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Seeing Summer: Teaching refugees to tell their stories with smartphones

One of the most controversial and divisive on-going topics in Australia is the issue of refugees. But, as documentary photographer and filmmaker Conor Ashleigh says, “They may be people we’ve heard about in the media, but they’re probably going to be people we haven’t heard stories from.” The 26-year-old is looking to change that.

Seeing Summer is the name of Conor’s project, where he will teach young people from Australia’s Afghan and South Sudanese communities to tell their stories using their smartphones. After a two-week period of workshops to be held in January, the participants will get the chance to exhibit their work in Parramatta’s CBD.

Conor is raising funds for Seeing Summer via crowdfunding platform Start Some Good.

Techly caught up with Conor, who told us about his relationship with two particular men from South Sudan, how the crowdfunding is progressing, and why smartphones are set to put photographers such as himself out of business.

Techly: It’s a great take on the refugee story – that we hear a lot about them, but not a lot from them. What are you ultimately hoping to achieve by teaching the Afghan and South Sudanese communities photography?

Conor Ashleigh: I am hoping that through this project we are able to give a chance to a good number of young people overall, ideally 50 all up, to consider the power of storytelling when it is made in the first person. I imagine this will most likely play out through young people developing a strong interest in photography, and potentially only in reflection will some of the participants see the role the project played in contributing to stories from communities we don’t often hear from.

I also hope the participants really enjoy the week of photographing and the final exhibition. The latter will be a public event in Parramatta’s CBD and I hope all of the photographers that feature work will be proud to invite along their friends and family to see their work.

You’re aiming to teach photography using smartphones. Is the idea to show people what powerful results can be achieved through fairly basic cameras?

I don’t think of smartphones as a fairly basic camera. In many ways the ease and quality of their pictures see an increasing number of people like myself being redundant in the future.

The reason for smartphone photography is because so many young people in Australia own and engage with smartphones in a way that is unprecedented for older generations. I think the way smartphones are being used as a multimedia device and also a medium for disseminating information is amazing, they are the modern swiss army knife!

The reason behind using the smartphones is that I am sure they will provide access to places to shoot, and an intimacy that a big camera would struggle to gain.

Two Sudanese girls from Seeing Summer by Conor Ashleigh

Smartphones – more than just our favourite way to take selfies. (Conor Ashleigh)

Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the Mayom family and the effect it’s had on you – are you still in contact with them?

The Mayom family from South Sudan arrived in Newcastle, Australia, and they moved in across the road from me when I was 16 years old. I had just returned from a life-changing trip to Cambodia volunteering, it was an interesting time in my life and meeting the Mayom family as well as the Manyang family living down the road really established my interested in Africa generally, and also the importance of refugee intakes in prosperous countries such as Australia.

I am still in touch with both men from these families, I will see a number of these young men at a basketball competition next month and I will also be seeing Kot Manyang to take some pregnancy photographs for he and his partner as a gift. The relationships are ongoing, the hardest thing is my personal international travel schedule, it makes it really difficult to regularly see many people.

$20,000 is an ambitious total, particularly in the space of a month, but there’s a possibility that amount could be doubled. If you receive dollar-for-dollar funding from Parramatta City Council, what’s the plan for the extra money? More workshops, more professional prints being made up?

$20,000 is indeed an ambitious amount. Thanks to our 73 backers we have managed to raise $8095 in the first 21 days of the campaign but still have a long way to go. The way that Start Some Good run their crowd funding campaigns is that they have a tipping point for every campaign. This means in the chance you don’t reach your total amount you have a reserve on which you can run part of the project. For us the tipping point is $12,500. We have 9 days left to raise another $4,095 to reach our tipping point target, fingers crossed we get there.

This campaign is part of the PARRAMATCH Social Innovation initiative, which means the council will chip in money if we reach certain milestones. At this stage we have met two milestones and will receive $3,500 from council, however this will most probably grow before the campaign finishes. So the council isn’t matching dollar for dollar, but across the seven innovative projects they will all hopefully receive additional support from council to bring about positive social outcomes in the Parramatta area.

We will be running the project with whatever amount of money we have, there are a lot of costs involved with running two weeks of workshops for young people, so no doubt our budget will be tight!

South Sudanese family in Seeing Summer by Conor Ashleigh

Just quietly, how good is Pasito? (Conor Ashleigh)

You’ve worked for The New York Times and Le Monde – clearly you’re making a name for yourself in the world of photography. Can you give us a bit of background in terms of your professional life, and has it helped you get support behind this project?

I feel very lucky to have had so much work and build up a strong client base in a short period of time. At 26 years of age I have a number of international media organisations, The New York Times, Aljazeera, Le Monde etc who have commissioned to photographer on assignments for them. I also have a large staple of iNGOs who I regularly work for shooting photo and video stories.

I haven’t formally studied photography or filmmaking. I can see the value of such studies however I chose to pursue academic study in community development. It is what I studied at university and it has remained totally relevant for me in my way as a visual storytelling. My study has informed the way I interact in a community, the way I explain a project and the role of photography, the social cues etc, more or less everything else that is happening aside the actual photo taking I have found to have benefited from my study in community development.

Seeing Summer is actually far larger than just a single month in 2015 – can you tell us about the five-year project?

Yes this project in January was me wanting to make an opportunity to exhibit my personal long-term work with these two communities but have it alongside pictures of the community I seek to depict. I wanted young people to take on the role of documenter in their own communities and do it because they are firstly proud of their background and secondly have an interest in creativity.

My work being shown alongside that of young Australian South Sudanese photographers is Stories of the South. This long-term project has been a visual exploration of what identity looks like for Australia’s South Sudanese young community. For this work I have been photographing inside the homes and at weddings, basketball competitions, hip hop gigs, South Sudan independence anniversaries, bride price ceremonies, football games. I think the work reflects an interesting mix of personal and public.

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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