Ethical Traditions in Humanitarian Photography and the Challenges of the Digital Age
Representing Resilience: The Photography of Stephanie Colvey, 1987-2020
A century ago, Lewis Hine used his camera to attract positive sentiments for an unexpected humanitarian figure: the refugee. In his only project outside of the United States of America, he brought attention to the conditions and experiences of the millions forcibly displaced as a consequence of the First World War in Europe. The scale of displacement during the war was greater than anticipated at its outset. The enormous strains this put on European nations required international attention and response. Hine mobilized and combined different aesthetic aspects of photography to strong affect without feeling a need to turn his lens on atrocity or disturbing imagery—the yellow journalism of his day1—in order to shape his visual message. His skill at working with different cultural groups (e.g., immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, New York from various European nations) contributed to Hine’s successes in bringing his audience into closer proximity with distant and different others. Hine worked to create photographs that would educate his American audience of the hard realities and miserable conditions of (post)war life in Europe. Following Hine, many photographers have since benefitted from his example, themselves working for a range of organizations and agencies in the service of refugee care and rights.
Stephanie Colvey is a photographer from Montreal, Canada who has spent her career using photography as a means of translating harsh lived realities into forms that distant spectators might better be able to understand.2 In the span of her career—which dates back to 1987—she has worked with CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency), IDRC (International Development Research Centre), Care Canada, WUSC (World University Service of Canada), CECI (Centre d'étude et de coopération international), Plan Canada, and more.3 Projects have involved drawing attention to women’s rights, exiled and internally displaced people, she also works freelance on her own projects. Several years ago, she began documenting the lives of several Syrian refugee families as they settle in different parts of Canada. Most recently, she has committed to documenting the experiences of asylum seekers who have crossed the border from the United States of America into Canada ‘[as] an extension of my concern to reflect people’s life experiences through my photography.’
Described in a CIDA biography as a photographer interested in ‘the richness of life and resilience of the human spirit,’ her work and practice share characteristics with that of Lewis Hine. In focusing on the people in the pictures rather than over-aesthetization possible with the medium, Colvey presents counter narratives to myths and misinformation circulating in discourse around forcibly displaced persons. In the exhibition that follows, Colvey shares her insights on the importance of a photographic practice that values extended time and quiet presence to build relationships that—as she says—allow for ‘magical things to happen’. If some of that magic can include engaging sympathies among the images’ spectators, then Colvey’s work is closer to Hine’s than just in terms of subject-matter.
In the 1980s many Tibetans had escaped to India and Nepal after the Chinese invasion in 1959. A government-in-exile under the Dalai Lama was set up in Dharamsala, India. Monasteries, the repositories of knowledge and culture in Tibet, were being ransacked and many ancient texts were destroyed. The Tibetan administration in India undertook the project to reprint many texts to counteract the cultural genocide taking place in their homeland. In this image, Tibetan refugees are verifying new editions, printed in the traditional format, of books written by sages and scholars over the centuries.
Supported through a Canadian Council for the Arts grant, the camera became a means of understanding displacement and exploring resiliency at a personal level. Photographing in black and white allowed for a focus on composition and the story, without the element of India’s vibrant colours creating a distraction. Later, I was most often asked to produce images in colour for different agencies and publications because it was seen to be more attractive to viewers.
In 1994, CIDA commissioned a “day-in-the-life-of” stories of two children in West Africa. Mariam, is from Benin. She is a mother of a nine-year-old daughter. Mariam was a translator for a Canadian nutritionist, a volunteer for World University Service of Canada (WUSC), and together they ran a nutritional program for mothers in Benin. I spent five days with her and her family to make a series of images meant to introduce the everyday lives of children to young Canadians.
Today there is growing emphasis on co-creation and bidirectional knowledge exchange. It would have been nice if I had had images of life in Canada to show the children there. At times when I travelled, I would bring postcards of scenes from Canada: animals, snow, winter activities. But I didn’t that time. It wasn’t the mandate or common practice.
