Arteh Odjidja’s project, ‘Fear & Dreams‘, is a photo series dedicated to sharing the personal and often problematic stories of young migrants and refugees. The project aims to humanise migrants and share their individual experiences of leaving their lives behind, the place they grew up - everything - to move to a new country, learn a different language, acclimatise to a different culture and start from scratch.
Oppression and poverty have pushed these people to cross borders in search of prosperity. This series offers an insight into the complexities and distressing decisions that force these people to seek a new belonging.
In this interview, we speak to Arteh about the impact of this project on his practice and his audience. We explore the inspiration and goals of the project, and where he hopes to take this project next!
Leo White: What is the inspiration behind this project?
Arteh Odjidja: The seed for the series was sown in Moscow, Russia, in 2012 when I was photographing a fashion show for designer Ozwald Boateng. While there, I met a young African migrant man called Abdulay Vilhette De Sousa from So Tomé and Príncipe (whose story features third in this book). He had moved to Moscow to study medicine and become the first doctor in his family. Tall and black, he stood out and had been subject to physical and verbal racial abuse since living there.
His experiences were a magnified version of my own, yet his resolution to succeed was inspiring. I saw sadness, strength, loneliness, and immense courage and so, with his permission, I photographed him for this project the day before we left. I captured him as I saw him: a strong, defiant, focused stranger in an unfamiliar place far from home.
When I returned to the UK I became more sensitive to how the media and society would portray people from migrant and refugee backgrounds. I started to see terms like ‘Swarm’ ‘Over run’ and ‘Swamped’ in big bold letters on the cover of newspapers when speaking about migrants and refugees - the words would often be teamed with images of hundreds and even thousands of people in a somewhat dishevelled state.
I became acutely aware of how the media use their power to shape the public’s thinking with a repeated narrative for or against something. I decided I could do a little balancing of the reductive narrative by taking our view from macro to micro and focusing on an individual more humanising story.
LW: What is the goal of telling these stories?
AO: The terms migrant and refugee can carry a lot of prejudice, some of which I hope this series overcomes. As you turn each page, it’s important to pause and reflect on the incredible determination in the faces you see.
They take little for granted, embracing a simple will to survive and thrive. Through sharing their stories in this way, I hope to re-address the so-often negatively skewed narrative of these young people striving to contribute to their new communities around the world.
I also hope this collection will inspire these young people to share their stories in new and creative ways. The photography art form, for example, is an influential communication medium that can be used to provide a voice and more context to these incredible individuals. Through my immigrant mentoring work, a similar portrait series was exhibited in front of Queen Elizabeth II, strengthening the potential of a better future for generations.
LW: Why is it important to give these people a platform to share their stories and experiences?
OV: As you delve into Fear & Dreams, you'll witness the devastating loss of not only home and loved ones, but also of identity and belonging. But from this loss, you’ll see a fervent desire to transform an unsettling past into a purposeful future from each person.
Now, empowered by their stories, they champion their cause, driving political change and softening hearts to their realities. While evolving as young people, they ponder their futures and the roles they hope to play in the societies they now call home.
LW: How do the people you speak to feel about their situation? Why do you think they decided to participate?
AO: Each portrait participant, like us all, is a work in progress. They have overcome challenges in their past and will face new ones in the future. We tend to derive meanings from life events when we look back over the path we’ve travelled and take ownership of the lessons learnt. I don’t think it was easy for the young people in the book to share their stories with me. I think they believed it was important to let others going through similar experiences - and the general public - know that they are human, very relatable and have plenty of value to add to others.
LW: From a practical point of view, how do you capture these images? How do you capture intimacy and vulnerability?
AO: Before you can have intimacy and vulnerability, there must be trust.
I enjoy connecting with people. I build relationships with people by learning about them. I would give them a call a few days before a shoot and take a genuine interest in the person’s life - their details are important to me. I approached taking each person’s portrait in the book with a spirit of gratitude, knowing they didn’t have to share anything with me - not their time or their story - and yet, they did. That trust is something I value deeply. Communicating your vision, your why, and how you want to create the portrait is key. People need to know what you need from them so they can feel comfortable and confident about showing up.
