This year’s Coffee Shop Conversations are being hosted by some off the best independent coffee shops in Leicester’s City Centre. The conversations are part of Journeys Festival International, Leicester and are an opportunity to discuss and exchange views on topics whilst enjoying free tea, coffee and cake.


The theme for this year’s Coffee Shop Conversations is ‘Documenting Refuge and Asylum’. From photography, to graffiti, to poetry, they discuss how these very different artistic mediums explore and document the refugee and asylum seeker experience. The events are chaired by artist’s working within the community and guest speakers from all over the world.


First up was Ethics Through A Lens. I joined award-winning Iranian photographer Farhad Berahman and the Trustee Chair of London based organisation PhotoVoice, Russell Watkins  to discuss how photography can become the stimulant for positive social change and to ethically document the journeys of individuals that could be as close as the people on our doorsteps.

Photo Credit: Pinterest.
Conversation began around individual contributions to photography, where their artistic influences stemmed from and flowing through to personal approaches to the challenges and way the work is produced. Farhad Berahman began by talking about the biggest challenge he saw for himself when creating the work is this idea of the person’s identity, some people “don’t want to show identity” and this can be from their individual or governmental views. On the opposite to this PhotoVoice’s Russell Watkins thinks this can counterbalance because some people are “desperate to be heard, to be seen” and photography can be the medium to be able to perform that action for them.


The photography taken within this context is about the many questions that create the images. Trying to establish which of the questions are important; who is telling the story? How important is the location of the photograph? Does it have to show influence from a popular or specific humanitarian crisis and/or event to establish enough of an impact to the people who can create change? All very important to think about when initially setting out to create this form of artistic medium that isn’t about the text, but the imagery as its driving force. Conversation also went into how can we move away from the photographer capturing what it thinks portrays the people in the photography and talking to the people themselves. What would they like us to capture? What is the message they want to get out?


The power in which photography can have and create discussions have shown examples in recent years. Russell discussed the story of Alan Kurdi, a three year old whose body washed up on the shore of a Turkish resort back in 2015. The image became widely profiled across Europe and even prompted change in policies in the UK. ‘Few weeks after that picture came out David Cameron announced that the British government was going to take in thousands of the seriously affected Syrian refugees. Nobody knew that two weeks after the image was released that this policy would then be in place’. This alone is an example in how a photography can have a governmental impact.


Discussion also approached ideas about how images produced can be subject to manipulation and misrepresentation, whether that’s through media impact or on an individual response to the photography. How as photographers are they challenged to create imagery which has the opportunity to be discussed in a way that isn’t representative of the image and the initial idea surrounding it. It’s a challenge that both Russell  and Farhad discussed was present for them when producing work, whether or not  it is their intention to avoid this from happening is something which doesn’t come within their context. However, it is something as an individual that is present for me and something I find myself wondering when so many images are thrust into the media platform, and so easy to obtain.  


Photography has become more accessible in the past 20 or so years, with many people producing images right in front of them and uploading them onto social media. Russell  mentioned how ‘we live in such a connected world, in dark and dangerous times. It’s important to provide access to safe and controlled means for people in order to challenge narratives and perceptions of imagery’ that is responsive and vital in developing conversations and discussions around the topic. Social Media can be a heavy influence on this idea, continuing to share imagery and ideas into the contexts that surround ourselves.


Overall, the context and discussions surrounding this team were insightful and very thought-provoking. I felt an almost interest to go out there and see what images and stories I could explore within my own city, there’s many still to be represented and spoke about. The next Coffee Shop Conversation takes place at the Exchange Bar, 5.30 - 7pm, and will be discussing the role of graffiti from Leicester to Calais, with Nomad Clan, Izzy Hoskins from Graff HQ and Sean Carroll, from Inspirate, producers of the recent, Bring the Paint International Street Art Festival in Leicester. So do come along, I’d recommend!

This post was written in collaboration with the Journeys Festival International currently taking place in Leicester. It's taking place until the 3rd September, you can find out more about the other Coffee Shop Conversations as well as the range of other events on offer by heading over to their website here

thanks for reading,