Smiles In Exile: A Positive Photojournalism Project
"Photography can put a human face on a situation that would otherwise remain abstract or merely statistical. Photography can become part of our collective consciousness and our collective conscience. It is a way to remember history and to try not to relive the mistakes of the past."- James Nachtwey, American war photographer and photojournalist.
Photography is a powerful medium for exposing injustices. It can document war crimes, human rights abuses, international events, and natural disasters. Its powerful nature does not negate its potential misuse in the media resulting often in sensationalism. However, if they rise to the occasion, photojournalists can be unique leaders in humanizing such events and empowering the people they photograph.
Having already traveled to more than 35 countries and lived abroad, Frédéric Séguin’s experiences and meetings give him a rich cultural background that translates into his pictures. Initially, his photographic vision was oriented towards travel; the places before the people. Throughout the years, he came to realize the power of the human eye - it was the direct path to the soul of a person. His artistic process therefore increasingly focuses on capturing and showing these emotions.
April 26, 2015 was the date of the earthquake in Nepal where he witnessed a huge disaster and was almost a victim. During this extremely difficult period, the solidarity and resilience of a nation had a catalyzing effect on his work.
Jessica Newfield: How do you see the role of photojournalism today, related to political events?
Frédéric Séguin: Photojournalism is playing a very important and risky role today. Public perception is very important and it can change a lot of things. The power of image- Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who tragically died in Turkey and whose picture was widely shared- we all know what it did to change the scene. It is really important to have photojournalism in every type of crisis. Because when an army or a government doesn’t allow photography, that’s the scary part. When you don’t know what’s happening or see what's happening, that’s alarming. You need photojournalism to document for others what is happening in the short-term, to inform people’s decisions and generate concern or action, and in the long term, to remind people of what happened so as to not repeat history.
Jessica Newfield: Tell me about yourself and your work
Frédéric Séguin: Everything started in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. I was working there on Shoot to Help multimedia projects (as well as in India and Myanmar) for different grassroots nonprofits. I noticed that what was being covered in the media was not the full picture of what was happening on the ground. You constantly see the tragic pictures in the news- which is of course a reality - but it is not the only reality I witnessed. People were smiling, hopeful, even in difficult situations, which you would not expect.
After coming back from Nepal, I knew that my purpose was to work as a photojournalist. When the refugee crisis exploded, I wondered if I would see similarities with Nepal. But a part of me knew that there was something more to discover and that I had to document the different steps of the journey that political refugees went through.
In the last year, I’ve documented the different “checkpoints” that refugees go through. I’ve been to the long-term camps in Lebanon, that most people don’t hear about. I also went to Lesvos Island, where the overcrowded boats arrive, and then continued to Macedonia, which is more of a land crossing for refugees, and finally finished in Germany.
Throughout my travels and encounters with these refugees, my desire to show their resilience and positivity became stronger. I try to balance what we see in the media because we only see the negative part- I try to show more of the positive side.
Newfield: What is your process for documentation?
Séguin: It is hard to understand what the situation is like without being there in person. Usually I try to get in touch with nonprofits and community organizations before I arrive to better navigate what is needed on the ground, and understand which refugee camps and travel points are accessible and important to cover.
Right now in Greece, if you are a journalist, a photographer, a nonprofit worker, things can change from one day to the next. You might arrive at a refugee camp and realize that the people have been displaced or the military is demanding a specific authorization. This is worrisome for the refugees too because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. There’s really a feeling of uncertainty in Greece right now.
After they closed the borders on March 20th, Idomeni, at the border of Greece, became a huge hub for refugees. At one point, there were 20 000 refugees there all in an improvised open field camp.
I was planning to go there, but the camp was closed down and blocked by the army as the people had been relocated. It was very odd to walk around in a deserted field when 2 days before 20,000 people were living there. They were relocated to official military camps all around Greece, which makes me think that this refugee crisis is going to be a long-term situation.
Newfield: How do you see your role in this?
Séguin: We see too much negativity in the world and my role is to show a different point of view, to show the resilience of people faced with natural disasters and political events. Not to hide the problem but to show that people stay strong. It’s a good reminder that these people are human beings and not just victims.
Newfield: Can you describe to me an action you took where you had to follow your beliefs, your ethics, even if others told you not to?
Séguin: What comes to mind is the difficulty with getting conventional news outlets to share my photos since they prefer to show the tragic, sad ones. Getting this positive side seen and published is difficult. I’m trying to change our relationship to photojournalism and people that have gone through unimaginable hardships. When people in Canada see these sad images and they are faced with 25,000 refugees coming into Canada, sometimes it’s easy to forget that these people are just like them.
Newfield: How do you share your work in the face of these obstacles?
Séguin: It’s getting a lot easier with social media, blogs, small online newspapers. I got 12,000 shares with my work that was shared in the Huffington Post. I am excited about this new way of publishing content. It makes it possible to reach out to more people and work around traditional newspapers’ constraints.
Newfield: You’ve traveled a lot in the last couple years and photographed people in different parts of the world (i.e. India, Nepal, Mongolia, Lebanon, Macedonia, Greece etc). Can you tell me about acts of kindness or demonstrations of bravery that you’ve witnessed?
Séguin: One that comes to mind and was recurrent to see in the refugee camps was that many of them will try to talk to you and invite you to sit down with them for a meal. Even though they have nothing, they want to share with you. On the first day of Ramadan, a family asked me to share a meal with them. It was really touching. They don’t have much but they still try to help each other out. Giving to others when you have nothing is such an immense demonstration of kindness and humanity.
Newfield: Is there an experience that stands out for you where you saw someone be a brave leader or witnessed unconventional leadership through grassroots initiatives?
Séguin: During the beginning of the refugee crisis, not many large NGOs were involved. And it was quite beautiful to see how smaller organizations and initiatives of people came together, even though they had no experience in that. They started developing a network of people helping each other. In Lesvos, an organization called Starfish helped the people that arrived on the beaches. It was a network of people that came from all around the world, and leaders emerged organically from that. They were problem-solvers who did not let circumstances get in their way.
Newfield: How are the younger generations dealing with the refugee crisis? Do you find them more equipped and prepared?
Séguin: You can’t really be prepared without living it yourself. But the younger generations are trying to get involved and are touched by the issue. They want to make a difference and that’s already a great start.
Newfield: So what’s next for you?
Séguin: Showing my project Smiles in Exile, in London and Prague. Everything can change with the crisis- I might be back sooner than I think. It’s hard when I’m back home in Canada and I see what’s going on in the news. I want to get back there immediately. I also want to go back to Nepal soon to share my work with the people that I photographed.
Newfield: What is your advice for people who want to get involved in photojournalism?
Séguin: Go out there and start taking pictures. There’s no official or proper way of doing it. Go out there, learn as much as you can and get involved! Eventually you will find your place even after multiple failures. Grab a camera and go for it.
This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.