‘Not Just a Refugee’ is a project by Ethiopian and Eritrean Photographer Adiam Yemane, which documents the inspiring stories of individuals who entered the United Kingdom as refugees. It celebrates the lives of people who have worked hard to fulfil their potential, despite experiencing overwhelming odds– but succeeding. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of November 2022, there were 231,597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases and 5,483 stateless people in the UK. We chatted with Adiam to learn more about her entry into photography and the process of creating her project.
Anne: What kickstarted your interest in Photography?
Adiam: I’ve always been interested in visual art for as long as I can remember. I studied art in college, and despite getting good grades, I didn’t want to take it further. I took some time off to read and understand what I wanted to do with art. Through self-observation, I realised that I enjoyed looking at photographs. When I read a book, the first thing I would look for was the photographs. Visual communication has always appealed more to me than words. I then asked my dad to buy me a camera, and he got me my first camera– a Canon 600D. After taking a few photos, I said, “maybe I want to study this”. That was when I found and enrolled on a photography foundation course. Interestingly, there were ten people in my class, and surprisingly– all women, despite photography being dominated by men.
Anne: It’s funny you said that because whilst I was in college, there were over 20 of us in class and we were all girls! That raises an interesting point to some of the challenges within the Photography industry. So, what inspired you to start this project?
Adiam: I’m a refugee. I came to this country (UK) and claimed asylum. While developing my portfolio, I soon realised that to make impactful work; I needed to tell a story accessible to me. This refugee project crossed my mind, but I hesitated to start it. This was because I know that the stories you tell are often what you’ll be known for. People often hear about what’s happening in other countries but rarely about those who come here and immerse themselves in society.
Anne: Great point and that being said, why do you think it’s important to have these conversations?
Adiam: There are negative connotations around refugees, so many people don’t want to discuss it. With the project, I had to think about the specific aspect I wanted to highlight. Some of the stories are quite inspiring. Many people believe that you must be poor in your country to leave, but in reality, it's people who have the means that can make it out– people who have that courage and drive.
Anne: Telling people’s personal stories in your photography project can be tricky, and knowing where to begin can take time. What is your process when it comes to gathering stories?
Adiam: Reaching out to people directly was difficult, so I contacted organisations like youth centres, social services etc. Interestingly, most people referred to me were East-African women, which in itself told a story to me. Approaching the women was easy because I connected with them easily.
Anne: With personal projects like this, it’s essential to have an intimate connection to the topic, so what is your advice for those photographers who want to embark on or take very personal projects to the next level?
Adiam: I used my own story to hold that space for the women I photographed to show that–we are in this together. Don’t be afraid to tell the story how it is. The more authentic it is, the more impact it will have. I also advise people not to attach themselves too much to the story. Incorporating self-portraits is fine, but try to see the project as a project instead of something so personal. As one would switch off from work, try to switch off from your project. It’s like a baby, you nurture and raise it, and then you allow it to go into the world!
Adiam Yemane is a Visual Artist and Storyteller. Her work focuses on social justice and community development. Longing for consistent change and movement inspires her to travel and document the world. World peace and sustainability are Adiam's main focus through art. To view the rest of her work, please visit her website.