A Polaroid for a Refugee

Fahima and family in Austria, part of Giovanna Del Sarto’s A Polaroid for a Refugee project © Giovanna Del Sarto

A guest blog by Giovanna Del Sarto, creator of A Polaroid for a Refugee, a photographic project depicting points of transition in the lives of individual refugees. As part of our activities for Refugee Week 2018, we are displaying a selection of images from A Polaroid for a Refugee at the Migration Museum at The Workshop until Sunday 1 July 2018. Giovanna will be speaking at our Refugee Week Late Opening on Thursday 21 June.


In 2015, after months spent reading newspapers, watching television reports and listening to different opinions about the refugee crisis in Europe, I felt the urge to go and witness.

My aim was also to volunteer, to be able to understand and be close to the people involved. Since October 2015, I have visited various locations including Preševo, Belgrade, (Serbia); Lesvos Island, Athens, Idomeni, where the humanitarian need was most tangible; and Chios, an island located just a few kilometres from the Turkish coast (Greece).

On all of these occasions, I had my Polaroid Land Camera with me – and it was during my first trip that the A Polaroid for a Refugee project was born.

Chios Island, Greece, 2016, part of Giovanna Del Sarto’s A Polaroid for a Refugee project © Giovanna Del Sarto

It is a project based on the concept of giving – giving something back to the refugees, a moment of their life and journey captured forever. The Polaroids reflect the inner strength and dignity maintained by refugees during their long and harrowing journeys. For every Polaroid I take, I give one to the refugee as a reminder of the moment. On the back of the Polaroid is a simple statement: ‘Wherever your destination may be – tell me when you feel you have reached a safe place.’ This is a message of hope, which, sadly, for some may never be fulfilled.

Everyone I photographed has a Polaroid now. I love the idea that they will look at those pictures one day in the future. The portraits I took are very similar to family portraits, conveying a relaxed and carefree attitude that only scratches the surface of the refugees’ lives. Yet the value for the refugee is to have this moment of escape from the horrors of their daily lives and to carry a reminder of it with them on their onward journeys.

Everyone wanted their photograph taken, but for many different reasons. The young men loved to pose; the mothers wanted a picture to show their children when they’re older; and the kids just saw it as a bit of fun.

And for us who look at these images? We see a different side to the refugee crisis from the one we’re usually offered. We see these people just as people, not as victims or heroes, not as refugees to pity or as migrants to fear. They emerge as humans – resilient, thoughtful, joyful individuals.

Mahbub in Athens, Greece, 2016

Since August 2017, I have been visiting people who have kept in touch with me and are building new lives in Europe. Some, such as Fahima, still have the original Polaroid, enabling us to reunite the two Polaroids in the place that they have chosen to rebuild their lives. Others, such as Rohina, had their Polaroids confiscated along the way but kept hold of my contact details and kept in touch.

I find this second stage of my project both fascinating and challenging, encountering situations that I might not have had if I had only focused the project on the Balkan route or if I had focused only on European countries that are considered ‘the destination’.

Fahima in Austria, part of Giovanna Del Sarto’s A Polaroid for a Refugee project © Giovanna Del Sarto

There is sometimes a perception that, once people reach their ‘destination’, everything will be magically healed. I met people along the way who didn’t have any money, food or means to carry on their journeys, yet somehow they managed to ‘make it’. At what cost, though? Some of the people I have revisited are struggling to come to terms with the memories and legacy of their journeys, and their new lives and circumstances.

Witnessing both situations has led me to realise how far away I am from truly understanding the experiences that these people have gone through.

Mahbub, Switzerland, 2017, part of Giovanna Del Sarto’s A Polaroid for a Refugee project © Giovanna Del Sarto

A selection of images from A Polaroid for a Refugee will be displayed in the stairwell and entrance corridor to the Migration Museum at The Workshop from Thursday 7 June until Sunday 1 July. Opening hours and visitor information.

Giovanna will be speaking about her project as part of our Refugee Week late opening on Thursday 21 June.

For more information on A Polaroid for a Refugee, please visit apfar.org or the project’s Facebook page.