Migrant workers flip the script and use Photovoice to tell their own stories

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What happens when undocumented Bangladeshi and Pakistani men in Greece take their mobile phones to record their lives as migrant farm workers?

“It will let people learn how we live our lives here,” one of the men said, referring to the photos and videos they were taking. For the workers, these serve as proof of their migrant existence.

COVID-19 and food security concerns have led to increased media coverage of migrant farmworkers, with stories typically being told on their behalf. Four groups of South Asian migrant men in Greece wanted to flip the script and tell their own stories.

They used Photovoice, an arts-based social justice tool, to introduce themselves and their concerns directly to people. It eventually turned into a traveling multimedia exhibit and digital archive, That’s the proof.

Long hours, low pay

Every year, thousands of young South Asian men arrive in Greece, the border of Europe, often driven by poverty, climate change, political unrest or ethnic or religious violence in their home country. Undocumented and therefore ‘illegal’, they find themselves in the agrarian and urban informal economy of Greece as flexible workers. Although 90% of Greek agriculture depends on migrant labour, they receive low wages, face wage theft and are forced to work long hours without breaks.

Since 2017, I have been conducting research with many of these men to study how their “illegality” and restrictive immigration policies shape men’s labor market outcomes and masculine aspirations.

A screenshot of one of the WhatsApp groups, “Migrant Workers Welfare Collective” (participant names are pseudonyms).
(This is proof), Author provided

The process behind the exposure emerged organically as the men used WhatsApp to send me images of their lives. I suggested using Photovoice so they could share their lives with a wider audience.

Photovoice is a participant-driven visual research strategy used to engage with socio-economically and politically marginalized populations.

Participants take pictures of what they consider important and not what the researchers want to highlight. The photos are accompanied by texts resulting from the conversations between the participants of Photovoice. These stories are often used to advocate for policy change.

The unique insider perspective provided by Photovoice makes it invaluable for cultural mediation and self-advocacy.

Sharing their thoughts

Three groups of Bangladeshi men employed in the strawberry agribusiness and a group of Pakistani men engaged in the informal economy in Athens formed separate WhatsApp groups, including me in each. The groups were active from mid-2018 to the end of 2021.

They used their phones to take photos, record videos and voice messages about the precariousness of life as migrant workers. They also spoke about workplace accidents, substandard housing, and worker activism for free access to COVID-19 vaccines. The ubiquity of cell phones made it easy to do this without drawing attention to themselves.

Thanks to this project, the men were able to communicate with each other and with myself using WhatsApp groups as discussion forums. So their worries about being prevented from congregating in one place, combined with unpredictable work hours, didn’t stop them from being able to document their experiences. This has resulted in greater dialogue and collective decision-making.

The rules were simple: permission had to be granted to those photographed, and all images shared assumed fair use for exhibitions and other outreach methods.

A man takes a photo of another man on his mobile phone
Project participants shared photos and stories via WhatsApp.
(This is proof), Author provided

That’s the proof

Their work resulted in a multimedia exhibition which I helped organize. We worked together to select images, videos, soundscapes and plan a replica of the Manolada migrant huts.

The exhibition, That’s the proof, was thematic, dealing with border crossings, backbreaking labor, COVID-19 and activism. The quotes were selected from their voicemails and interviews.

The exhibition premiered in early April 2022 at Technopolis City of Athens. It will travel across Canada to locations such as Kingston, Ont., Toronto and Waterloo, Ont.

Although this project engages with a small group of migrant South Asian men in Greece, the visual articulation of their migrant experience resonates with other migrant workers around the world – including those employed in the under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in agrarian communities across Canada.

The men sit in a circle with their legs crossed
Men gather to de-stress by singing Sufi songs.
(This is proof), Author provided

This project challenges stereotypes of migrant men, who are often vilified because of their gender identity, race and religion. It also serves to empower by allowing the experiences of “disposable” migrant agricultural workers in Greece to reach a wider audience through multi-city exhibits and digital archives.

Men recognize that when it comes to being heard by ordinary people, politicians and change-makers, many avenues are closed to them. That’s the proof serves as an accessible mode of communication. By disrupting their “otherness,” men seek to restore voice and power to racialized migrant workers. For them, this project is a political act of resistance.

“We participate to make our voices heard. We want a change in the way people see us and our plight.

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