Stay Strong Photo Stories – Karine Versluis

Karine Versluis writes about Stay Strong Photo Stories, a participatory photography programme which originated during COVID lockdowns, and has now been implemented in Ukraine.

How do you stay connected to yourself and others in a time when life is uncertain and unpredictable? Stay Strong Photo Stories is a participatory photo and storytelling project in which participants portray their daily lives based on concrete assignments. Stay Strong Photo Stories started in 2020 with the first edition, during the COVID- lockdown. Now, four years later the fifth edition of Stay Strong Photo Stories is launched: The Ukraine edition.

“Can we also switch to an online workshop series?” That was the question Josien Pieterse, director of Framer Framed, asked me in the spring of 2020 when the first lockdown started. We had made plans before to develop photography workshops, not knowing that the world would shortly close down because of the pandemic. From this situation the first edition of Stay Strong Photo Stories emerged.

In May 2020 we started with the participants of I-psy Art Open Atelier, a group of artists with a background in  intercultural mental health care. During four online workshops we tried to find a way to connect with each other using photography. Through the images of daily life we shared what kept us going through the day and listened to how others experienced this period.


Each session consisted of a theme, where the participants were given an assignment to take a picture of it that week. During the workshops, participants learned about photography techniques, photos and stories were shared and brainstormed about the next homework assignment. The first assignment was to take a photo of something that gives a positive feeling. A lot of everyday scenes were photographed. Such as one participant trying new looks in front of the mirror, or another participant photographed a ladybug  “because all pieces of nature make the city a little more beautiful.” Other themes of assignments were hope, strength and connection.

The first workshop edition was followed by other editions: the second group were young people with a background in youth care, after that there was a group of newcomers with a refugee background and an edition with young people from Amsterdam East. Groups that were extra vulnerable during the lockdown. The workshops of the first four editions were developed despite, or perhaps because of the pandemic.

Red candles

After the lockdown we realised that there are still many young people living in uncertain situations who could benefit from these workshops. That is why, this spring, we did a pilot in Ukraine, for teenagers living in Transcarpatia (West Ukraine) in collaboration with NGO Molotok. This is a region that is still relatively safe and to which many refugees from other parts of Ukraine have moved. For this edition of the Stay Strong Photo Stories series, we added an extra assignment to photograph the theme of war in their daily lives.

During the workshops, examples of Ukrainian artists working with the medium of photography were presented as inspiration as well. Each session, we discussed the images captured and the youngsters shared what concerned them. The photos showed dance lessons, birthdays, the blossoming of spring, walks, and coming across signs with the word ‘shelter’ on them with an arrow.

In this ordinariness, the war casually comes close; like the red candles that line the streets when a deceased soldier from the region is brought back or buried, or during conversations about family members fighting on the front lines and saying that everything will be fine. It is about hope and bright spots, but also about sadness, tears and loss. In any case, Stay Strong Photo Stories has given me hope that there are always bright spots to be found, even in times when life is difficult and uncertain. Creativity connects and can help to look at situations from a different perspective.

Stay Strong Photo Stories is a project developed by Framer Framed and Karine Zenja Versluis.

Framer Framed is a platform for contemporary art, visual culture and critical practice in Amsterdam. The organization aims to show a plurality of voices in a globalized society.

Instagram: @framerframed

Karine Zenja Versluis is a documentary photographer & visual storyteller with a Ukrainian background and social worker in youth mental health care. In 2017 she did her PhotoVoice training.

Instagram: @karineversluis