are photography projects useful for young refugees?
situation of young refugees
do we work with young refugees?
does photography help integration?
of key points
of young refugees
Though the total number of young refugees under 18 living
in the UK isn’t known, it’s estimated that there are currently
82,000 refugee children in schools. Many young refugees come to the UK
with their families but there are an estimated 6,750 unaccompanied or
separated children in the UK who’ve arrived on their own with no
parent or guardian.
Many young refugees have experienced conflict and suffered
trauma. They’ve fled countries where major conflicts have taken
place or where serious human rights abuses have occurred, including Angola,
Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Young refugees experience new
difficulties on arrival in the UK, which may include the following inter-related
• living in poverty and having little or no money
for social activities
• poor housing – often in run-down B&B and hostel accommodation,
and frequent moves
• emotional or mental health problems, such as loneliness or depression
• social isolation
• not speaking English
• discrimination and racism
• difficulties in accessing mainstream services, such as GPs or
school and college places
• confusing and stressful asylum application procedures, for example,
complicated appeals procedures
• living with parents or carers who’re experiencing emotional
problems themselves, increasing risk of family breakdown
• separation from family and friends
• loss and bereavement
• navigating procedures and making difficult decisions without trusted
Refugee children also report the following problems in
• racism and bullying
• loss of identity
• barriers to educational attainment
• barriers to accessing further and higher education, especially
for unaccompanied asylum seekers
• concerns about the future.
Young refugees cite making friends as their top priority.
While many young refugees do experience some or all of
the problems above, it’s important not to see them as a group defined
by problems. Many young refugees are able to adjust quickly to new circumstances
in the UK. They demonstrate significant resilience and are keen to develop
their talents, benefit from new educational opportunities, and build new
relationships. Refugees make considerable social, economic and cultural
contributions to the UK.
Why do we work with young refugees?
PhotoVoice’s work with young refugees is aimed at
supporting integration. We aim to help them to:
• integrate into the education system
• feel valued and respected
• participate in community life
• build their self-confidence
• be part of social networks and relationships
• develop knowledge and skills to take informed decisions and build
their lives in the UK.
How does photography help integration?
At its simplest, photography is an accessible tool for
self-expression: it can be quickly learned and it’s not difficult
for young people to take decent pictures. A young refugee – new
to the UK – who might be lacking confidence, can quite easily master
a basic digital camera. Digital photography gives instant results, and
requires no formal training to become an effective tool for communication,
observation and creativity.
is an especially useful creative tool for new arrivals with limited levels
of English. The language of images, offers opportunities for communication
without using words. Young refugees can show visually, for example, things
around them which they think are important, interesting, puzzling, new,
At first, all the young refugees we work with – like all young people
– are interested in taking pictures of each other more than anything
else. They take instantly to the idea of ‘posing’ for the
camera. Both the photographer and the subject quickly get involved in
directing and giving instructions to each other. Taking these portraits
of each other, in a fun and unthreatening environment becomes a step in
building friendships and a sense of immediate community.
Young people also quickly turn the camera on themselves
and looking at their self-portraits over time it’s possible to see
how they form a kind of visual autobiography. These self-representations
are about performance and fantasy, idealisation, experimentation, humour
and identity. They act out different roles for themselves: Bollywood star,
East London hoodie, Afghani popstar, fighter, athlete, sports star, hard-working
student etc. Photography is not just reflecting the process of creating
new identities; it’s part of the process of rebuilding and renegotiating
Self-expression and record-making
Photographs create instant and permanent records.
Many of us do this in our everyday lives: we create tracks for ourselves
through photos, diaries, videos, etc. When you’re uprooted from
one place to another the need to do this can be even stronger. Photographs
can be built into histories and albums that reflect a new life, a new
start. Pictures can decorate walls in sparse bedrooms, fill the gaps with
new memories and friends, pictures can be sent to families and friends,
they can be emailed and sent through mobiles.
At a time when their lives are being defined by
‘official’ records and documentation, photographs provide
a way for young refugees to create and control their own records and memories.
In looking at the world through a lens, in deciding how to frame what
they see, young people can mark out conscious moments in the endless process
Getting to know new places and a new culture
You can use a camera to expand horizons and explore
unfamiliar places and cultures. PhotoVoice takes project participants
on shoots around London – to the Southbank, along the Thames, to
the City; and to places in their local communities – down the high
street, to the park, to the local market. Many young refugees have limited
opportunities to explore beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
Young refugees are faced with much that is unfamiliar.
Attitudes, values, social codes and habits might all be different from
their own countries. By photographing the things that seem strange and
different young people can familiarise themselves with what is new.
Dialogue and conversation
Photographs can facilitate discussion by creating
distance between the photographer and a subject of conversation. A photographer
can talk around a subject, via the medium of an image, rather than directly.
This depersonalization can help someone who might want to talk but finds
Through discussion and dialogue photography enables
learning, not just about image-making but about the world around us, and
about each other. Engaging in photo projects and viewing and talking about
each others’ photographs enables conversation about diverse topics
from family to religion, relationships to dreams. In examining and discussing
what an image communicates and means, opinions are voiced and shared and
The camera is a flexible tool for invention and
creativity, and can be used for story-telling. Photos are used to illustrate
stories in teenage magazines and children’s books and are a reference
for many different film makers. Making photo-stories can be a brilliant
tool for building confidence, exploring hopes, and different cultural
norms and values.
As a tool for public communication
Public opinion is broadly unsympathetic towards
refugees. The media has a part to play in this, generating myths about
new arrivals, suggesting that traditional British morals are being eroded,
and contributing to a climate of anxiety. Participatory photography projects,
in which refugees are in control of image production, offer the potential
to give the power of representation back to those who are traditionally
subjects of the media.
Images are powerful, which means they have great
potential as a means of providing young people with a public voice, and
as a tool for public education, awareness raising and advocacy. Exhibitions
can be held anywhere – in galleries, classrooms, libraries, shopping
centres and cinema foyers. You can use anything from glass-framed prints
to affordable computer printouts. You can use digital projectors to screen
slideshows of images. You can also use images to create postcards, flyers,
posters or DVDs and CD-Roms.
The potential for broad public communication is always
present in any project, but should never be assumed. Projects should always
remain accountable to the needs and desires of participants, who may prefer
to maintain the privacy of their work.
summary photography can be used as a tool to:
young refugees feel valued
• have fun
• re-build, negotiate and play with identities
• explore and learn about a new place
• learn new technical and creative skills
• share ideas, skills and experiences with others
• reflect on difficult issues
• make friends
• speak out
• create memories.