Amplifying Student Voices was an education forum that started on April 20, 2020 for alumni of the VII Academy and former students of Philip Blenkinsop and Daniel Schwartz, the curators of the project. The project created a window into lives across the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave a platform to former students to share their experiences of life under lockdown primarily through photography while creating a space for them to discuss news imagery and visual history.
Many of the students submitted work weekly, with several chosen as panelists more than once. Student work was shared online with context delivered by Philip and Daniel. Nada Harib was a participant multiple times. She was invited to join the project as an alumna of the VII Academy Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, which in 2019 was held in Kigali, Rwanda. She lives in Tripoli, Libya, where the difficulties of a pandemic are compounded by a brutal civil war. She submitted images to Amplifying Student Voices as often as she could, but it soon became apparent that she was unable to contribute due to the war raging around her community.
We recognized that being part of the group dynamic was important for her and didn’t want her to leave so suggested she contribute words rather than images, to paint an image of what her life was like. Her writing added an important dimension to the story. She was often trapped in her home, lockdown during all-day blackouts. She left messages occasionally for Daniel and Philip, who were concerned for her safety. The following is an excerpt of her writing:
“I can’t [submit photos]. Everything is a mess… I have a problem with the internet and these days there is a curfew for 24h that don’t allow me to go out and maybe find a place. I feel I am in another world that has no life… the connection is bad because of the blackout that happened days ago that ruined our area and even my chargers. They are still fixing it… last week I tried to get in the class but I couldn’t… I had to go to my cousins’ place so I download what I need to download. It’s so weak here. I feel I am not ready to join with all the mess. I am very shy because all of the humbles and the tries you made for me. because all of these kind things. Someone I know got bombed and her son died. And her leg might get amputated. I got depressed from such news. I went there wearing my mask and took photos of her legs as she asked me to do so. They say war is over but i still hear the bombs. But I feel things will get better. Maybe. I am so sorry for all of these drama. Too much drama. Sorry…”
Amplifying Student Voices became a “happy place” in the midst of all the chaos. Nada writes: “It was not just a session to learn more about photography. It was a reminder that I needed to get back on track and continue working on my photography in spite of all the distractions and stress of the power cuts, the daily bombs, the pandemic, and the challenging life here in Tripoli. It was also a space where I felt unafraid of my work being evaluated or criticized because I trusted people’s philosophical and insightful eyes.
With their eyes, I didn’t just see, but rather listened to the photos along with musical and lyrical pieces. It reminds me of John Keats’s words in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Heard music is sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”.
It was indeed my happy place every Friday session and it taught me to appreciate more about the power of photography and how you can create any work of art to portray any situation you are in.”
Min Myo Nyan Win (aka Ko Myo) from Yangon, Myanmar, was another repeat panelist. A former student of Philip and Daniel’s workshop “Burmese Days” which was sponsored by the VII Academy in 2019. Ko Myo lives with his parents, daughter, and son and, like many people, is suffering because he’s unable to earn an income as assignments have dried up. At the beginning of the pandemic, he wrote:
“During this pandemic in my home town, some townships have been lockdown already and luckily my township is not included but government told to us stay at home. If new cases are increased rapidly in our township, it can be lockdown also. Luckily, we are in a stable situation and can still access fully utilities. Hopefully, it will not be the worst situation here.”
Philip and Daniel created a final edit of his work that he shot during Amplifying Student Voices and described it as full of mystery and double-takes that invoke a palpable sense of being there and experiencing the vulnerability; a rare pleasure.
At the culmination of the project Ko Myo wrote: “[It] has been a real support for my photographing life. I also had the opportunity to discover the in-depth meaning of photography art from this course. I have been learning historical art and photography comparison, science concepts and philosophy from Amplifying Student Voices…You can see these theories in my photos. This pandemic is a hardship for our lives but I pass through this time with photographing”
©Min Myo Nyan Win.