Giving Photos to Refugees

giovannaDelSartoGiovanna del Sarto

Giovanna is a London-based documentary photographer who completed her MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts in 2008. She’s worked for numerous publications as a freelance photographer including The Guardian, Huffington Post and National Geographic. Her current project is called A Polaroid For A Refugee (ApfaR) where she gives instant film portraits to refugees documenting their points of transition. ApfaR has been exhibited in the UK, Berlin, France and Switzerland where she won the Lugano Photo Festival Women. Giovanna is on Instagram @apolaroidforarefugee and you can support her work by visiting The Photographer’s Gallery.

Can you tell us about how you started APFAR? What was it about refugees that interested you?

A Polaroid for a Refugee (APfaR) was born from my curiosity to understand. Nothing more and nothing less. The refugee crisis was a topic treated by all the media, with differing opinions. I still remember when the UK newspaper Daily Mail, in the summer of 2015, published an article with photos that portrayed families and individuals in public gardens and along the edges of the streets with their tents, on Kos Island, Greece. They were depicted eating, drinking or simply sleeping. They were doing everything we usually do. The only difference was that they did it on the streets and in public parks. The photos were accompanied by an article whose central news was about British tourists, who after having paid for their summer vacation were surrounded by people with, perhaps, bad intentions. The exodus from Syria, and consequently from other countries, caused instability in Europe. There have always been migratory flows, just think of Lampedusa. But for the first time, we were facing mass migratory flows. What could I do? I could have carried on documenting myself from home or I could have been an active part of clarifying what was really going on. The political and social situation had convinced me to go. What convinced me then to volunteer and use instant film?

In the 1990s, the Balkan war was knocking on the doors of Italy. I was 20 years old and I was neither active politically nor socially. I lived that war as something that did not belong to me. I did nothing and I never forgot it. So, when this new crisis knocked on doors, I decided to participate. My aim was also to volunteer with small organizations, to be able to understand and be close to the people involved.

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. 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. In fact, everyone I photographed has a Polaroid picture now.

Outskirts of Vienna, Austria, 2017 – Fahina left Afghanistan with her siblings when it became extremely dangerous for them to stay. Fahina’s family was a prominent Afghan family. Her father was a politician before the Taliban period. He always believed in a woman’s right to education, work and equality, beliefs which sadly cost him his life. He was murdered because he supported his daughters’ careers as well as their undercover activities to educate women in their rural, Taliban-ruled community.

Do the people you give photos to already have family photos? What kind of possessions are they traveling with when they are forced to flee their homes?

They might have photos on their phones. Possession-wise I noticed that some of the people had some bags with them or nothing at all. It all depends on how they managed to travel. For example, people who I witnessed coming on a dingy from Turkey had a small plastic bag with their main possessions; others who managed to legally pass through the Hungarian border had all their possessions with them but very often they would have all their belongings confiscated by the Hungarian authorities before entering the country.

Piraeus Port, Greece, 2016 – I met Mahbub (age 24), from Afghanistan, by the Piraeus Port in Greece in April 2016. I took his image and we exchanged FB accounts. After a few months, Mahbub wrote that he and his brother Mortaza reached Switzerland. 
 After our encounter in Greece, Mahbub and his brother boarded a flight to Vienna with Malaysian passports. Once in Austria they took a train to Switzerland where they destroyed the passports.

Are there language barriers when you’re meeting people who are refugees?

Yes, of course. During my trips, I managed to develop different ways to communicate.

Being Italian, gesticulating is my second nature and it helps a lot. Once on Lesbos Island an Afghan grandma and I, despite not sharing a language, managed to have a full conversation about her daughter being in the local hospital after delivering a baby by cesarean to her disappointment.

Other times, I ask some refugee people who can speak English to be my assistant for a day. That is really nice because you share part of your work with someone who is usually the subject of it.

Belgrade, Serbia, 2017 – Two young men washing their belongings behind the Belgrade Central station.

Which countries have you traveled to giving away photos and have you found any commonalities between refugees from different countries?

So far, I concentrated on the Balkan route countries: Serbia (Belgrade and Presevo); Greece (Athens, Idomeni, Chios and Lesvos Islands) and Northern Europe: Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France.

