My projects demand me to be human

Reiko Okazaki in conversation with Conor Ashleigh
Right Now chats to Conor Ashleigh, a photographer and documentary filmmaker known for his personal projects and assignments for The New York Times, Le Monde and the Red Cross, among other media organisations and institutions.
Throughout January, Conor will be running Seeing Summer, a series of creative storytelling workshops in Sydney that offer young members of refugee and migrant communities the experience of authoring their own lives and the stories they wish to tell. He will help select and edit pictures that will be published online daily to establish a forum for discourse, culminating in an exhibit. The events will be open to the public and seek to stimulate an exchange of ideas.

Right Now: With your photography classes, you will be introducing a brand new perspective as seen through young eyes. It must be incredibly empowering for participants to be given the voice to capture vibrant and intimate details of their own lives and to display them formally. What prompted this concept?

Conor Ashleigh: My academic background is in community development, and this practice informs my work as a visual storyteller in many ways. Therefore, it was quite easy for me to imagine my professional work exhibited alongside the work of a community that I have observed and documented over a number of years.

My long-term photography project, Stories of the South, has been slowly growing over the last five years, and I have always known that when it would be showcased to the world, I would want to do it in a way that was truly considered and inclusive of the communities I seek to represent.

I approached the Community Migrant Resource Centre of Parramatta because I have been aware of their efforts and long-lasting relationships with migrant and refugee communities in Sydney. The first half of the two-week workshops will be spent with South Sudanese youth, and then during the second part with young Afghans.

The decision to utilise smart phones was an easy one. Whenever I spend time with young people, I am constantly blown away by the way they engage with their mobiles. Even though I am 27, in many ways I feel a generation older than these youth who effortlessly disseminate and share information on the little device that seems at times glued to their hands.

“Seeing Summer will be a chance for the wider Australian society to witness stories from people who are often written about but not heard from.”

How might your endeavour counter rhetoric that seek to dehumanise individuals placed in vulnerable positions, dulling our consciousness into believing they do not deserve empathy and respect like anyone else?

While I myself freelance for a range of media organisations, I am too often left despairing what I read as deeply racist reporting by a number of media outlets. It’s not difficult to feel that a lot of the media circulating in Australia seems set to demonise ethnic minorities. This has no doubt led to a distrust of journalists amongst both communities that I am working with, and unfortunately it is just one of the legacies of being a photographer that I must work hard to disprove. We are not all the same, but at times we are all tarred by the same brush.

Seeing Summer will be a chance for the wider Australian society to witness stories from people who are often written about but not heard from. I believe that photography is a medium to inform and inspire conversations. It is the latter in particular that I hope comes as a result of the panel discussions we are holding on the two exhibition nights.

One characteristic of your approach appears to be how you link topics from abroad to an Australian audience. How conscious are you of “bringing these issues home”, in addition to relaying the world’s untold tales in general?

Sometimes I worry that I sound like a cliché when I talk about my work. I have read and participated in a number of conversations about journalism and the role of objectivity. Perhaps this is where I diverged from a traditional path as a documentarian. It seems incomprehensible to carry out my long-term projects as a purely objective being.

My projects demand me to be human; they insist that I come to the moment as a person before I am a photographer. One of my personal mantras is that the most important part of my process is performed without my camera. I believe relationships and communication skills are vital to my work. Without these elements, I don’t think I would have been so graciously welcomed into the homes and lives of so many people as I have so far.

Additionally, I am fortunate that I work on assignments that complement my personal passion for social justice.

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How might the fresh anecdotes and interactions that emerge from this project provide a new angle to the existing debate surrounding the movement of people, their protection and citizenship rights?

I believe that this project may help to engage a wider conversation around the notion of migration. It is easy for us to think about a global society when we picture the internet or perhaps trade, but it surprises me every time that when it comes to people, we seem to put up a large formidable wall and imagine nations, with certain others exempted.

I hope – well, more regularly, dream – that as a result of my work, conversations may grow. Those conversations may lead to changes in thought, which may then influence actions, and then have a follow-on impact and influence more people in the community.

My wish is that something positive results from people interacting with the exhibition. But I also know from previous community-based projects that you rarely know when that happens. Perhaps it’s the not knowing which is most powerful.