He sits with his left leg crossed over his right, stares at the floor, then straight ahead. He leans forward, folds his long arms into each other, his gaze unwavering, defiant.
She picks at a fingernail, closes her eyes. Dries a trickling tear with the back of her hand. Lifts her chin towards the camera, smiles ruefully.
He clenches his fists like a boxer, knuckles protecting his jaw and elbows tucked in tight to his ribs, and jabs at empty air. Sits down. Buries his head in in his hands.
Somehow in their silences, entire chapters emerge. Stories of trauma and survival, resilience and perseverance. Dignity, even after deep suffering.
The Reverie Project is a multi-channel exhibition that shares video portraits of 20 people in a migrant community in Geneva, Switzerland – a city that is also home of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international treaty that defines who a refugee is and sets out the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.
Led by Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Sharon Sliwinski and human-rights photographer Martina Bacigalupo, the project was highlighted recently during a showcase of research-creation at Western.
Sliwinski’s interdisciplinary work bridges the fields of visual culture, political theory and psychosocial studies. She has a keen research interest in the visual politics and social imagery depictions of human rights and the migrant/refugee crisis.
But visual representations of the issue, she said, often strip the humanity from their human ‘subjects’ in their effort to pack an emotional punch.
She cited as an example the tragedy of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body was photographed on a beach in 2015 after his migrant family tried to flee to safety across the Mediterranean Sea. The family will forever be portrayed as symbols more than as people, she said.
“The migrant crisis has been covered (by media) showing people in states of extremis. But if we always work with people in extremis and always depict them that way, that’s not dignity,” Sliwinski said.
This project’s premise is that everyone has a right to express their experiences on their own terms: a right to being shown as they wish, and also to decline telling their stories if they choose.
“People should have the right to a dignified image of themselves,” she said.
And the exhibit poses the question about what paradigm shifts could and should take place while journalists report on – and while the world comes to terms with – the human rights crisis experienced by tens of millions of migrants and refugees around the globe every day.
The project demands an answer to the question about whether the public pays attention only when shown images of drama and despair, or if there is instead a better way to capture the depth and urgency of the issue.
The recent research-creation event where the project was on display at Western’s Don Wright School of Music was an initiative to share the work of Western faculty members.
While the term ‘research-creation’ is a bit oblique, said Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, it refers to “works of art that are really shaped by deep and scholarly research.” Fields of study represented during the event included Nursing, Visual Arts, Science, Media Studies and Music and it attracted faculty members from a broad cross-section of campus.
The Reverie Project exhibit was a sampling of a larger show that took place at the Toronto Media Arts Centre in December.
These video galleries, playing simultaneously on three screens, are the result of four days of offering migrant people in Geneva a chance to tell their stories aloud, or merely to be present as themselves, in a black-draped video booth.
Sliwinski said the concern that the retelling might cause further trauma among participants was uppermost in the project team’s minds, and a team of support was always present. Those who chose to share their stories also vetted their images and depictions.
She said participants welcomed the opportunity to be in the booth on their own terms, as people with control over their narrative. “What people wanted was to be in this space and be in this space alone, because one of the first things migrants lose is their privacy.”
Some told stories of separation from family, loss of security, love, torture, survival and hopes for the future. Some said nothing at all.
The viewer has the sense they are not the objects of the videos – not third-person examples of people in crisis – but are themselves autobiographers and self-portraitists.
There is both power and vulnerability in that understated intimacy. For Sliwinski, it was emotionally draining and soul-altering to listen to the stories.
“It was overwhelming, completely overwhelming. I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional wallop that it was,” she said. “It was transformative. It broke me.”
Sliwinski and Bacigalupo haven’t yet decided when or where The Reverie Project will stop next.