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"This is what I’d love to do with my work; I want to share stories" : An interview with ph

In our latest artist interview, we speak with Beatrice Schachenmayr, photographer and founder of photography initiative, Frame Your Story,

We were introduced to Beatrice Schachenmayr a few months ago when she came to one of our Pass the Crayon meetups, and expressed her interest in helping us with some workshops. We got talking with her about her photography work, and it turns out we have a lot in common!

Beatrice had just finished a six month project at the Spandau refugee shelter, a project which saw her meet up with a group of young people every week and go out on excursions around Berlin, photographing their surroundings. Their work was being displayed in an exhibition at Café Refugio, so I went along to take a look. The photos captured Berlin from a multitude of angles, focusing on a diverse range of subject matter. I became interested in the young photographers who took these pictures, and I wanted to find out more from Beatrice about her experience in single-handedly creating and facilitating this impressive photo project.

Last week, we met up for a chat, and I learnt about 'Frame Your Story', Beatrice's inspiring solo venture which has seen her travel from the U.S. to Istanbul, and then to Berlin, working closely with groups of young people, teaching them photography skills.

Beatrice hugging Rima, 11 from Syria, at the final photography exhibition in Istanbul in May 2016

So, tell me a bit about how you became involved with photography, and how that led you to create ‘Frame Your Story’? I’ve always been a creative person. I didn’t excel in the normal curriculum at school, and I always gravitated towards art, painting, photography and mixed media because I could express my sensitivities and be comfortable. Photography appeals because it is one machine - not individual elements like paper and crayons - because it is only one thing, it was way easier to go out and explore. There were specific things that really pulled me in this direction, like the ‘The Girl Project’ by Kate Engelbrecht. She distributed many disposable cameras to young women, who could use them however they liked, and send the camera back to her when they were finished. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and several of my pictures were published in a book! That was super cool. I subsequently took a photography course in high school, which allowed me to create a self-portrait of myself, and that experience also gave me confidence in myself. In college I learned about the work of Zana Briski. She made, ‘Born into Brothels’, a film centred around her project in Calcutta, India. The film captured the story of a woman’s project, where she gave cameras to youth in the red-light district there. The cameras gave them a positive outlet to grow, achieve and realise, and several of the young children later on left Calcutta for different opportunities. When I saw the video, it pulled on my heartstrings, and I remember that moment when I said, 'this makes sense; this is what I’d love to do with my work.’ I want to share stories. So, ‘Frame Your Story’ was a seed idea that I had as a sophomore in college, and five years later, I finally had the courage, after doing lots of different jobs and building my foundation of confidence, to realise and pursue this project. That’s what led me to the door of Frame Your Story. I finally opened the door, and I did a fundraiser in 2015, and I raised enough money on the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo, for ten cameras and other materials, and my ticket to Istanbul, where I’d had a previous internship as a student. So, I went back, set myself up and got a place to live, and worked twice a week with the organisation, Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (SGDD-ASAM), there to lead a project with forty Syrian refugees, all of them children between 4 and 16 years old. The project lasted for six months and was a huge success. It ended with each child having a photo journal with their own photographs and writing, and an art gallery exhibition, where they could see their photos on the walls and share their perspectives. There were around 100 people at the opening! It was very inspiring.

The last days of the first project in Istanbul and the children have decorated their photo journals

When and why did you choose Berlin as the location for your next project? I chose to come to Berlin because I had previously been in Istanbul and I really liked the Turkish people and I thought it would make a good transition. I am also German, and it just made sense as a place to go. It wasn’t so easy to launch the second project, and I spent months emailing people over and over to try to get access. Finally, I connected with the Berliner Stadtmission, and they invited me to pursue my project in the Moabit shelter. This project was very different - different challenges and successes. Around ten children participated, all similar ages. It lasted six months and ended in a small exhibition in the shelter space for their family and friends. Along the way I’m learning about how this works. I’m an artist; I’m not a social worker or a teacher. I’m someone who believes in learning through experience. I’m so happy with the work that has been done. It is hard to measure the impact but knowing that the kids are learning something new in a positive space, and are taking away new skills, teaching me the language, learning about their new environment, has been a great experience for everyone involved.

