Jenny Coyne interviews Conor Ashleigh, a photographer currently exhibiting his latest project 'Starting Again', commissioned by the British Red Cross. Conor spent six weeks with four families from Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka who have all been reunited in Glasgow.
Can you tell me how you came to be involved with the British Red Cross, and this project in particular?
I recently moved to Scotland and was approached by the team at the British Red Cross to work on this collaborative project with them. They had seen my long term work in Australia and in other countries, documenting stories of individuals, families and communities displaced by conflict.
How important is photography in truthfully portraying the global movement of people from conflict?
Photography is a powerful medium no doubt, but I am wary to say photography is a medium that always conveys truth. Too often a picture is held up as a beacon of truth while the ethics, or the context surrounding how the picture was taken is forgotten.
For me as a documentary photographer, I see the most important aspect of my photography is the relationship between the photographer and the people they seek to document. Representation, where a person is willing and proud to have their story told is really important.
I've been really lucky here to have had such an opportunity with four wonderful families.
Do you feel as though photography can positively influence a change in perception?
I don't believe photography is necessarily a beacon of truth but I do believe it can positively influence change amongst the audience. The greatest example of this was the war photography from the Vietnam war, we haven't necessarily ever had such an impact again. There are a number of powerful photographs which have changed public perception or at least have brought governments and communities alike to reflect on what is happening. An good example was recently with the picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi who washed up on a beach in Turkey.
Was there a general feeling about Glasgow that you found when speaking to the people in your photographs?
The four families experiences were all different and I think that was based on many factors, namely how long they had been living in Glasgow, where they were living etc. One thing for sure though, all of the families were greatly appreciative of having the opportunity to come and live in Scotland to receive support. Housing, education and healthcare were all things that I heard the family talk about and value highly.
Was there a particular individual whose story has had an impact on you?
Everyone's story was powerful. As I would head home after time with a family, I was always filled with the soaring reality of what these families were forced to leave behind, everything except themselves. The story of young Yamat is one that is probably the most powerful.
The Nasrallah family lives in a cramped three bedroom apartment in one of Glasgow’s rougher neighbourhoods, the bare walls of their house feel a long way from the prosperous life the family had before the war in Syria. The youngest of the Nasrallah family are two-year-old twins Judy and Joury. The pair patter around the house talking in Arabic but also switching into English with ease. They follow the lead of their older sister Yamat who is number five in the family. Eight-year-old Yamat currently struggles with her hearing as she waits to be fitted with a hearing aid. She has total deafness in one ear and small amounts of hearing in the other, an injury she suffered during a rocket attack on the family home. Yamat’s hearing doesn’t stop her living life to the full, she has an exceptional sense of humour and keeps the twins constantly entertained. I am an easy target for Yamat, soon enough she has me trying to recite the Syrian nursery rhymes she sings. Sitting on the steps as I put on my shoes to leave in front of me are three young girls with a collective age of twelve laughing hysterically as I attempt to copy their Arabic singsongs about ducks and trains.
How do you find the balance between taking beautiful photos and portraying the story behind an image?
I think that is something that comes out in the editing. I don't necessarily shoot a lot, sometimes it doesn't feel right, particularly early on with someone. I think the work reflects the relationship, as the connection gets stronger as does the work. For this project, every families photos were different as was their experience in their home country, their journey, time of separation and reunion.
What’s next for you?
I write this hurriedly so I can jump on a plane back for Australia and then on to India for some photo assignments. I’ll be back in Scotland in December and delving deeper into another project with a refugee community in Scotland. I am hoping to launch some of the work by mid 2016.
In the mean time if people are interested, on my site they can see my recently published five year project ‘Stories of the South’ documenting Australia’s young South Sudanese as they navigate identity and adulthood in their new country. The zine is available mid-December.
To see the Conor's images in person pop down to the Mitchell Library before the 31st, more info here: www.glasgowcityarts.com
The exhibition will be returning from the 3rd of November until the 30th at the Botanic Gardens, more info here: www.glasgowcityarts.com
To see more of Conor's work visit: www.conorashleigh.com
Interview by Jenny Coyne