Focused on bringing to the fore the perspectives of refugees whose voices are often underrepresented, we kickstarted the AHRC-funded Decolonising Fashion and Textiles project with an ethnographic research phase involving key members of East London communities. From a dual position of cultural insiders and outsiders, we collected insights on the needs and aspirations of the participating communities.
We invited Cecilia Casas Romero, Lecturer in Photography and Social Design at ESDA in Spain, to facilitate ‘photo-voice’ workshops for London-based refugees and asylum seekers. The workshop briefs were place-based and set out to showcase the participants’ view of the world, their cultural heritage, everyday life, and environment – prior and new. Working in groups at Rosetta Arts and Arbeit Studios Leyton Green, the participants explored new ways to express themselves.
“Francesco invited me to contribute to the project at an early stage, and we decided to use photo-voice, a participatory method generally used in ethnographic research. I always adopt it with an artistic approach, to produce other types of outcomes.”
– Cecilia Casas Romero
At the first set of workshops, each participant talked about places where they felt comfortable and ‘at home’. Some participants talked about nature and greenery while others talked about activities, such as painting and gardening. This conceptual exercise gave a glimpse into the participants’ interests, aspirations, and lives, especially before they arrived in the UK and how and where they might have lived.
The next activity was a discussion of the participants’ photographs of traditional textiles or clothing from their home countries, or ones they identified with. These included photographs of the indigo dyed Ndop fabric used for traditional feasts in Cameroon, super wax and Ankara wax resist fabrics used by Nigerian tribes, and Tally fabric with Amazighmotif in silver and gold on black from Upper Egypt. This exercise also gave rise to discussions about the participants’ varying experience in making.
A street photography exercise was carried out where each participant had to pick a colour and shape and then search for objects that represented these two things in everyday spaces outdoors. The idea was to find that shape and colour through their perspective. This exercise contributed to “paying attention to the detail” and practising “the art of finding something new in the old”, as stated by some participants.
A home assignment was given for the second set of workshops in three tasks: to take photos of things found in London that felt like the participants’ country, photos of things that are different from their country, and photos of typical clothes or textiles from their respective culture. This exercise contributed to capturing a sense of place, which is particularly important for asylum seekers who are new to London and still finding their way around the city.
At the second workshop, the participants were provided with various materials and were invited to create an individual collage that represented them. The activity allowed the researchers and participants to exchange insights on their lives. Once each collage was finished, there was a larger collective collage to complete.
One participating asylum seeker liked the collage making activity so much that she kept practising it in her own time together with her daughter in the hotel where they are staying. This evidences the power of arts and craft to heal traumas and enhance wellbeing.
During another session, Cecilia gave tips on how to take portraits effectively while the participants photographed each other. All these tasks provided a safe and friendly space where skills like communication and confidence could be built upon.
One participant shared that the photo-voice workshops helped her to open her “eyes to see a flourishing world”, while another liked the opportunity “to learn about different cultures and perspectives through photography”, and a further participant stated that she “gained a strong sense of community”.
For the final session, participants were tasked to take self-portraits through reflections, for example, on a window or a shiny object. The portraits were printed for the cumulating showcase with both groups together at Rosetta Arts, where family, friends and invited guests could join the celebration.
At the collective showcase, everyone’s portrait, the self-portraits and the individual collages were displayed. The showcase provided a place to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and learn about their cultures. Each participant and team member were also invited to talk about their collage and their life through this depiction.
“In the end, I unexpectedly discovered that ‘resilience’ is the feature that all the participating refugees and asylum seekers have in common. [Wherever] they come from, and for whatever reason they had to flee their home countries, they taught me a strong lesson of individual and community resilience.”
– Cecilia Casas Romero
This initial phase of the project provided the participants with a space to see themselves, not only in a positive light being celebrated alongside work that they created, but also an opportunity to share and talk about themselves in front of others who were eager to listen to their story. This created a meaningful space that is hard to come by for those escaping harsh realities, conflict and violence – those who are often ignored and viewed with negative connotations while also dealing with isolation in transitory worlds.
“Through street photography, portraits, and collage, we have reflected on our journeys, on the only constant in life that is change, and reminded ourselves not to be pushed by our problems, but to be led by our dreams. It has been a truly enriching experience for everyone, to share stories, learn new skills, make connections, and feed hope for a better future”
– Dr Francesco Mazzarella