Volunteering – Mangere refugee centre

Volunteering – Mangere refugee centre

There is a saying from the continent of my birth that I have a particular affinity for:

“Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” – A person is a person because of other people.

My thinking, adult life has repeatedly presented me with situations that have proven the truth of this statement in often profound ways.

The sum of my being and my beliefs is made up of experiences, lessons I have learnt and favours I have been granted by the people I have come into contact with.

I cannot emphasise enough how much I value the networks I have become a part of and the people I have met. Some of the more significant and poignant experiences of my life have come about purely by a chance meeting with the right person. Some of these meetings have had a domino effect, leading to a chain of events that further reminds me of the importance of sincere and genuine human relationships.

A recent charity shoot, and the story behind it, is a perfect example.

I had the pleasure of meeting Noor Parkar, one of the managers of the Mangere Refugee Centre, at one of the flash photography workshops I presented earlier this year.

Noor himself is an amazingly hard-working and humble human being who has made a huge difference to the way the centre is run. His efforts have been recognised by the UN, and he will be departing soon for training in Switzerland to prepare for a 6 month placement at a refugee facility in Africa or Asia sometime next year.

I was intrigued by the work he does – prior to this I had no idea of the extent of New Zealand’s contribution to refugee resettlement. This meeting planted the seed for a photojournalistic project I hope to bring to life in the coming year.

It was with this idea in mind that I recently contacted Noor to arrange a meeting at the Refugee Centre to get a better understanding of the valuable work that the centre does.

New Zealand accepts up to 750 refugees each year. All of these refugees pass through the centre before being resettled elsewhere in New Zealand. From the moment they arrive in New Zealand they have NZ resident status, and it is at the Mangere Centre where they undergo a 6 week orientation program to prepare them for life in New Zealand.

It was during this meeting with Noor that he made the request for help photographing the refugee families during the next 6 week program. Noor is the unofficial photographer at the centre, and attended my workshop to improve his skill set. He has a great love and respect for the refugees who pass through the centre, and the images he takes of them during the course of their stay are gifted to those who wish to have them. Noor shares my belief in the value of an image as a physical memento, which in the case of the images he takes of the refugee families is of particular importance given the significance of the move they have made.

So of course I was more than happy to come on board and offer my skills.

I am a firm believer in giving back, and an even firmer believer that payment is not always a monetary concept. This job was incredibly enriching, and the start of a partnership I intend to maintain.

From a photographic point of view, the brief was absolutely daunting – fraught with obstacles and adverse factors that ordinarily would never come together on one shoot.

  • Setup a black background and lighting in a limited space.
  • Photograph up to 139 people in 45 minutes.
  • Most of your subjects will have no or very limited English. (Which makes posing rather tricky.)
  • Use a lighting setup that will work well for individual portraits and groups of up to 10, as well as lighting adults and children of different height effectively without requiring adjustment between shots.

Surprisingly, everything went very well, and I’m happy with what I managed to achieve, though the perfectionist in me wishes I had more time.

Ironically, my desire for more time is not to ensure that the technical aspects of the shoot could be improved, but because I regret not having time to talk to my subjects.

I have a fixed rule for every one of my studio portraits – I will not shoot anyone without a consultation prior to the shoot. Capturing the essence of a person’s character is the bedrock of a good portrait. You cannot do this, or even begin to understand a person unless you have spent a little time getting to know them first.

Obviously this was an impossible thing to do for this shoot. Despite the fact that things turned out just fine, I am saddened by the fact that the room was so full of stories that I would not get a chance to hear due to time restraints, language barriers and the nature of the work I had to do.

All these images were achieved using 3 speedlights. (2 Shoot-through umbrellas and a bare flash as separation)

This was my personal favourite of the day. This image speaks to me of pride, and as much as every human being has a story to tell, I am sure there is a story behind this particular image that I would be richer for knowing.

As with this image.

I am constantly reminded of the strength it must take to uproot yourself and settle in another country, especially if it means learning a new language. So often in life we belly-ache and complain about the most insignificant of things. Every life needs a regular and fresh dose of perspective.

This particular group has 3 sets of twins.

One of my lasting memories of the day was during the powhiri, watching children from 5 very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds playing together at the back of the hall without a care in the world.

I firmly believe that there are some aspects of childhood that leave us a little poorer in spirit when we outgrow them.

This job was certainly a fresh dose of perspective. As an immigrant to New Zealand I have often pondered the wisdom of my own decision for making the move. Looking back on the past 5 years I can honestly say that I had no idea of what was awaiting me. It has been difficult, jubilant, exciting, stressful and momentous, and I would not have changed a thing about it.

I hope that the years ahead are equally kind to every person I met that day, and that their own personal dreams and aspirations reach fruition in this free and beautiful country.

As I mentioned before, this job was far removed from the work that I normally do – a departure from my comfort zone so to speak, and a reminder of many things that I take for granted.

I am especially grateful for being reminded of how much we all have in common, despite differing cultures and beliefs.

Life has become such a rushed and frantic quest for instant gratification and the need to achieve more in a shorter time that I feel we have lost touch with each other and the true meaning of the word community.

This opportunity was a personal wake-up call, and a reminder that we have a duty to make something better of the world we live in.

“If our existence goes unnoticed, if our presence in this world fails to make some form of positive difference, then what is the purpose of being alive at all?” – Anonymous