Community captured

Photography project seeks community empowerment through giving a lens and a voice

Photography is the most direct and spontaneous way to capture life in an image, and as such can act as a powerful tool for raising community awareness. Inspired by a model from Pivot Legal – a B.C. legal agency advocating for social justice – students from McGill’s Faculty of Law, School of Social Work, and Faculty of Education organized the “Community Captured” project. Using photography to document visions of community from all over Montreal, the project aims to empower unrepresented and underrepresented groups.

“Community Captured” will culminate in a photography exhibit in McGill’s Education Building. Photos from participants will be displayed, and a few the photographers themselves will be present to speak about their work and how it represents their notions of community and social justice.

Fifty disposable cameras were given to individuals across the city. Tanya De Mello, a McGill law student involved in organizing the project, mentioned new refugees, live-in caregivers, people on lower incomes, people involved with programs focusing on increasing literacy, a mental illness centre, ASTT(e)Q (Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(le)s du Québec), and a centre for research on race relations as collaborators in the endeavour.

Montreal resident Soleïman Badat participated in the project when approached by Melissa Austen, who originally brought the idea to the McGill students who organized it. “I don’t like the word artist, but I do drawing, painting, photography,” he said, “and the way I view that and what I like to show, what I like to picture, is concerned by politics and social matters. So that’s what she asked me to show.”

Badat focused on documenting  his religion, and the Islamic community of downtown Montreal.
This had its own complications, and despite the potentially unifying notion of a Muslim community, Badat found barriers. “When you go to the Concordia area, there are some Muslim shops where you can buy Halal meat and stuff so I tried to get some poses from them. It wasn’t really easy – each time I had to introduce myself and explain the project, and what was difficult for me, and why they didn’t always say yes, is because I don’t speak Arabic… I’m French… All this background is difficult for people to understand, they sometimes didn’t really trust me… It’s a lot of energy to explain it and make a shot.”

But for Badat, the project also achieved its intention of community involvement. For him, it was not so much about the result – a display at a McGill event – but the process. In having to approach people, he said, he got to know the regular yet unknown figures in his daily life. For example, when visiting his local store, “this project was a good way to meet the guy, the owner, and we had a long conversation before I asked him if I could take his picture, and I knew through this conversation that he would be open to it.”

Getting people to be open to the project was one of the greatest overall obstacles, agreed De Mello. “One of the things that was a challenge that we didn’t know how to proceed with was…consent… Many of the organizations told us people were so excited about the project until they saw the form they had to sign… That led me to understand a really serious issue we have in our community.” Badat also found this true. “This kind of project is what I usually do but without asking permission… For this project we needed authorization.” He noted a paradox: “The paper and the form is made so people somehow trust the project as a real one – it’s McGill, it’s students… but people asked what are you going to do with my pictures, will they be on the internet… are you going to make money out of it.”

Ultimately, De Mello thinks that trust was built. “We only went to organizations and communities that McGill already worked with,” she pointed out. “We thought it would be disrespectful to just run round handing out cameras. We thought, you’ve built a relationship with this community and they trust you…we would never just go in, we were very careful with that.”

Community involvement projects are commonplace in educational institutions, as students vie for volunteer experience – often as a requirement of their programs. In such an environment, it becomes difficult to establish meaningful and long-lasting projects, but De Mello is conscious of this. “We have to be careful not to think that in doing these little things we make lasting change because what these people face every day is a reality I don’t know,” she said. By working with communities McGill is already involved with, these students keep the focus on maintaining community ties.

“Community Captured: takes place on Thursday March 24 at 7 p.m. in the main lobby of the McGill Education Building.