BY LAURENCE GIBSON
Having grown up in Belfast I am fascinated by the changing society, culture and landscape. I return regularly to both the North and South of Ireland to work on projects. Initially I was working with a journalist on a story on modern day slavery. On contacting the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland I met with Jolena Flett. It became quickly apparent through our conversation that there was much more to migrants' stories than abusive working conditions although these are important to highlight. Jolena challenged me as to whether the story we were running was anything ‘new’ to the public’s front page. The phrase that kept on coming up in conversation was "these people are human beings", with the current crisis and migration from Syria, I think this is often forgotten.
After the meeting with Jolena I went away to think about how better to portray the lives of migrants coming to our country. Having grown up in Northern Ireland I have seen an enormous change in the population with new cultures coming in. It's fantastic. After some months I came up with the concept of the Belonging Project, which after a little discussion with Jolena we started. The main premise being to personalise the topic of migration, to remind the public that migrants are not a cohesive group aiming to invade the country and assimilate the population. These are fascinating individuals from cultures different from our own who can enrich our society, with new perspectives of the world.
The medium of the exhibition was to be still photographs and audio interviews. I had never done audio recordings before but I had seen this medium work fantastically in others work. This was to be a more reflective exhibition than video interviews. In audio interviews with still photographs you allow the viewer time to study the person visually, whilst experiencing them telling their own story in the audio track.
The project has been more successful than both I or the Migrant Centre of Northern Ireland had imagined. From very humble beginnings of five portraits in a makeshift gallery space in the Migrant Centre offices, we have gone to a touring exhibition round Northern Ireland and even being taken to the Southbank Centre in London as part of their Adopting Britain Exhibition. Libraries NI have provided a vital role in providing us with exhibition space in the community around Northern Ireland being the organisation to first discover us in our makeshift gallery night almost two years ago. We have been most helped by funding from a variety of sources without which the project could not have continued and grown. I am so pleased see the project continuing in a new and sustainable direction with the toolkit being launched as an educational resource to enlighten the public as to these valuable people who are joining our society.
The Project has achieved much more than I had ever hoped. Public education is obviously paramount to our mission, but there are many seemingly smaller effects that aren’t so obvious. The simple act of allowing these people to tell their stories and celebrate them in a public context is an enormous opportunity. Allowing them to speak with pride of their culture, and reflect openly on how their life has changed. There are many parts to different individuals stories which can be used to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes of ‘the migrant’, “I had a good life in my home country”, “I cried for the first two weeks”, “I was heavily pregnant with now way of communicating to the doctors and nurses that surrounded me”, “When I am in Portugal I miss Northern Ireland, when I am in Northern Ireland I miss Portugal”. These reflections are vital to humanising the individuals who choose to move to our country. Their reasons for moving are varied from fleeing conflict to simply looking for a better life for their family. Let's start treating these people as individuals not numbers on a government statistics table. We must be conscious to treat these people on an individual basis; just like our own society they are not all good and not all bad. But before we baton down the hatches let us find out who they really are.