What is your role at the Together Project?
I am a photographer. I photograph the events, images for their website and social media.
Why did you decide to volunteer with Together Project?
Patrick and Kate are my close friends. When they told me about the project and asked if I wanted to volunteer some time, I said of course. I think it is a really important issue and we need to do whatever we can do to represent it properly. I personally think people respond better to images.
Do you feel like you’ve made connections with the people you have photographed?
When I take photographs of somebody I am with them and I am trying to help them not be afraid of the camera so I am more observant of them than most people. After I take the photographs, I try to understand them in a really short condensed period of time. Once I take their photographs I kind of feel like I know them because I am staring at their face for that period of time. I am with them for so long after we finish the photos because I am editing through the photographs. I might be looking through the photographs for a few hours picking the best ones. Then I am maybe photoshopping parts of it so I am spending even more time looking deeply into their pores and polishing up the image. They probably forget me but I don’t forget them because I get to know them in a different way afterwards. I for sure get to know them more than if I was just talking to them. The world moves by really quickly when you’re just having conversations but when you’re you focused on getting the best image, finding the right moment and creating this different world you get to know them in a different way.
I think it is important to bring out the humanity in all people, everyone has an important story. There are a lot of generalizations in the world but everyone has a very specific story. We understand people by connecting to their story. We already understand the general, but how does the war in Syria affect this one person, how does it affect this family and what are their struggles in trying to get through it and move forward with their lives so that they can recover from trauma, so that they can feel safe and create a future for their children. I am in the documentary program at Ryerson and I believe true stories can make real change in the world— we need to make as much change as possible. Each individual story can contribute to the larger picture.
You mentioned that you spend a lot of time looking at people and notice gestures, do you think that you’ve noticed anything specific about this community while taking pictures of them?
I would say there’s a loving generosity to them. I think when you come out of a situation of war, the only way forward is with hope. I feel hopeful that the new friendships with people here can help to ease the transition by letting them know that they are not alone. I can’t imagine being forced to go to the other side of the planet leave everyone and everything I know. It’s a shock. Having someone who knows the place, understands the culture to guide you through that first phase, I think it can bring hope. There’s gotta be a level of “thank God, I can be safe here”. I think that Together Project offers the gift of friendship and that’s a pretty amazing gift. Everybody needs friends, everyone needs to be honoured and cherished. That’s what friendship is— it’s a group of people celebrating you for who you are. Being able to come from another place and have a level of feeling accepted even though you are experiencing something that’s totally new for you I think it really offers a positive thing for what might be not such a positive reason to be in some place different from where you want to be or where you expected at that point in your life. I just think it could be quite lonely even if you are with your family because things are unfamiliar. It takes time to process what is happening. I think having a jumpstart on that by having someone explain things you is very gratifying.
Do you think this work helps build more welcoming communities in Toronto?
Definitely, it is reframing how people that are here shape their perspective on how they welcome others and how they exist in the world. Here, people are either born here or their family came here so there are a lot of immigrant stories. We call this relocation, but some of these newcomers experience forced migration. That is the worst reason for anybody to move. I feel like Toronto has everything to offer, we have every kind of food, and everyone can be themselves. The Together Project helps to open up the city even more and it shows that we are really in this together. We all live in the same city why would anyone want to walk past another person who was ever in need so this is a very focused way of helping others.
What do you wish to gain from the work you’ve been doing? Is there a specific reason why you are doing this?
Once I became a mom I became more generous because I got a better grasp of the world, where we are in the world and how we can help others in the world. People have helped me in times I needed help and its changed how I see the world and even changed me. It’s something you pass forward. It’s our responsibility to help others. When I was younger I was more selfish but maybe now that I am a mother I can see the broader picture.
Is there anything you think a prospective volunteer should know?
I know how I volunteer which is to give what I have to offer. I also think they should have an open heart and open mind.
Interview by Indira Monteiro