It is important to spend time and exercise patience to notice when moments, gestures and attitudes that reflect daily life appear. It is through interactions within a family or in a community that allow for magic moments to happen, ones that offer opportunities for pictures to be made that honestly reflect the lived-reality of the people being photographed. The kids included me as they went about all their activities aware that I was photographing them. I don’t think they did anything special for me. They were not self-conscious. Could that be a form of collaboration? Only in the sense that they went about their normal activities without trying to set up anything special knowing that the project was about their daily lives.
This image was shot in Peru in 1995 as part of a project sponsored by CIDA on the theme “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”. Promoción y Defensa de la Mujer (PRODEMU) works for the rights of women, children and the family, as well as economic development for women in and around the city of Tarapoto in the Peruvian jungle. Betty Laurel and Elvira Angula host a daily 10-minute radio program, “Rompiendo la Carahusaca” (a reference to stopping family violence). This show explores issues of interest to women, stressing the development of self-esteem and health. Betty and Elvira also use this platform to pressure men to stop all forms of family violence, and if they’re defaulting in child support payments, to rectify the situation. They always have, and sometimes use, the threat of naming these men on the radio if all other persuasive means fail.
These women are committed to bringing about social change in their area. These photos were made for a Canadian government agency concerned with international development. A selection of photos contributed to the travelling exhibition Rights and Realities, some were used by magazines and organizations for their publications. Hopefully they can inspire and inform viewers on the possibility of social change.
Pilar Aguilar, lawyer with the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL), visits Maria Luisa and her mother 6 months after Maria Luisa’s release from jail in Lima, Peru, 1995. She had been accused of being a collaborator of the Shining Path. Though she was innocent, she spent two years in jail awaiting her trial, in what became known as the “Pavillon de los Inocentes” where many men and women, presumed innocent by their guards, were being held. During this time her mother cared for her three children. Pilar supported and represented her legally, and still comes by to visit and see how she is. A Canadian government publication wanted to use this photo on the cover of its magazine. However, when I told the story to the editor of the magazine, it seemed too political and was not used.
In 1997, a couple of years after the war, in the town of Novi Travnik, Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was walking down the street when a young woman signalled to me to come and have a coffee. After a Turkish coffee and a friendly chat, Yasmina said to me that the next time I would be in Bosnia, I should come and stay with her and her mother. A few days later, having completed another mandate, I went by to find her and told her I would love to accept her invitation. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had assigned me to photograph the situation in Bosnia after the war.
Yasmina and her mother had been displaced in their hometown of Novi Travnik. They lived on the west side of the city. They were forced to relocate to the east side with other Bosniaks—their home and their whole neighbourhood being taken over by Serbs. They offered me wonderful hospitality and shared their tiny apartment with me.
In December 2015, the Canadian government announced that Canada would welcome over 25,000 refugees from Syria. This was met with enthusiasm and pride by some Canadians; with fear, criticism, misgivings and expressed prejudices, by others. I had seen and photographed the situation of displaced people in various countries, and felt helpless in the face of their plights. I embarked on a project of documenting, over time (and without the constraints of time often imposed by commissioned work), Syrian refugees in my city, in my country. Since 2015, 73,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada. More than half were sponsored by private citizens, such as Mounaim Waeil (Dino) who immigrated to Canada in 1993 from Syria. He has sponsored 14 members of his extended family. Alessandra Santopadre of the Office of Cultural Communities and Rituals of the Diocese of Montréal guided him in the sponsorship process. She’s there to welcome the newcomers at the airport and ensure that the final paperwork and forms are in order.
It is important to observe people closely and intimately to make photographs that have a greater potential to touch distant viewers.
