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The Healing Power of Self-Expression: Photography by Female Refugee Artists

Too often, refugees are defined by their flights from violence and persecution. Being seen only as victims makes it difficult to appreciate and embrace their talents, accomplishments, and humanity.

Last February 3rd, the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Lens Series helped counter this perception by presenting the award-winning photography of refugee women from The Photography School located in the refugee camp in Daviata, Greece. Entitled “The Healing Power of Self-Expression,” this virtual photography exhibition and panel discussion showcased the creative journeys of these remarkable photographers. Two of them participated on the panel and recounted the impact on their lives of self-expression through art and the path it offered them for healing and moving beyond their experience as refugees.

Sponsored by TD Bank, the event was organized by Art4Humanity Foundation and One Journey, in cooperation with Perry World House and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema and Media Studies Program.

The exhibition featured haunting images captured by a myriad of talented women who use photography to portray deeper life themes, such as isolation, identity, and triumph. Their work also explores the stigmatization these artists faced while also celebrating the duality of femininity and culture. Through the lens of another, the viewer is able to empathize and relate to the experience of these talented photographers. Building empathy in this way is the mission of the Global Lens Series and One Journey.

Art 4 Humanity Foundation began funding The Photography School in 2020. The program has helped female refugee artists reclaim their voices, using photography to both express their past experiences and share their hopes for the future.

The panel discussion included refugee artists, Masoomeh Mousavi and Masoumeh Tajik, and their instructor, Mattia Bidoli, a respected photographer and project leader of The Photography School. Together, they spoke about their creative process and muse. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and experiences, empowerment was a common theme in all of their art. By having a safe space for creative expression, they were able to educate others by conceptualizing moments of strife. Yet, their images invoke awe when one considers how much they have overcome and accomplished in such a brief time.

Masoomeh Mousavi was the youngest of the featured photographers. Although she is just eighteen years old, her art and vision held great wisdom. As she described her motivation and beginnings, Mousavi explained the importance of art during her assimilation as it was a great tool of education. Often, due to the stereotypical narrative surrounding refugees, there is a lack of reflection regarding what happens before or after their migrations. As Mousavi said, “When you become a photographer, you see the world in a different way. Everything around you is special and unique … you can make memories and show with photos your feelings. You can show the world who you actually are … The goal of the class was to show that we are [more] than a refugee - to show ourselves as artists, not only a refugee who came from another country". Their art has allowed the students of The Photography School to expand the image of refugees by portraying the rollercoaster of emotions that comes along with being a woman and refugee. And as Mousavi touched on, their art has prompted their viewers to empathize and challenge their beliefs of the refugee experience.

The Photography School is also expanding the horizons of the students. “I want to travel the world, write, and take photos,” said Masoomeh Tajik. For her, each photo is a two-way conversation with everyone who sees them. “When you see our photos, you are talking with us without saying anything.” This conversation is the path to empathy and action.

As a documentary photographer, Mattia Bidoli could have been “just another man with a camera taking pictures [of refugee women]. Instead, it was better to empower them to tell their own stories … I found something here you can never find in any other refugee camp. I found a safe space for women … it was the perfect place to start a photography school … and thanks to this safe space, it allowed them to be free, to not be afraid, to make this possible.”

One Journey thanks Art4Humanity, The Photography School in Daviata, Perry World House, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema and Media Studies Program for making this event possible. And our heartfelt gratitude to TD Bank for providing the funding needed to share these powerful photographs and stories with our audiences.


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