Photographs of Freedom


Shaghayegh went patiently room-to-room in the cavernous old school, where classrooms have become informal settlements for refugees in Greece. Just inside the doors were partitions, with sheets hung to create rooms or separate families from others.

At most doors, she found Arabic speakers. She could get by with them in simple English.

“Do you know where is the Afghan families? Iranian?” she asked.

Your family?” a young man replied earnestly, wondering if she was lost.

“No, no. Just a family. Thank you.” She walked to the next door and knocked.

Shaghayegh was on assignment. For National Geographic Photo Camp, she and 17 other young people — some refugees, like herself, others Greek citizens — were exploring ideas of freedom and identity. She had five days of intensive training, assignments and field trips to tell a photo story in and around Athens, where thousands of refugees now find themselves.

A group of 4 young people stand in a circle and talk
Shaghayegh Farang, center, listens to direction from National Geographic photograher Robin Hammond, left, the students’ mentor for the week. Hammond was preparing the students for their assignment making photos in an informal refugee settlement at the site of a former school in Athens. Photo credit: Kirsten Elstner/National Geographic Photo Camp. 

After a half hour of looking, she found a family who spoke Farsi, like her. And, like a seasoned photojournalist, she then waited longer. For more than hour, she talked with the family — a group of women and children, some related, some not, who had fled Afghanistan and were now waiting themselves, for papers and permission to join family in Sweden, or Germany. After tea, after swapping stories, Shaghayegh had their trust and permission to make a few photographs.

“But not for Facebook,” they all cautioned, not willing for their faces to be seen in public. Everyone has security concerns.

“A lot of photography is about waiting”

Ronan Donovan, one of the National Geographic photographers leading this week’s work, talked to the students about the concept of the “decisive moment” in photography. By mid-week, many of them were executing it perfectly — framing up a shot and waiting for action, for something interesting, to come into view before snapping the shutter.

For the students in Greece as refugees, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Iran, waiting is a fact of life. Shaghayegh is here in Athens from Iran, living in a refugee camp with her mother and siblings, and hoping for a better future. She was stifled by life in Iran, where she tried to work as a professional photographer but was limited in what she was allowed to do as a woman, and as a woman who chooses not to wear hijab. She walked five days over mountains to Turkey, then traveled by boat to Greece.

She has thought a lot about freedom, the theme of this camp.

Face of a young woman with a rose over her mouth
Self-portrait by Shaghayegh Farang.

Growing up, she discovered a love of mountain climbing. “When I was 10 years old I began climbing and I experienced new type of life. Everywhere I climbed I looked for a harder path, and I went there — this taught me that I’m stronger than before.”

“But I grew up in a country where there are dictatorial rules, and everything I wanted to do was blocked. I spent my most of my time in mountains because when I was there I felt that I’m equal to a man.”

Even in mountain climbing, limits were enforced. She asked her climbing leader to let her climb solo, something men could do, and he said no. “I asked him, ‘What is the problem and why?’ He told me it was because wild animals, or shepherds could attack me. Of course he meant because I’m a woman. And for me it meant that there was no safety in my paradise [of mountain climbing]. I understood that the freedom is far away from me.”

Picturing freedom

Here at Photo Camp, Shaghayegh has been a standout. With the Afghan women at the informal school settlement, she made only a few photos after their long conversation, but two were highlighted in the next morning’s group critique with Ronan.

Two dogs look under blue fence
Photo by Shaghayegh Farang.

At each critique, discussions of lighting, framing, and visual narratives were delivered in English, then translated in small huddles to Farsi and Arabic by Internews staff. All of the students were finding new ways to tell their own stories, and the stories of those around them.

Two people sit at a bus stop next to a tall white building A man wearing a white apron sits at an outdoor table
Two young women wearing t-shirts and jeans stand outside at night Stuffed animals are attached to a wall
Clockwise from upper left, photos by Photo Camp students Benjamin Dalton, Eliza Gkritsi, Raouf Amen and Sahar Farhang.

Shaghayegh has dreams — to work professionally, to live again among mountains. It’s unclear what her next steps are. But to watch her at work with photography, it’s clear she has a focus and a determination to make a better future.

“My desire is to show to people, specifically Middle Eastern women, that it is possible to go everywhere, even if you aren’t a man.”

“It is the most beautiful thing in the world that you can be a woman and you can go.”

Internews partnered with National Geographic to bring Photo Camp to Greece, an extension of our News That Moves project to improve to provide actionable, local information for refugees and migrants in Greece.

At National Geographic Photo Camp, young people from underserved communities, including at-risk and refugee teens, learn how to use photography to tell their own stories, explore the world around them, and develop deep connections with others.

World-class National Geographic photographers and National Geographic magazine editors provide students with a personalized, immersive learning experience, inspiring the next generation of photojournalists. Then, through intimate presentations in their own communities and public exhibitions that reach millions of viewers, National Geographic Photo Camp showcases the students’ perspectives on issues that are important to all of us.

National Geographic Photo Camp is sponsored by the National Geographic Center of Excellence in Photography in partnership with VisionWorkshops of Annapolis, Maryland. To date, National Geographic has sponsored 76 Photo Camps with 2,500 students in 20 countries. Internews has previously partnered with National Geographic on Photo Camps in Crimea, Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Sudan, and Kenya.

(Banner photo: A young girl draws on a mural at a refugee camp in Elainos, Greece. Photo credit: Laura Stein Lindamood/Internews)