Photos of Fife… with a difference

What’s it like to move to a new place? A new country? To suddenly find yourself in a culture with a totally different way of life and thinking?

MUSA’s Encountering Fife project has revealed some of the answers to these questions. Seven migrants studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with Fife Council have teamed up with 14 year-olds from Madras College, the secondary school in St Andrews, to create an exhibition of photographs documenting their way of life.

Learning & Access Curator Matt Sheard discusses the project.

What did the Encountering Fife project involve?

A group of migrants from Syria, Turkey, Vietnam and Pakistan used photography to record what it was like to live in Fife, taking pictures of the world around them, the things that were new, the people they meet. Then they shared the stories behind the photos with pupils from Madras College, who worked with them to write the information in the exhibition, the little labels that go alongside the photographs, and to curate and publicise the display.

Encountering Fife participants
Some of the ESOL students and Madras College pupils who took part in the project.

What has been the result?

We’ve ended up with about 60 photographs giving a snapshot of Scottish life from a migrant’s perspective. Some of the things the photographers have noticed are quite surprising. Feras, who comes from Syria, noted how low the clouds are in the sky. Naila, from Pakistan, found the range of flowers striking, because the climate in Pakistan is too hot and dry for them to grow. Actually, Naila loved the Scottish weather, which was a surprise to me!

Light and Dark
Light and Dark by Naila Jamil seeks to emphasise the cool weather than can be found in Scotland.

Other things prompt greater reflection. Rayan, from Syria, photographed some ceiling lights. It’s not a very striking image until you read the label she wrote with the pupils. It says “Rayan lived without electric light in Syria because of the war. She took this picture because she wants to show how much she appreciates the lights here. It is very hard to live without light.”

The Light at the End of the Tunnel
The Light at the End of the Tunnel, one of the photographs by Rayan Batal.

Another of her photographs shows taps running. Her label notes that water in Syria is scarce or dirty and that she’s grateful for the water here. That made me stop and think, and it made the school pupils and our visitors stop and think too. It’s something so simple and every-day that we take for granted, yet she’s grateful for it.

Water by Rayan Batal

Why did you carry out this project and why arrange for migrants to work with school pupils?

I came across a piece of research which indicated that 55% of UK citizens feel poorly informed about immigration and thought that we needed to change that. Research shows that museums are trusted institutions, so we’re well placed to try to offer the public the side of the story which the media doesn’t often show. That meant giving migrants a voice and allowing them to share their own experiences.

Peace Symbol
Peace Symbol shows a Fife landmark which resonates strongly with the photographer, Marwa Haimoud, from Syria.

At the same time, work by the Scottish Government shows that language learning is vital to integration, that local communities need to know how to support migrants and that migrants find it hard to get to know Scottish people. Having migrants work alongside school pupils meant they could naturally develop their English by partnering with native speakers to create the exhibition, while the pupils could learn how to communicate with those who have limited English. The topic also meant that pupils could learn directly from the migrants about their experiences and take that knowledge into their communities.

On top of that, having pupils create the exhibition themselves meant they could gain employability skills. We gave them training in the skills they’d need, such as project and budget management, marketing, problem solving and writing for the public, always using the museum’s displays to help them work out what to do.

One of the ESOL students discusses what makes a good museum label with one of the Madras College pupils, using MUSA’s displays as a guide.

Has it succeeded?

I think it has! We worked closely with Fife Council’s ESOL department to develop the project. Their tutor, Alison Marshall, thinks that creating situations for real-world language development is really difficult and that this project has enabled that to happen in a natural, enjoyable way. She also says that the participants feel they now have a place in the museum. She’s got a lot of experience with migrants and told me that this sense of belonging is really precious and shouldn’t be underestimated.

A sense of place?
Participants, one wearing the St Andrews red gown, pose with one of the museum exhibits. Their English tutor believes they feel a sense of place at MUSA.

