THE BELONGING PROJECT
The Belonging Project is a collection of still portraits and audio interviews of migrant individuals to Northern Ireland. Each have been photographed with an object which reminds them of their country of origin.
The Belonging Project was a collaboration between myself and UK charity 'the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland'. The goal of The Belonging Project is to encourage development of empathy towards migrants in Northern Ireland by telling the stories of individual migrants. Migrant peoples are not a cohesive group; they are individuals with distinct identities regardless of their country of origin, their skin colour, or the religion they practice. By emphasising this fact, we hope that the local communities will identify with these migrants on a human-to-human level rather than through a ‘them and us’ mentality, and that the rest of the migrant community will benefit from increased awareness in the local community of the migrant experience.
Having grown up in BelfastI am fascinated by the changing society, culture and landscape. I return regularly to both the North and South of Ireland to work on projects. Initially I was working with a journalist on a story on modern day slavery. On contacting the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland, I met with Jolena Flett. It became quickly apparent through our conversation that there was much more migrants stories than abusive working conditions although these are important to highlight. Jolena challenged me as to whether the story we were running was anything ‘new’ to the public’s front page. The phrase that kept on coming up in conversation was "these people are human beings", with the current crisis and migration from Syria, I think this is often forgotten.
After the meeting with Jolena I went away to think about how better to portray the lives of migrants coming to our country. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I have seen an enormous change in the population, with new cultures coming in, Its fantastic. After some months I came up with the concept of the Belonging Project, which after a little discussion with Jolena we started. The main premise being to personalise the topic of migration, to remind the public that migrants are not a cohesive group aiming to invade the country and assimilate the population. These are fascinating individuals from cultures different from our own who can enrich our society, with new perspectives of the world.
The medium of the exhibition was to be still photographs and audio interviews. I had never done audio recordings before but I had seen this medium work fantastically in others work. This was to be a more reflective exhibition than video interviews. In audio interviews with still photographs you allow the viewer time to study the person visually, whilst experiencing them telling their own story in the audio track.
The project has been more successful than both I or the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland had imagined. From very humble beginnings of five portraits in a makeshift gallery space in the Migrant Centre offices, we have gone to a touring exhibition round Northern Ireland and even being taken to the Southbank Centre in London as part of their Adopting Britain Exhibition. Libraries NI have provided a vital role in providing us with exhibition space in the community around Northern Ireland; being the organisation to first discover us in our makeshift gallery night almost two years ago. We have been most helped by funding from a variety of sources without which the project could not have continued and grown. I am so pleased see the project continuing in a new and sustainable direction with the toolkit being launched as an educational resource to enlighten the public as to these valuable people who are joining our society.
The Project has achieved much more than I had ever hoped. Public education is obviously paramount to our mission, but there are many seemingly smaller effects that aren’t so obvious. The simple act of allowing these people to tell their stories and celebrate them in a public context is and enormous opportunity. Allowing them to speak with pride of their culture, and reflect openly on how their life has changed. There are many parts to different individuals stories which can be used to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of ‘the migrant’, “I had a good life in my home country”, “I cried for the first two weeks”, “I was heavily pregnant with now way of communicating to the doctors and nurses that surrounded me”, “When I am in Portugal I miss Northern Ireland, when I am in Northern Ireland I miss Portugal”. These reflections are vital to humanising the individuals who choose to move to our country. Their reasons for moving are varied, from fleeing conflict, to simply looking for a better life for their family; lets start treating these people as individuals not numbers on a government statistics table. We must be conscious to treat these people on an individual basis; just like our own society they are not all good and not all bad. But before we baton down the hatches let us find out who they really are.
The Belonging Project along with its collection of portraits an audio interviews continues to be active in promoting empathy towards migrants in Northern Ireland, through its touring exhibition and outreach events such as workshops and more recently workshop toolkit.