In July, the Apis Institute organized another digital storytelling workshop for youth workers from around Europe designed to provide them with new tools of empowerment of vulnerable groups – by telling their stories through video and photo stories. Facing the Street training was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, this time. We had participants from eight countries. Eleven of them, again a very diverse group in terms of their knowledge of photography, joined the photo workshop. This second time around I noticed that I still wasn’t entirely confident in what I said in Belgrade, but I trusted and believed in my participants’ abilities. Even those they still didn’t know they had. But I did.
It’s not a competition and it’s not imperative that the story they eventually produce is top level. We’re not just telling stories of people in various hardships of inclusion or exclusion from society. We’re creating new ones, too. We’re bringing our subjects back to light, including them, making them visible again, maing them matter, to us and to the society. As we photograph the chapters in their usual day, our visit is in fact a new chapter that will not be recorded or documented, but it will leave a significant fingerprint on their lives. By being true to them, being their friends who understand them sincerely, not for the sake of the story, and by developing a true and lasting relationship, we are giving them something that seems self-evident to us, but in their lives, it is rare. Somewhere to belong. A friend. Acknowledgement of their lives. Some of them may be too young to comprehend their lives in this way, but they do feel it, even if they can’t explain it in words. They feel that they are different, treated differently, that their lives are not entirely “normal”, and that they perhaps do not fit in.
I guess being on the brink of society, different and not fitting in, will in most cases urge the person to compensate and find a place to belong. Some find that compensation and self-realization in work, others try to express themselves through art, and some find friends in the only communities that take them – and that might even be drug addicts. It’s human nature to search for self-realization. And it can take a wrong turn when society excludes you.
There’s one most important advice I give to my participants at the workshop. “Primarily, you’re not going there for the story. You’re going there to make a new friend.” And that advice really sticks with such big-hearted people. The bonds they knit did not only produce the emotional and strong moments they captured with their cameras. As they documented the chapters in their friend’s daily life, they wrote a new one. They played soccer, climbed mountains, took daytrips, had lunch with their families, made bread and friends for life. They cried when they parted and they hugged when they reunited at the opening of the exhibition.
We’re not supposed to just take, that’s selfish. The storytelling of our kind is generally aimed at giving something back, but our reach and effect is limited. Which is why adding this deep personal aspect is fulfilling for all. It feels good. And it comes natural to people who come to our training.
Just like in Belgrade, many of the participants have never handled a camera before. Some of them wanted to get drunk and run away before showing their stories to me after their assignment. But I knew they had the story. If you make a connection, there’s no way you can go wrong. Which is why now I can honestly say that my words in Belgrade were spot on. I truly believe the best photo stories come from the heart.
The exhibition on display in Atrij ZRC SAZU in Ljubljana (Novi trg 2) is a very strong testimony of my beliefs. It is powerful, compelling and important not just for its power of inclusion, but for its role in giving the voice to people who want to be heard and be part of the society in an equal way. As pure quality of documentary photography is concerned it is dificult to believe that someone who has never handled a camera before can produce work at such level in just one day after a day of theoretical training and a lot of inspiration. You have to see it to believe it. And it is a treat to see these first time authors on par with a couple of experienced documentary photographers that participated as well. So if you have the opportunity to see it, go for it!
But the photo group was not the only one doing an amazing job. The video workshop lead by Romana Zajec and assisted by Yulia Molina and Borut Dolenec also produced some very important stories and with very compelling styles and approaches, seen on the big screen at the opening.
As for the workshop itself, it was quite a week. The photo group had a small lecture room in our Tropical Paradise (it’s how we called our hostel during the hottest days of summer), and the project manager Ivana Stanojev had a huge “office” next door. She’d call people in when she needed anything done. Her desk was in the middle of this big colorless room, mostly empty but big enough to play football in. It had an air of socialist or communist corporate manager office/interrogation room, huge with only a desk and two chairs. All she needed was a lamp she could shine in a person’s face sitting opposite to her. It felt like you’re going there to get fired. That was really funny, but totally unintended. Or was it? 😉 (No, in fact Ivana is a very good manager and very kind and friendly and hasn’t chewed off anyone’s head yet. As far as we know. 😀 )
When we worked, we worked hard and seriously. And then there was relaxation time. After 30 hours of not sleeping, the idea of fun gets really scewed. Like watching He-Man sing Heyeayea for 10 hours or the emperor in the Gladiator repeating “and again” to Maximus for 10 hours, or moving like retards to the song What is Love – yes, one does go a little (or a lot) bananas after not sleeping for two days. But preparing everything for print was easier for me this time, because that was done by my assistant Nejc Balantič, one of my participants, who is also someone who thinks sleep is for pussies. 😀 Nevertheless, everyone did an amazing job. The organizers and all the coordinators, all the assistants and of course the paticipants. Oh, and by the way, thanks to Tarmorazzo, a teacher-turned-paparazzo from Estonia 😀 , the official form of addressing me at these workshops is now “my grandmaster”. 😀 😀
Don’t forget, the exhibition is open until August 24 in Atrij ZRC SAZU in Ljubljana (Novi trg 2)! But here is a preview of the stories in the order you will see them at the exhibition.
Thank you Maryna, Nuno, Amalia, Emanuele, Ginta, Nejc, Konstantinos, Lola, Paula, Vaike and the great Tarmorazzo!