Flourishing in Adversity

Flourishing in Adversity

We are living in a time where one in every 74 people on Earth have been forced to flee their homes. At the end of 2022, the United Nations calculated that 35.3 million of these were refugees, meaning they had crossed borders to escape violence, persecution or human rights violations. As we enter a new age of conflict and climate catastrophe, this number is expected to rise. Those who leave often do so with only the clothes on their back, leaving behind families, jobs and possessions – all in pursuit of nothing more than safety and stability. It is the determination and resilience shown by these communities that sits at the heart of Strength Away from Home, a new photography exhibition presented by Foam, Amsterdam. 

Here, photographer Coco Olakunle captures portraits of those living in refugee camps in Kalobeyei, Kenya and Lesbos, Greece. In doing so, she aims to break through existing stereotypes and shift the visual narrative around asylum seekers, empowering their personal voices. Rustem, a young boxer from Afghanistan stares down the lens, fists raised and stance wide. Two women lean against one another, dressed in brightly-coloured fabrics and matching eye make-up. A Somalian woman smiles as she lifts her face to the Kenyan sun. These are portraits of defiance in times of unimaginable adversity. 

The exhibition is presented by Foam Museum and KLABU, a non-profit organization which supports refugees through sport with the goal to build hope, pride and self-confidence. Their clubhouses can be found across the world. Many people stay in refugee camps for an average of 17 years, and the charity seeks to provide activities that foster a sense of community. Olakunle has been working with KLABU since they started in 2019, capturing the experiences of those benefiting from the organization. The empowerment that comes from being involved in sport is palpable throughout the series of photographs, as boxers, footballers and basketball players of all ages and nationalities come together to participate.  

Shown in the Galerie Marcatorplein in Amsterdam, the exhibition is designed to introduce the experiences of refugees to the widest possible audience, bringing together locals and those newly arrived in Amsterdam. The display coincides with World Refugee Week, which runs from 17 to 23 June, and is themed around “our home.” The refugees featured by Olakunle have been torn away from their familiar environment and forced to build a new home in a new country. This is no easy task, but the gallery invites people to take part in activities involving professional athlete, helping to create an active community and a level playing field for all who call Amsterdam home.  

In Strength Away from Home, the camera is harnessed as means to foreground the lives of refugees and share their stories with a wider audience. It departs from “traditional” approaches to documentary photography, which have long come under scrutiny from those who want to ensure the accurate and ethical use of images. It was Susan Sontag who said, “to photograph is to appropriate those photographed.” For Olakunle, after almost a decade of focusing the realities of migration through artistic reflection, the answer is to be found in collaboration. This is visual storytelling done in partnership with those living in refugee camps, placing control of how their narrative is told firmly in their hands.

From Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother to Chris Killip’s depictions of communities in 1970s and 1980s northeast England, documentarians have long played a crucial role in sharing people’s stories. Killip perhaps expressed this most effectively when he said: “I wanted to record people’s lives because I valued them. I wanted them to be remembered. For me that was important, that you’re acknowledging people’s lives, and also contextualising people’s lives.” Olakunle follows in this strong tradition, as the self-taught image-maker builds upon her years of exploring the role of social issues in photography to get to the heart of the current reality of migration, building relationships with her subjects in the process.

Strength Away From Home runs from 6 June to 8 July. | foam.org

Words: Emma Jacob

Image Credits:

  1. Hibo and Hani from Somalia. Photo taken in Kenya, 2019. Coco Olakunle / KLABU.
  2. Aisha from Somalia. Photo taken in Kenya, 2019. Coco Olakunle / KLABU.
  3. Two boys watching a football match together. Photo taken in Kenya, 2019. Coco Olakunle / KLABU.