In 2015 more than a million migrants and refugees from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia risked their lives to flee conflict and despair. Many sought refuge in Europe. Many died along the way while making the perilous passage on the Mediterranean Sea.
The mass exodus garnered significant media coverage during the initial months. For example, the photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on the shore of a Turkish beach after the boat he was in capsized triggered a global outcry, but the spotlight has since faded.
The reality is that tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded in a no-man’s land of bureaucracy. They live in camps — many of them makeshift in nature — waiting for asylum processing into the European Union or deportation to a safer third-party country like Turkey, where they do not have the right to legally work.
“Even though I am a photographer who has covered humanitarian crises for upwards of a decade, this mass movement of men, women and children was one of the most shocking events I’ve ever witnessed,” Tara Todras-Whitehill said in an article in December. “But the world has seemingly become numb to the story.”
The former Egypt-based Associated Press photographer is now a founding member of Vignette Interactive, a media production company that focuses on social issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The company recently partnered on a multimedia project with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Game of Thrones star Lena Headey to bring attention to the limbo refugees find themselves in more than a year after fleeing their war-torn countries. The IRC was already heavily involved with refugees escaping the decimated city of Aleppo, Syria. Vignette Interactive is headquartered in Cyprus, so the alliance was a good fit, Todras-Whitehill said.
For the project, refugees were interviewed, video recorded and photographed by the Vignette Interactive team. Todras-Whitehill led the project’s photography and Matt Ford served as the director of photography. The project wound up being a humanizing way to give a voice to the tens of thousands who are still displaced.
Todras-Whitehill said they took a unique approach to telling the stories of the refugees left idle in Lesbos. The team asked refugees the question: what are your dreams?
“We stripped away the context of the refugee camp and took video and photographs of the refugee subjects in front of a black background,” she said. “That way, the focus was on them as human beings — as people who have hopes and dreams like anyone else – and not on their environment. The goal was to give viewers a sense that there wasn’t much of a difference between themselves and the refugees, except, perhaps, that some are lucky enough to be born in a peaceful country, while others are burdened with lives uprooted by war and unrest.”
Todras-Whitehill wrote a Medium piece for Uprooted in which she shared the dreams of some of the refugees the team interviewed.
“Over the last year, we at Vignette Interactive have worked with the IRC on many projects related to refugees, as well as with other NGOs like them,” Todras-Whitehill told ivoh by email recently from Istanbul, Turkey. “The IRC has been amazing to work with, because they are always looking for creative new ways to tell stories about refugees, and they are open to suggestions and collaborations.” The company has also worked on multimedia projects with organizations including UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Development Program.
According to the organization’s CEO Matt Ford, Vignette Interactive, was formed following the Egyptian revolution. He explained there are three founding members, including himself, Todras-Whitehill and Joseph Francis Marsico. “We all met while living in Cairo in the years following the 2011 revolution,” he said by email, also from Istanbul. “Tara and I were both working at the Associated Press at the time. She was photographing the uprising, and I was working as the interactive editor for the Middle East from the AP’s MENA regional office in Cairo. Joseph and I met through friends in Cairo and we instantly shared a passion for design and code to solve real world problems.”
Ford went on to say that in the years after the Arab Spring, it became clear that the world was growing even more complex. Unprecedented humanitarian crises were looming, climate change was starting to cause real socio-economic repercussions, and everything from basic human rights to sustainable access to basic life needs was in question for many people around the world.
The three wanted to start a MENA-based company, he said, that paired creative talented with local knowledge to take innovative approaches when telling important stories across digital platforms.
“There are a lot of great people and organizations working to address the region’s pressing issues, and we wanted to help them tell their stories and break down the complexity of the issues they work on,” Ford said.
As for upcoming projects, Ford said the company will launch an interactive documentary in January with UNICEF about the struggle for children displaced by conflict to continue their education. Without education, these children are at risk of becoming a lost generation. They’ve also recently joined Impact Hub Istanbul and look forward to playing a larger role in supporting social entrepreneurship efforts here in Turkey and across the larger Impact Hub network.
Since the humanitarian crises across MENA and Europe — resulting from the Syrian conflict — show no sign of abating, telling the stories of the people at the center of these crises will likely continue to be a central focus for Vignette Interactive in 2017.