime “participatory photographer” whose current work documents the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers, the people he photographs undeniably have voices and plenty to say. And in a new multimedia project aimed at bridging the gap between their experiences and those of British schoolchildren, Wiles hopes he can amplify them.
Wiles describes his project, “Ongoing Journeys,” as an interactive, web-based multimedia platform which uses photography, audio and the moving image as a vehicle through which displaced people tell their own stories. The interactive nature of it, wherein students can query the people they see on-screen about their lives and experiences, turns what might otherwise be a static presentation into a vehicle of dialogue.
“It’s very much about trying to create a space in which young people know who displaced people are and learn something about them on a very human level,” says Wiles.
The three-part project has already taken more than a year of full-time effort during which Wiles slipped in and out of the lives of displaced people in his local area, capturing their struggles, triumphs and all the little moments spent navigating new lives. The concept won the 2017 St. Hugh’s Arts Award and was shortlisted for the 2018 UNHCR Innovation Award for the novel way it creates a virtual meeting place between displaced people and the wider public.
Wiles answered questions about the impetus behind “Ongoing Journeys” and the impact he hopes it can have.
Q: Who will users spend time getting to know in “Ongoing Journeys?”
A: Part of the project takes you into the lives of a family of Syrian refugees who officially resettled in the U.K. in 2017. I’ve worked full time with the family for over a year, documenting every aspect of their lives in great depth.
You begin with introductions, finding out why they came to the U.K. and what happened to them in Syria. Then you learn what it looked like for them to come to the U.K.: what it meant to them, how it happened and how they began to settle in.
There’s a section focused on their new lives in the U.K. and what steps they are making to integrate, like joining after-school activities, playing sports, eating new foods. These are the things I’m interested in – what does it actually mean to integrate and what questions of identity crop up through this process?
Finally, I look at their lives in exile, and the experience of being a refugee. The family I follow closely lived in a small neighborhood in Homs, Syria, with all their extended family. Now, they’re displaced in various countries around the world. For them and many refugees I’ve met, this is the hardest thing about being displaced. It’s not about trying to resettle, learn a new language, trying to get a driver’s license. It’s about being separated from family.
This Syrian family and my own have shared a lot through this project and become great friends through this. It’s been a real honor being allowed into their lives and our two families have now become quite close.
Q: What other stories can be explored in this project?
A: The second half of this project looks at asylum seekers at various stages of the process. This part looks at the relationship between people and place, and asks how people build relationships with a new environment.
Many asylum seekers wanted to talk to me and tell their story, but for some the idea of photography was frightening given their uncertainty about their precarious legal positions and various other well-founded fears. There was a lot of reluctance. So, in order to find a way that these people could still be involved and tell their stories, I looked at the environments that matter to them within their new locations, while keeping participants themselves anonymous. I asked these people to tell me about a place that is important to them. In the multimedia platform, you see a map of the world with flashing pulsars where each person came from. By clicking on each one, you open up a landscape photograph from their new environment that speaks to their experience and story, and which is overlaid with audio in which they described their relationship with that place. Topics for these narratives have touched on various issues including racism, destitution, and the importance of community and religion.
Q: Why did you present your work in this format, as an interactive web documentary?
A: We get bombarded with statistics through media and the education system and it’s a very abstract way of talking about human beings. Most people will never get the opportunity to sit down and talk to displaced people. I’m trying to create this virtual meeting place between young people and people who are trying to resettle so at least the dialogue can begin.
I’m a longtime documentary photographer but I also do participatory photography, which is all about doing things with people, not about people. If you want to understand an issue, you have to speak with the people living that issue. Nobody knows what it’s like to be displaced better than displaced people themselves. So hopefully this project can become a loudspeaker for them.
Before starting this project, I did research with schools, asking children what questions they would like to ask refugees. Students routinely wanted answers to the same 10 or 12 questions about why they left, what they do for fun and whether or not they’d like to go home. I’m trying to tap into the interest young people already have for technology in today’s world, and use that in a socially-engaged manner.
