On Monday, May 22, 18 students from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan and Greece entered the Photo Camp classroom with hopes of learning something new. On Monday, May 22, 18 students embarked on unchartered territory — learning how to use photography to communicate their experiences, thoughts and stories with students who speak Farsi, Arabic, Greek and English. On Monday, May 22, 18 students changed my life.
Salam. Yassas. Assalamu' alaikum. Hello.
As we each greeted each other on the first day, I sat in pure admiration of their curiosity and willingness to learn something new. As I looked around the classroom trying to understand each student’s story, I realized in that moment that we all wanted the same thing — to understand what it means to be free.
Working closely with wildlife photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer Ronan Donovan and world-renowned photojournalist and National Geographic photographer Robin Hammond, “finding freedom” quickly became the epicenter of Photo Camp Greece, guiding each of the students’ photography and writing assignments. Robin and Ronan served as mentors to each of the students and challenged them first uncover their own stories before trying to uncover the stories of the people they were photographing. During one of our writing workshops, Robin shared that in order to understand how other people define freedom, we must first understand what freedom means to us.
Approaching each assignment with an unprecedented level of curiosity, we wanted to discover what it means to be free of the injustices that hold us back, free of the politics that define who we can and cannot love and free from the barriers that prevent us chasing our dreams. Cameras and notebooks in hand, the students spent several days and nights photographing refugee camps, refugee squats, their homes and the city of Athens to uncover how they define freedom and what freedom means to the natives and immigrants of Greece.
"I am so much closer to writing my own story." – Elias Abood, 25, Syria
If I learned one thing from our students, it’s that this is not National Geographic’s story to tell. This is their story and this is their experience. So while I could write a detailed summary about Photo Camp Greece, this is their story. We asked our students, what does freedom mean to you? Here’s what they had to say:
Eliza Gkritsi, 21, Greece
Freedom is a choice; a real choice. […] I’ve always felt free, independent. Freedom is to clearly see your situation, to evaluate it and to decide who and where you want to be. Then pick a path, not to be forced onto one. Freedom is to pick your own rules.
Mojtaba Ganji, 24, Afghanistan
Freedom has lot of meanings for different people. For me freedom is human rights, because I don’t think you can have freedom apart from human rights. Freedom means everything to me, because I left my family and I started on a hard journey to find my rights.
Raouf Amen, 18, Palestine
Freedom is the most important thing in my life. […] Freedom can be defined as the ability of a person to make a decision, which is appropriate for him or her without interference or influence from any other party. Every human being has the right to freedom and autonomy.
Alexandra Panagiotou, 22, Greece
Freedom is having a choice. It is a choice to be who you want, to travel where you want, to love who you want, to live your dream and to have a better future. […] . People don’t do well in closed walls, we need to spread and fly.
Benjamin Dalton, 25, United Kingdom
Freedom to me includes the choice to move. To move to and to move through the places I want to go and exist. The ability to navigate and occupy those spaces in a way that I feel comfortable and a way that I feel myself. Freedom is expression and expression is a movement, physical and social.
Radwan Dirar, 26, Iraq
I think freedom is different for everyone. I don’t like the word freedom, because we don’t know how to use this in the Middle East. For me, freedom does not exist. I prefer to use, “free.” I say this because the word “free” can symbolize so many positive things in our lives, like the ability to love who you want freely.
Apostolos Zaganiaris, 21, Greece
I think that freedom is totally personal. That leads to the question if the “personal” things are indeed personal or are projections of society on us. […] I believe that someone can be free if they feel so, no matter what that means. I feel very close to freedom. I am mostly contained by myself.
Ehsan Sharifi, 29, Afghanistan
I’ve asked many people about the meaning of freedom. For many years, I’ve been asking people this question. I’ve been told that freedom is a moment, it is the second that you smile. This is my opinion of freedom.
Nina Koutsogianni, 19, Greece
In my point of view freedom is a powerful word with many different meanings. Freedom includes freedom of speech, of belief, of religion. Also, freedom is very connected with security. A person who doesn't feel safe cannot be free.
Shaghayegh Farhang, 24, Iran
In my country where I’m from, men and women are not equal. I became a mountain climber because in the mountains I feel that I’m equal to a man. When I climb, I feel strength and hope. When I climb, I feel freedom. I came here to Greece because in Iran I couldn’t be free.
Omid Ahmadi, 21, Afghanistan
From my point of view, freedom is something that can pass all borders. The borders are the sea, water and air boundaries. […] Freedom means to fly without barriers. There are many countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that have no freedoms.
Andronikos Koutroumpelis, 21, Greece
I view freedom as the most basic human right. It means being able to define your own being however you wish. It means equal rights and equal opportunity.Mehrdad Salabaty, 23, AfghanistanWhen you have freedom you have a healthy mental state and you can do the best for yourself and for other people. You know it when you have freedom. We can feel the meaning of this sentence. We all are one.
Elias Abood, 25, Syria
Freedom means safety, education and having a legal status. It means dignity, having a decent life, having a job. I risked to lose the most precious thing I have – my life – to get the freedom I have now […].
Faramarz Ahmadi, 23, Afghanistan
Freedom means everywhere is my home.
I came into this experience expecting to teach the students as much as I possibly could about photography and creative writing, but little did I know how much they would teach me. They taught me that no task is too big and we are never too small. They taught me to be grateful for every moment you have with the people you love, and they taught me that friendship knows no boundaries. Although we no longer see each other everyday, our stories will always keep us together. As we continue this search to define freedom, what could be more powerful than that?