You spent six months at the Spandau shelter, coming every week on your own, to collaborate with the residents. The Spandau shelter (which we have also worked in) is an old tobacco factory and pretty overwhelming. Can you remember how you felt on the first day you walked into the shelter? What were your initial thoughts and feelings? This third project was with older participants between 18 and 25 years old, so a whole new ball game! When I show up on the first day, I normally just like to observe, as I am a guest in the space. First, I like to earn their respect and gain their trust before we jump in. Let’s talk and learn about one another. I even did yoga one time (in Istanbul) with the children. The space in Spandau was so minimal; it could have been given more love to make it just a little more comfortable. The lighting was very harsh. It’s an old tobacco factory so the energy in the space seemed stale. Each space I’ve worked in is entirely different. This space was huge, like a gymnasium. There was a creative space for people to sew and build furniture, but I think there could have been a lot more.

Tell me a bit about the workshop participants. Was it a core group of people, or did the groups change every week? Can you tell me a bit about the individuals in the group? Each week, on a Wednesday, we met in the central area at the same table from 3pm till 6pm. I really tried to get them to show up every week but it’s hard in this space. People feel lethargic, and time moves in a strange way in this place. They often have other commitments and focuses. The group was really cool-- it changed often, but that’s the rhythm of these projects, something that I’ve come to learn and enjoy. The central space was conducive to people coming over and wanting to join in and see what’s going on. Never saying “no” to somebody who wants to join in. Typically, I had between 7-12 participants, sometimes 5, or sometimes even 2! You have to find other people to come out and encourage them. It’s important not to feel discouraged on days when few people show up or when things go astray. I created a WhatsApp group, which was something I’d never done before, where we share photos, and I’d add people and they would start responding about how their day was and sometimes share photos taken with their phones. Even today, Sow sent me a picture of his shadow!

Sow is 20 years old, from Eritrea; Tekiea is 25 years old, from Eritrea; Mohamed is 24 years old, from Ghana; Maria is 17 years old, from Armenia; Desale is 24 years old, from Eritrea; Sham is 17 years old, from Kurdistan. The other participants I didn’t get to know as well because they didn’t attend the workshops every week. We became a small and close group. We went to the Dahlem Botanical Gardens, the Sony World Photography Awards at the Willy Brandt Haus, C/O Berlin Gallery, all over the place. We speak mostly in German but they also understand some English. Now that that project is over, some of us stay in touch and the WhatsApp group is still active. It’s important to be a support system to each other. Tekiea and I meet once a month or two months. I gave him a camera so that he can capture Berlin and the places he visits, and when we connect, I help him to digitally process his photos. He's a great photographer and is developing a style! Maybe some people aren’t motivated to take a camera, but when you’re alone, a camera is an awesome tool to discover a city. It can be like a companion.

Maria photographing the flowers at the Dahlem Botanical Gardens on Valentine’s Day (photo left). Sow reading a caption at the Sony World Photography Awards (photo right)

As the project progressed, and many of the residents were relocated either to other shelters or to their new homes, it must have become more difficult to meet every week. How did these logistical challenges affect the project? Towards the end of the project, the population of Spandau shelter residents significantly reduced, as many of them found accommodation in Berlin, and others were relocated to different shelters. Luckily, I was able to stay connected and meet them. Ali, in his late twenties, from Afghanistan, for example, was relocated at the beginning of the project, but he still made it to some of the events! I let the project run onwards until the shelter closed permanently. Coincidentally, this time coincided with the participant’s photography exhibition, which was hosted at Café Refugio. It was a great opportunity to come together for the final event. The exhibition contained photographs from all 3 projects.

Café Refugio in Berlin where the photos are currently exhibited

And onto the photos! I visited your exhibition at Café Refugio, and took a few pictures of my favourite photos. Could you maybe tell me a bit more about some of them?

Sham made this photo of the single foot. This is called: "Enjoy the Small Thing in Life.” It was made on an afternoon during a brief collaboration with another project called ‘Kompass’, led by Carlo Schenk and Anna Homann, both whom I had worked with in Spandau. I had also first met Sham at the shelter in Spandau. She and her brother and parents left the shelter and moved into the city. This is when she took this picture of the foot in Kreuzberg.

Sham posted this caption next to her photograph at the opening of the participant’s photography exhibition. Some of the photos didn’t have titles and I’d wanted to make it more interactive so that people could connect more with the photographs and photographers. When I asked her to create a title, she did, and then she had the awesome idea to welcome people to post their titles under the pictures using masking tape. Viewers wrote their titled on masking tape and stuck them underneath the pictures.