In Chéticamp, Nova Scotia, Carolyn reached out to Rahme when she and her family arrived in this small town in Cape Breton. They became fast friends. The openheartedness and the support Carolyn offered Rahme makes all the difference for newcomers like her, who’ve fled their home country to settle in a society so distinct from their own. I set out with the intention of documenting the experiences and the daily challenges of refugees. However, the generosity and caring of fellow Canadians became a big part of the story of the resettling of Syrian refugees. Carolyn’s openheartedness and support were key to Rahme and her family quickly becoming accepted as members of this community in Nova Scotia.
I first met Nusaiba the day she moved into an apartment a week after her arrival in Canada. She and her family were helped by the Centre social d’aide aux immigrants (CSAI), mandated to welcome refugees sponsored by the Canadian government. Nusaiba at that time didn’t want to be photographed, which I respected. She accepted to have me photograph her children, but not her. I returned to visit her and her family many times, with a Syrian refugee who translated for me and guided me in culturally sensitive areas. Months later, Nusaiba invited us for a lovely traditional meal. That evening, she stood in front of my camera to have me photograph her—without my asking. I realized then that I had gained her trust.
I met Syrian refugees at a point in their journey when they and their families had been granted basic security, after fleeing from their homes, after trying to eek out an existence in a refugee camp or in a neighbouring country. I met them as individuals, not as part of a large migrant group. I met them when they now could start to rebuild their lives, with all the challenges and uncertainties inherent in this. I photographed them as the individuals they are, wanting viewers to also see them as individuals.
With the influx of asylum seekers crossing over the US/Canada border at Roxham Road, QC, in 2018, I felt it important to show them as real people, not just as numbers quoted daily in the press.
A family from Africa (specific country withheld) and a family from South America (specific country withheld), both seeking asylum in Canada. The support and services they receive at Le Pont, a welcome centre for refugee claimants under the Diocese of Montréal, gives them confidence that they can build a new life in Canada. Michel and his family lived at Le Pont just over a month. In the photograph, they’re saying goodbye to the friends they met there—new friends from a different continent but similar circumstances. They’re beginning a new stage in their lives, moving into the apartment they’ve rented. My impression was that the two families shared experiences created an unusual bond and understanding between them. To me this is an example of our shared humanity—my reason for travelling and photographing in many parts of the world.
Henry Cartier-Breton’s concept of “the decisive moment” has been a great influence in my approach, and the basis of my love of photography. To me a photo is successful when the different elements of the composition come together to capture the essence and meaning of what is happening.
Le Pont is a welcome centre for asylum seekers in Montréal. I photographed “a-day-in-the-life-of” Le Pont to document their work and reflect their mission. Here I met Marie-Christine, a writer and storyteller, who comes to Le Pont weekly to read with the children. She built up a library of books in French and in English for children of all ages. Giving of her time and attention eases the stress of these two children in their very precarious circumstances. Even while taking this photo, I hoped that it could encourage others to offer their time, talents and interests to help refugees and asylum seekers.
I have always imposed on myself the practice of cropping in the camera. I very seldom reframe in post-production. Besides adjusting contrast and shadows, I do no other manipulation. I once read that one should not see the hand of the photographer in the image. I want the viewer to connect with the people in the photograph and not be distracted by the style of the photographer. Even when there remain negative portrayals of refugees, I remain convinced that there is a lot of potential in photography to create connections between people so newcomers, refugees, and asylum seekers can feel welcome and settled.
1 Yellow journalism is a term dating back to the early days of print news and refers to a form of journalism that emphasized sensationalism over fact, often focusing on the physical suffering or harms.
3 The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was Canada’s official federal government agency for humanitarian and development aid. Officially in operation from 1968-2013, the agency also included the International Development Photo Library that boasted a collection of over 150,000 photographs from development projects and depictions of lived realities from around the world. Stephanie Colvey contributed over 4000 images to that collection. CIDA was eventually rolled into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in 2013, which has since become Global Affairs Canada. While photographs from the Photo Library collection get resurrected for anniversary events, the vast majority of images and related archival documents remain understudied and underutilised (de Laat and Marshall 2016).