It always helps to remember key things about a person you're photographing that you can bring up during the shoot. This communicates that you genuinely care and shows the respect and value we all like to feel. I would also share details from my life to offer a sense of shared vulnerability and collaboration. From the information gathered from a pre-shoot interview, I’d choose the ideal location to photograph them. I chose each location based on the goals and aspirations of the person being photographed.
I like to use available light and outdoor locations because those elements create more opportunities to tell the person’s story in a unique way. I’ll often take a few shots to begin the shoot and swing the camera around to show them the first shots (knowing that we’re warming up). We’ll have a quick review of what’s working and what isn’t and then carry on shooting. I’ll do this periodically to bring them into the process.
Because most of the young people in the book were new to being in front of the camera, I wanted them to understand what I was trying to create with them. This, once again, made the whole process very collaborative.
LW: As part of this journey, you took to Kickstarter to share this story. How did it feel to receive such overwhelming support?
AO: It was incredibly heart-warming to see so many people reaching out, pledging, sharing, and commenting about the project. People wanted this book to be made - and here it is. I’m so grateful for that support.
A Kickstarter is a great way and reason to share your project with the world. Anyone who has done a Kickstarter will know that it is both an exciting and slightly hellish experience as you count down the days, hoping to achieve your goal to make your dream project a reality. It’s a tentative psychological process of visualising success and doing the daily work of stepping out of your comfort zone to engage a wider network, ask them for help and inspire them with the work you’ve created and nurtured.
LW: You mention that while on this journey, your own family’s history of migration was something you wanted to explore. As you learned more about your family’s experiences, did this change your understanding of the subjects you were documenting?
AO: My siblings and I grew up in a house with walls adorned with carved African art - the aromatic fragrance of traditional Ghanaian food wafting up from the downstairs kitchen reminding us of family meal times. Dad and Mum would lead us in observing our Ghanaian cultural and Christian traditions; they wanted their boys to have a faith and know their Ghanaian identity whiles growing up in the UK. But how we came to be living in London was a bit of a mystery. Explanations were patchy and never in a sequence - just lots of disjointed memories to piece together that would come up more so when older relatives would visit or vice versa. I guess I was more focussed on fitting into British society as a younger man than I was on travelling down our family’s past. I never actively pursued the details.
However, over the past 10 years, meeting young migrants and refugees on this project, I’ve heard such detailed accounts of how they had left all they'd known to start over somewhere new - some travelled alone, and some with their families. It was the intimate details that brought my lack of clarity about my family migration history into focus.
In 2019, this project and prompting from a church leader to learn more about my family's history, gave me the permission and purpose to start asking my parents questions about their reasons for leaving Ghana. My father's health was steadily declining at this point. Bedridden for years and becoming less and less communicative, everything signalled that it was now or never. I began visiting my parent’s home fortnightly to sit, ask questions, listen and write. A year into my interviews at my Dad's bedside, confusion began to set into his mind and he gradually lost the ability to speak altogether - the interviews stopped but my visits continued. He passed away 2 years later. His story is the first one in the book.
After learning his story and feeling a deep sense of closure and empathy, I realised the great service this project was performing, not just for the young migrants and refugees in Fear & Dreams but for my family too. We were sharing more about the past and looking to the future just like those featured in the book. Our stories truly do matter: what we do next is even more so.
LW: Did your view of migration change?
AO: It did. After learning that my father had to leave Ghana because of governmental intimidation in the late 70s/80s, it really dawned on me how a series of unforeseen events can alter a person’s path in life. People usually leave their homes and all they’ve known because of two reasons! People usually leave because of their fears and their dreams - the push of oppression and the pull of prosperity. That oppression can come in many forms, economic, educational, governmental, societal etc. The book has lots of nuances to discover.
LW: Where do you see the project going next?
AO: With the success of the book launch in December 2022 with WEX Photo Video, I see the project being featured in photography and photo-book festivals and displayed around the UK and Europe. I look forward to sharing these stories with wider audiences, especially young people's groups to foster more understanding and appreciation for migrant and refugee experiences.