As for why I created a non-linear, interactive web platform, mass media and multinational NGOs have used this type of technology before but to my knowledge it has never been done specifically for school-based education. I think that’s a gap that needs to be filled. We hear so much criticism of young people and their technology but it can be really constructive. I’ve tried to design “Ongoing Journeys” for that 13-year-old who can teach herself how to navigate a new platform in a few minutes. It’s about creating an experience where young people can explore and learn on their own.
Q: Where does your passion for this topic stem from?
A: When I first started doing this kind of work- using art to facilitate exchange- I was bringing photographs that children in Palestine had taken over to children in Yorkshire and vice versa. Children from Yorkshire took pictures of smashed windows and burnt-out cars in their neighborhoods. These reminded the Palestinian children of bombings or demolitions they’d seen, and they couldn’t reconcile the fact that they were looking at images from the U.K.. They had seen the Queen and Manchester United on TV, but not the other sides of life. There was a total misunderstanding for both groups about what it meant to live where the other group did.
After that, I was bringing groups of children over from Palestine to meet and work with British children on cultural projects. Both groups had such strange and interesting assumptions about the other group. For instance, the British children were surprised to see the children I brought from Palestine with shoes on their feet. Some were surprised to see Palestinian children eating with a fork.
Having come back to the U.K. now many years later, the questions that young people in schools were asking about refugees are the same questions that are now being asked 15 years later. This tells me that not enough work is being done to help people in the host community understand these issues.
People see statistics and are terrified. In the U.K., anti-immigrant propaganda and mistruths have given the impression that there are millions and millions of displaced people in this country. It’s really important that people understand the scale and understand the context. It’s about people. And it’s about creating links to bridge people.
Q: How has your personal experience played into this project?
A: I’m married to a Palestinian refugee myself and I think the question of identity is a very complicated one. One of the various reasons this project began is that I’ve been in Palestine for many years. I came back in 2016 and have been going through the immigration process with my wife.
There isn’t enough understanding about what’s really happening, why, and who these people are on a human level. This project shows the fantastic effort displaced people are making to rebuild their lives having often lived through horrendous situations, but also some of the many challenges involved in that process.
Q: What do you hope students take away from interacting with “Ongoing Journeys?”
A: For young people in the U.K., there is a curiosity about refugees and their day to day lives. Children often just want to know what food they eat, what sports teams they like, what music they listen to. Yet obviously these issues relate to culture and identity rather than legal status.
The project is aimed at secondary school children in the UK. I hope they gain a much greater understanding of who people are, and what it means to be in this situation. And I want people to be able to hear that from displaced people themselves.
In the past, some of my other work has been described as giving voice to the voiceless. I take objection to that, given that all people have a voice and do not need anyone else to speak on their behalf. Rather than ‘voicelessness’, it is a refusal to listen to the voices of others that can be a major problem in today’s world.
Ongoing Journeys is a vehicle through which displaced people can tell their own stories, and others can listen. I hope that can then become a starting point for further exploration. Hopefully that will lead to a clearer understanding of who people are, why they were forced to leave their countries, what they’re trying to do and achieve now that they are in the U.K. and the challenges and successes they’ve faced within that process.
Q: What are the next steps for the project?
A: I’m hoping to run a trial period in a small number of schools in 2019, just to put it out there and start testing it. I’ll get feedback from students and staff on how it is working for them, and smooth out any design or technology issues. A trial will also provide feedback about what information is being communicated and absorbed. Then a final model will be rolled out nationally in the summer, around refugee week.
I’m also adding more interactive aspects which explore topics like international law and U.K. immigration law, presented in an understandable way for young people to help them understand the real facts.
Across the U.K. there are a lot of small-scale projects happening and fostering exchange and dialogue. But it’s not widespread or in-depth enough. I came to see that working with a group of 15 school students, like I did back in 2004, is not enough to create any kind of real change. I think something needs to be produced that’s scalable.
Because Ongoing Journeys is online, digital and virtual, and uses pre-programmed audio which responds to the questions young people are asking, it could potentially be used in 1,000 schools in the same day. Hundreds or even thousands of children could ask their questions and have that exchange at the same time.
Meanwhile, I’m still working with new people all the time to produce new images and new stories. There are so many stories that need to be heard.
You can contact Rich Wiles about this project at [email protected]
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