The other photograph (above) was taken in Istanbul by Rahaf who was age 12 at the time, and is from Syria. She chose this as her favorite and titled it “Light Breaking Shadow".

This is Salma. She was 7 at the time, and is from Egypt. This is from the Moabit project in Berlin. Salma is actually in the photograph and someone else took it with her camera. The photo really expresses her personality because her mood would often fluctuate, so she had a big influence on everyone in the group. This was a moment when she wasn’t feeling good, but we were on our way to the park, which quickly motivated her to feel better.

This is a picture from Spandau. It was taken by Maria, from Armenia. She took this one independently on her phone and sent it to me via WhatsApp. Many people really like this picture. There is something very serene about it. Maria’s photo was titled “Lost is Silence” by someone at the exhibition using masking tape.

What was it like going on excursions around Berlin with newcomers who had just arrived in the city? How did they interact with their new environment? What were their responses? That’s difficult for me to answer. Many people I met had been in Berlin for almost a year or more – going to school and searching for apartments and jobs. They were definitely still assimilating. One participant said that he was experiencing racism on the train lines. I don’t want to mention his name. I found that places like the botanical gardens were really wonderful for us to visit. The train journey was a nice opportunity to socialise and be with a support system. The gardens were especially amazing for the people from places like Eritrea and Vietnam. Many of them recognized the plants and wildlife from their homes, so it was a good feeling for them. I find that people often gravitate towards photographing nature. They also love to photograph one another to make “selfies.” They really capture each other well, and that speaks to how they’re assimilating.

Mohamed captured by a friend at the Dahlem Botanical Gardens on Valentine’s Day

Taken as a whole body of work, what do you think these pictures say? Are there any themes or ideas that appear in them? I think everybody interprets a photograph in a different way. At the opening of the exhibition the participants had the chance to talk about their experiences and their photos. I love all the pictures, and I curated the show in Berlin to bring the stories together. I chose past project photographs based on the fond memories I had, and the ones the participants chose to put in to the exhibition. As a whole, they communicate two different places - the similarities and the differences - and the different people. They also capture subtleties that we may not notice, especially the ones captured by children. Many of the images express something very personal. All these young people have perspectives to share, if they choose to. People want to hear them and understand them, and their stories better.

The Spandau shelter has sadly now been closed. Do you keep in contact with any of the participants? Yes, I try to. Sow and I met this weekend at another exhibition that I curated. He seemed to be doing well in the short time that we spoke. I also meet with Tekiea once in a while. We are all still connected with the WhatsApp group too. Mohammed, he lives near me, and I hope to see him soon. Two people, Carlo and Anna, whom I worked with in Spandau, were there each week and are still very helpful. When you are working alone it is so important to have this support and motivation! We have become good friends now, and they’ve connected so well with many people, and been incredibly supportive to the group.

And looking to the future, do you have any new projects in the pipeline? Will you be continuing your journey with Frame Your Story? I’m in the process of putting a book together that I plan to publish in the spring if all goes well. It’s inspired by ‘This Equals That’ by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin, which has been a wonderful resource. I’m going to put a spin on it. The book will be a collection of participant photos from Berlin and Istanbul. It will be around 60 pages, and then at the end I will create a scrapbook and include personal notes from the project, and personal reflections and photos that document it. I would love to share the project’s beautiful elements with the participants, supporters and followers - all the people that have helped me to make this passionate seed project sprout to life.

And finally: Art can help us connect with each other and with ourselves. Do you think art has an important role to play in helping welcome refugees to a new country? I’m really interested in art therapy. It can help you connect with yourself, especially if you’re a newcomer in a place or culture. When someone has a positive outlet to discover themselves without judgement, they can have a more positive impact on one another, the society, nature, and meaningful growth can happen.

A group of supporters, Tekiea and me, at last month’s Curator Talk at the Refugio Cafe

** All photos in this post are displayed with kind permission from Beatrice. Beatrice is currently involved in another project called 'Picturing Berlin: Reporting My City', which you can visit at Kuelhaus Berlin. We hope you enjoyed our latest artist interview. Don't forget to 'like' this post and share on social media! :) **


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