The participants have also been very positive. They were very pleased that they were able to meet local people. They’ve said not only that their language skills have improved, but that they’ve gained a lot more confidence speaking English. One of them said “nobody laughs here when I get things wrong” and that’s a really important learning environment to create. They’re also really pleased that their stories are going on display. None of them are professional photographers and they take great pride knowing that people will see their work.

For me the success of the project was summed up on the last day, when one of the migrants got quite emotional and said “I will miss this project, I don’t know what to do when it finishes.”

ESOL students discuss the differences between their home countries and Scotland with pupils from Madras College.


And what have the secondary school pupils got out of it?

They’ve learnt a lot about what it’s like to move to Scotland from another country and how they can help people in that situation. One of the pupils noted that some of the migrants struggle with loneliness because they’ve often left their families behind and their English is limited. This is something that the Scottish Government’s research had also noted. One of the boys was quite surprised that the migrants were happy. “I expected them to be sad,” he told me, “but they’re not.”

Perfect Day
Perfect Day by Fidan Cockyasar

Were there any unexpected results?

All of the pupils said they’d learnt social skills. I wasn’t expecting that as an outcome. The migrants also gained a lot of confidence in travelling. Back at the start they didn’t know how to use public transport to get to the museum and they didn’t have much confidence in taking the bus. Their English tutor had to plan their travel and sometimes travel with them too, but by the end they were really confident and travelling alone without any help. That makes a massive difference, giving someone real freedom. That was greatly helped by Stagecoach, who donated free bus travel for the participants.

Participants built friendships across the language barrier. Here two of the migrants take a selfie with two Madras College pupils.

And how have visitors reacted?

They’ve been really positive. We have ‘reflection cards’ for visitors to fill out at the end of the exhibition and most of those who’ve filled them in have written a surprising amount. Many comment on the things we take for granted and indicate a change in viewpoint, some wrote that they felt privileged to share the migrants’ first steps in the country. Some of the responses were quite philosophical, others said that they’d found the display “eye-opening”, “thought provoking”, “moving” or “emotional”.

Encountering Sushi
Encountering Sushi by Quyen Tran. Quyen focused on food in her photographs as one of the differences between Vietnam and Scotland.

So all in all a successful project?

I think so, but I’d be lying if I said it was all plain sailing. A lot of things went wrong, but we knew we were taking a risk when we started the project, we really didn’t know if it would work. If you don’t try, you can’t succeed. We’ve learnt a lot and are making sure we share what we’ve learnt with anyone else who wants to do something similar.

And how have you personally enjoyed the project?

This has been, without a doubt, the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on. It’s been tough finding our way and we couldn’t have done it without Alison from Fife Council’s ESOL team. She’s been really key to achieving our aims, she’s put in a lot of time and effort and brought a lot of knowledge, the project wouldn’t have worked without that partnership.

Having said that, it’s also the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on. Getting to know the participants has been a genuine pleasure, seeing their development, their enjoyment, their desire to do well, their pride in their work, it’s all been fantastic. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to them.

It’s also been very, very emotional. Out of the blue one day one of the participants showed me a video she’d taken on her phone of her home town being bombed. How do you respond to that? There were a number of similar conversations, ones that just leave you grasping for words. Many of those involved in the project have difficult lives here and real, genuine challenges, but they’re really grateful to be in Scotland because we have peace. That’s changed my outlook on life in a big way.

Clear Sea
Clear Sea by Feras Haj Yousef

So what’s next?

The St Andrews exhibition has finished now, but there’s going to be a bigger display, with some video interviews with the participants as well, opening in Dunfermline in January.

We’re also carrying on the project for another year, with the same approach and goals but on a different theme. We’ll have some of the same migrants taking part as well as some new ones. I’m looking forward to that but I know it’ll be another steep learning curve.

You can see Encountering Fife: Photographs of migrant experiences in Fife at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries from 19th January until 14th April 2019.


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