Photo by Rooba, a South London Refugee Association client.

This week is Refugee Week. Over the last few months, I’ve been working with South London Refugee Association to produce a photography project with their clients – which we launched yesterday. While the project itself is not about austerity, it enabled me to explore ethical issues that have been troubling me since I first embarked on my investigation into the impact of the cuts in Lambeth…

My Life in South London is a participatory photography project that aims to
raise awareness of the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in this
country, and to highlight the vital work that South London Refugee Association
(SLRA) does in Lambeth and beyond.

The project involved me running a series of workshops for a
small group of SLRA’s clients – we looked at common media representations of
refugees, discussed stories they felt were not being reported and I offered
advice on visual storytelling techniques and some general photography pointers.
The participants then went off with cameras (kindly lent by Photovoice) and had two weeks to each shoot a story about their lives in south London, before we reconvened to look back at what they’d shot.

I designed the process (with invaluable advice from Liz Orton) to ensure the participants had as much control as possible – choosing what story they wanted to tell, how to tell it and which of their pictures would make the final edit. I adapted the text from interviews I recorded with each person, and they had the chance to feed back on my draft before anything was published.

The project was my idea, so there was no getting away from my influence entirely – but the strategy was specifically designed to limit the extent to which my preconceptions would shape the work.

Photo by Cecilia, SLRA client.

This participatory approach was something I’d never tried before, an experiment driven by an increasing sense of unease at the power imbalance between me, as photographer and journalist, and those whose stories I want to tell as part of my investigation into the impact of austerity on people in Lambeth.

I’ve lived in Lambeth for 20 years, but my experience of life in this borough has been starkly different from many of those I’ve met in the course of my research. The frontline organisations I’m working with support some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in the country – people who, in many cases, have been pushed to the fringes of society and are living in circumstances I would once have believed impossible in a supposedly developed nation.

I’ve never been more keenly aware of my own privilege than in the last six months, in terms of my relative financial security, but also in terms of my gender, ethnicity, physical and mental health, the health of my immediate family – and much else besides. I’ve also never been more conscious of how this gap of experience limits my ability to truly understand (and therefore accurately represent) what the people whose stories I want to tell have been through.

So this is not only an ethical problem – it is also a deeply practical one. To tell these stories as honestly and accurately as possible I believe I need to work collaboratively to help bridge this gap. My subjects need to become active participants in the project.

Photo by Mirela, SLRA client.

That may not involve handing out cameras, and I suspect it won’t involve working with groups again (I prefer to work one-to-one) but it will always mean giving people a say in how their story is told – by turning the process of documentation into a conversation.

To be clear, I am not not talking about a client relationship. No one is dictating what I do. But like all good collaborations, it involves both parties contributing ideas, and feeding back on each other’s, to make the project stronger. And my collaborators will always see the final result before it is published.

Working on My Life in South London has been invaluable for me – but of course its primary purpose is to support the work of SLRA, and to give the participants a platform to tell their stories.

Each person offered a very different view. Some were highly personal, while others looked at the bigger picture. Some were sadly unable to complete their stories due to the intense circumstances of their lives.

The four stories that are presented on the blog don’t pretend to speak for all refugees or asylum seekers – but I believe they do offer a very different perspective on life in south London:

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