Gisele Azad

The ethics of photography

Last year in the midst of the European-wide refugee crisis we talked to Iranian-born Gisele Azad, one of the volunteers of the Dutch refugee organization ‘The Vrolijkheid’. Now, a year later she still works with them and has recently teamed up with photographer Lotte van Raalte for a multidisciplinary project with a story.

Gisele Azad, photo: Nadine Mrb

The project takes place at a refugee center in ‘s-Gravendeel, a very small area in the Netherlands. There is no public transportation nearby and with nothing to do, boredom strikes quickly. It’s there that Gisele and Lotte organize weekly photography classes for a group of young refugees; not only giving them something to do, but also teaching them a trade, and giving them the means to tell their story through accessible media.

How did this collaboration come about?

Lotte and I met each other through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until she shot my picture for i-D magazine back in December 2015 that we became close. We are very similar in that we love helping others; both of us want to pursue a career in humanitarian work, that’s one of the reasons why we get along so well.

Lotte van Raalte

So how long has this been going on?

The project has been running for 3 months now, but we’re starting to wrap it up slowly. It won’t be the end of our collaboration, but both of us just need to focus on something else for a while. When we continue the project it could be with another age group in the refugee center, or maybe we’ll organize something for the refugees outside of the center.

Do you reckon that photography is an outlet for the youngsters to process their experiences?

It’s been remarkable to see the enthusiasm that they dive into the project with. We started with the use of disposable cameras, but soon after we were able to lend them more professional cameras made available to us by friends and people who wanted to help. In the whole process we actually tried to focus as little as possible on their previous (traumatic) experiences: their well-being comes first, and often soon after, come the stories without us even asking for them. The most important thing for us is to have a good time.

Another beautiful thing that we saw happening was the spark of friendships. Most young people there are alone and you don’t see any big groups of friends. During the photography workshop, however, we noticed that the youngsters we worked with really became a team discussing composition, poses, and angles together.

What happens with the photos that they shoot? Are there any plans to publish them?

We are planning a little something, but I can’t tell you anything about it yet. Apart from that, I want to make sure not to exploit the guys using their photos and their stories, though a lot of them actually want their story to be heard. When we do share what we do, we want to focus on publishing positive things.

© Nirou the label

You’ve also recently started another project, Nirou the label, an ethical clothing line with a story. Is there any connection between the photography project and the label?

There are two major aspects in this process. First of all, as a part of my work for ‘de Vrolijkheid’ I need to get funding in order to do my job This made me think about creative ways to raise money for the organization.

Apart from that, I wanted to find a way to break through the negativity around refugees. I’ve been working with young refugees for more than ten years now and most of them are incredibly ambitious and inspirational, but somehow their stories don’t get out into the world. Combining both thoughts, I created Nirou, which is Farsi for power. The goal with Nirou is to create a platform spreading inspirational stories of young people from all kinds of backgrounds, as well as selling ethical and sustainable garments. 50% of the profits will go straight to charity, and the other 50% is invested in future projects. It’s a way to keep doing what I’m doing.

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