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With Cameras as a Bridge, Young Colombian Refugees Tell Their Stories

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What is the power of photography? What is the gift of seeing through new eyes?

In January of this year our band of seven photographer-teachers traveled to the community of Altos de la Florida, Colombia, to teach photography to young people who are living as refugees in their own country.

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  Photograph by Yuri Esmeralda Segura Silva

VisionWorkshops, in partnership with the Annenberg Space for Photography, hoped the five-day workshop for these youth—who are among the almost 60 million displaced people in the world today—would result in photographs that would provide a unique contribution to an exhibit on the crisis of refugees.

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In a series of portraits of the students, photographer Lynn Johnson asked them to write on a piece of paper their name and what they have to offer the world. Karola Vargas wrote “Honesty.” Photograph by Lynn Johnson

This community of 3,000, located outside Bogotá, is a collection of hand-made homes spread across the hills and patched together with found timbers and tin. Most lack sanitation or heat. Water is delivered monthly by truck. Wallpaper, meant to keep out wind and dust, is made of foil wrappers saved from cookie boxes and butter.

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  Photograph by Juan Pablo Sanabria

Families have come here to escape the violence of drugs and the plague of a 30-year civil war in the countryside. Our team has come to share a passion for storytelling and love of looking through a viewfinder with students whose worlds have been upended—shattered, lost, stolen, displaced by violence.

We wanted to see their story. And we wanted to see how they see. And to discover if a mere camera can be a bridge.

We asked the students, “Who are you?”

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Juan Pablo Sanabra. “Experience”  Photograph by Lynn Johnson

“I am Juan Pablo. I live with my family in Soacha in Altos de la Florida. We are very humble, but I don’t need money to be happy because my greatest joy is to be with my family. We don’t like problems. Although we have trouble surviving sometimes, we live as a family. I am not poor or rich—I am humble and I am proud to be Colombian.” —Juan Pablo Sanabria

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  Photograph by Kevin Junior Cordoba Socarras

Together we view thousands of photographs. We speak of how photography can change one’s world. We teach technical information and the delight of design, balance, and light. We do yoga and meditation and speak of focus.

Then we put cameras in their hands.

This is always a magical moment. What will happen? Immersion? Rejection? One by one you can see eyes and minds light up. A sense of appreciation for their lives and families snaps alive as each student accepts the responsibility to tell the truth of their adopted home.

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Yuri Segura. “Passion and my family” Photograph by Lynn Johnson

“I am from the land of the flowers, the city of the everlasting spring: Medellín. After the father of my children died I had the opportunity to go to Venezuela, where I worked in buses singing and selling sweets, night and day.” —Yuri Segura Silva

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  Photograph by Diana Carolina Vargas Lugo

“I am the heat and the cold. I am folklore. I am a carnival. I am the dancing and the one who studies. I am self-improvement and effort. I am … May I be your faith, may the dancing and the music move your thoughts, your heart, and your life.” —Andrés Camilo Cholo

Pictured here are some of the students, holding a paper with their name and the gift they offer the world, a world that is larger now than the dirt streets of Altos de la Florida. And you will see how this world looks through their eyes—the most important view.

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  Photograph by Lynn Johnson

At the homegrown ceremony where the students receive their certificates and praise, one student says to Kirsten Elstner, our leader, that he feels so lucky that “people like us came to work with people like them.”

In fact, we were the privileged ones. We were the students. Karola, Juan Pablo, Yuri, Andres, and all the students gave us the gift of new eyes.

This workshop was sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation, in partnership with the UNHCR and VisionWorkshops. The students’ work will be shown alongside that of Lynsey Addario, Graciela Iturbide, Martin Schoeller, and others during Annenberg’s exhibition REFUGEE in Los Angeles, April 23 to August 21. The exhibit illuminates the plight of displaced people worldwide, and the Colombian students will offer a first-person insight into this global issue. VisionWorkshops mentors for this project included Lynn Johnson, Tyrone Turner, Stacy Gold, Jon Brack, Francesca Ciglar, Kirsten Elstner, and Jack Elstner.

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