During the first three months of 2021, Document Scotland collaborated with Highland Migrant and Refugee Advocacy (HiMRA) to stage Highlighting the Highlands, a public engagement photography project with refugees from Syria living in the Scottish Highlands.
The project offered us the opportunity to work collaboratively with HiMRA and the participants, who were invited to use whatever photographic device they felt comfortable to document their home lives and local environment over a six-week period. The time coincided with Scotland’s third national coronavirus lockdown, which meant that the participants focused very much on their immediate surroundings and everyday events in their lives.
Following an initial session where we introduced ourselves to each other, Document Scotland’s photographers outlined some of the ways which the six participants could make work which reflected their lives and give an insight to those interested in learning about what it is like to be a refugee in a country far from their homeland. Each of the participants, Abdalrazaq, Rokaiah, Belal, Jenen, Mohamad and Zainab embraced the opportunity and produced images which were fascinating to look at, especially when combined with their thoughts and observations.
We staged a special curating session with the participants which allowed them to tell us about their work and some of the motivations and reasons behind the images. We thenselected the work which best represented the project and participants.
The result of the discussions led us to staging a public event online in May, 2021.
The project and event received coverage in the national media and was attended by a wide cross-section of people from the arts, academia, the third sector and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands. The event, a digital version of our live salon evenings, provided us also with the opportunity to show Sarah Amy Fishlock’s evocative Middlemen series and to hear from Matt Sillars of FLOW Photofest about the photography scene in the north of Scotland.
The centrepiece of the evening, however, was hearing directly from some of the participants, who relayed their observations and thoughts behind the work they made. The group were very diverse, from a married couple (Rokaiah and her husband Belal from Dingwall) to Zainab, a young disabled woman who through her images illuminated her life for us: her images were all made on the way as a passenger to and from hospital appointments, the snowy landscape reflecting the cold weather which gripped the Highlands in February, 2021. There were poignant observations too, Rokaiah reflecting on her photo of the Scottish saltire and wishing that a new flag could one day fly over her country. Mohamad’s self-portraits showed his links back to Syria through his art as well as bond with his new home as he co-authored an image of himself standing next to a snowman. Abdalrazaq’s sunsets, he told us, reminded him of the home he had left behind. These small vignettes of life definitely gave the audience, and Document Scotland, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the thinking behind the photography and the lives of the photographers who captured the images.
Highlighting the Highlands was one of two projects we initiated and ran over the winter, having also collaborated with young people in Shetland to deliver Show Us Shetland. Both projects were part of a larger brief which Document Scotland undertook to try to build in new ways of working and improve our practice as we evaluate and learn the lessons of how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our ways of working.
We are extremely grateful to the staff at HiMRA, especially Dr Clare Daly, Huda Donald (our interpreter) and Joseph Kelly for their enthusiastic support and practical help to allow us deliver Highlighting the Highlands. We would also like to acknowledge our funders for the project, Creative Scotland and Street Level Photoworks, without whom these initiatives would not have been possible.