November 8, 2018

MIGRATE: Exploring the Refugee Crisis with UNICEF’s NEXTGen in Polaroid Photos

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn. Featured portrait by Matthew K Firpo. 

UNICEF’s NEXTGeneration (NEXTGen) project brings together diverse groups of young innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs, aged 21 to 40, who are committed to helping transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. NEXTGen Europe, in particular, has raised over 2 million Euros and established several global campaigns, like #CookForSyria and MIGRATE. Originally founded by NEXTGen London committee members Cyrus Mahboubian and Sandra Nuoramo, MIGRATE was envisioned as an effort to engage Londoners on the topic of the ongoing refugee crisis.

Photo: Matthew K Firpo
Photo: La Petite Touche

Mahboubian and Nuoramo wanted to counter the negative impressions that surround refugees, wherever they may be. In 2017, NEXTGen London organized a collaborative effort with photographers to interpret the subject as they saw fit, with one rule: they had to use a Polaroid camera. After the London group’s exhibition and accompanying book, Hortense Decaux, NEXTGen Europe’s co-founder, helped bring MIGRATE to Paris. She and the NEXTGen committee in France called on photographers to interpret the topic once again, with the resulting work exhibited during Paris Photo 2018.

“France has an especially fraught relationship with the refugee crisis and it was incredibly important that we share this project with the Parisian community to promote a productive conversation,” NEXTGen France co-chair Sonia Gaillis-Delepine tells Polaroid Originals. “The refugee crisis is the worst it has been—ever; and, as the EU is confronted with an unprecedented influx of refugees, we wanted to explore the realities today of human migration through a different lens.”

“The cameras are essential to the project because they are instant and develop in the moment, making the photographer’s interaction with the subject much more personal by default,” Gaillis-Delepine adds. “We knew we wanted to promote productive and passionate dialog with the community and have lots of different perspectives and the most effective way to do that was during the world’s biggest contemporary photo fair, Paris Photo.”

Those images selected for the French edition of MIGRATE will appear in The Pop-In, a gallery art space attached to the Parisian hotel Amastan. Gaillis-Delepine says that the collaboration with the Amastan made sense: NEXTGen is a catalyst of thought-provoking conversations and the Amastan is a place of cultural convergence and exchange. We also wanted to display the Polaroid photographs in an intimate setting, so viewers can better engage with the content. NEXTGen France hopes that the MIGRATE exhibition at the Pop-In will spark a constructive conversation on the theme of human global migration.

Photo: Aglae Bory
Photo: Adeline Mai

A number of factors went into the selection of photographers that appear in the MIGRATE exhibition. Personal aesthetics and creativity were major criteria, but Gaillis-Delepine took into account the overall breadth of work as well. While some have more documentary-style photography backgrounds, others work commercially and in portraiture. “We wanted to make sure that the photographers collectively had a diverse body of work which would lend for a more moving exhibition,” says Gaillis-Delepine.

Photographer Aglaé Bory, for instance, captured images in some of France’s exile reception centers. It is in these centers that people wait for the French government to determine their status after filing asylum applications. Bory wanted to capture the long, painful waits—the suspense of life limbo and uncertain futures. Adrian Brunel, also known as Neriad, on the other hand, was struck by the dualism of the refugee debate—how so-called humanists are pitted against pragmatists as if the public must choose a side.

“I wanted to show, through ten Parisian portraits, the variety of origins, ages and motivations that characterize current migration flows: different trajectories that don’t always have a promising start but all head towards a positive and constructive ending,” Brunel said in an artist’s statement. “With this aim in mind, I first got in touch with the Oscar Romero service at the Apprentis d ‘Auteuil Fondation… The Foundation is responsible for 1400 minors without any legal guardians, who often have a difficult story and fled their country to escape war or for economic reasons. Through French language lessons, assistance with administrative procedures and help to learn a profession, Apprentis d’Auteuil gets them on the path to a life they will lead instead of enduring.”

Photo: Aglae Bory
Photo: Aliocha Boi

The Paris-based art duo La Petite Touche took a rather unexpected approach. La Petite Touche staged scenes, putting themselves inside the skin of migrants and refugees to express through them the harmful words and evils they feel. It is at once a personal and poetic interpretation of the situation, allowing these people to be perceived for what they truly are: humans.

Another series explores what is not seen. In Aliocha Boi’s Polaroids, the photographer captures old, dismantled refugee camps on the streets of Paris. He also took photos of destroyed hostels, empty bridges, and a laundromat where migrants could to their laundry for free. The places where some traces of human life were left behind.

Matthew K Firpo saw something else. In his series, he captures images of a group of local high schoolers that he often sees in his neighborhood.

“They hang out at the park after school, listen to music, do the things that teenagers do,” says Firpo. “But what has always struck me about this group of kids, is how different they all are. Spending time with them, taking their portraits, I learned how they are almost all the children of immigrants.”

Firpo quickly realized that most of these high schoolers are first-generation Americans; and that, perhaps because of this, they have a different experience of race. To them, they represent the best of America in “their absolute diversity and unequivocal comradery.”

Photo: Aliocha Boi
Photo: Adrien Brunnel

“This photo series is about democratizing the access to this kind of content while also maximizing our reach and impact. Art is a forum that should be accessible to all types of communities and our ability to diversify the content on representing migration is one of the goals of the #migrateproject.”

Gaillis-Delepine says that the French installment of MIGRATE has been incredibly powerful. Audiences have been able to see how artists are creatively interpreting and exploring the topic in Paris.

“The fact of migration is a reality, not just an idea. It’s something that we are confronted with; and, as a result, this project acts as a socio-political commentary to reconcile how artists interpret the topic,” she says. “We are planning on creating a French book edition, and we are looking for a lead sponsor to help us with the upfront cost of production.”

Photo: La Petite Touche

Discover more about the project on IG: @migrateofficial

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