Refugees from different countries have the same goal: finding a place to start a new life. Too often, we forget about their real motivation in coming to Europe. We only see individuals who are settling down and we do not even bother to get to know their stories.

Idomeni Camp, Idomeni, Greece, 2016 – Two refugee girls turning their backs to the camera so they cannot be identified. I noticed these two girls coming out from a tent early morning. After a lot of gestures and mimes, I managed to take their photo.
Idomeni Camp is a vast green field full of tents comparable to a music gathering. The major difference was the people who were there: they were not music fans but people who were waiting for their chance to move on, to reach their families who might be already in Germany or in some other European countries.

What has been some of your most memorable experiences sharing your photographs?

To be thanked by the people I portrayed and to be friends with the ones I went back to see in Europe. I love the fact that their lives are entwining with mine and viceversa.

Germany, 2017 – Dunija and her brother Faisel. Dunija and her family left Afghanistan when her father was caught in the crosshairs of the Taliban. He had been asked three times to appear for a meeting at a location well known as a ‘place of no return’. When the situation became too unbearable, Dunija’s family and relatives (18 people including her oldest sister Aria, who had been obliged to marry a Taliban member and consequently had to leave her daughter behind) took a plane to Turkey. I first met Dunija and her family in 2017 in Preševo Camp, where I was invited to break the fast with them during Ramadan. After many months stuck in the camp, they decided to be smuggled out of the country. They were strategically split up to increase their chances of reaching a European country. After a few months of traveling, including traumatic journeys in packed vans, Dunija and her brother, Faisal, reached Frankfurt, Germany, where one of their uncles lived. The rest of their family (parents and younger siblings) is still in Belgrade.
The second time we met was in Frankfurt in December 2017. It was the same day that Dunija and Faisal were accepted at the Caritas Centre for unaccompanied children. Dunija is the only girl in the hostel. Faisal and Dunija’s journey was a learning curve that forced them to grow up faster.

How has this project impacted your own life?

It is a project that gently gets under your skin. It provokes a lot self-assessment.

I constantly question myself on the validity of photography as a political, social tool and the thin line between exploitation and the aiding of the subject.

I do not think it is an easy topic to deal with if you get emotionally attached to people and situations.

Buochs, Switzerland, 2017 – Mahbub, age 25, poses in the foreground of Lake Lucerne with the Alps in the background. A few weeks after I met Mahbub (from Ghazni Province in Afghanistan) in Greece, he and his brother Morteza boarded a flight to Vienna using Malaysian passports. Once they reached Switzerland they destroyed the passports. At first, they lived in Zurich but in September 2016 they were relocated to Buochs, a small citadel about an hour from Lucerne. According to Mahbub, there are about 100 refugees who have been relocated to Buochs. Locals are not accustomed to refugees yet. In fact, the presence of refugees is relatively a new reality here. This would explain why the two brothers are finding it very difficult to integrate into their new community. According to Blick News Politik, the Swiss Federation, a non-EU country but a member of Schengen, is welcoming its fair share of refugees. Almost 40,000 asylum seekers applied for refugee status in 2015 alone.

Did you have any preconceived notions about refugees that may have changed in the course of doing this project?

Of course, I had and I am sure I still have. That’s the beauty of being a social photographer: being prepared to dismantle your beliefs and embrace new ones.

Since I started the second part of the project, visiting the people in their new adoptive country, I had to reset my belief that once they arrived at their destination everything would slow down and a new life would begin.

There is sometimes a misconception 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 realize how far away I am from truly understanding the experiences that these people have gone through.

Presevo Camp, Presevo, Serbia, 2017 – A young girl getting bored while waiting for her mum and sister to finish at the makeshift beauty salon inside Presevo Camp.

If people wanted to donate to APFAR how can they do so?

As APfaR is entirely self-financed, a little help would be highly appreciated 🙂

There are different ways to support the project and its charitable aspect.

As part of APfaR, I create limited edition hand embroidered postcards whose profits go to a charity I volunteered with. You can buy them from The Photographer’s Gallery bookstore or directly from me.


You can support the self-publication of my APfaR book. It will be a unique piece which, hopefully, will reflect the family album feeling that this beautiful project has and my wish to create an intimate and approachable document which would go beyond any stereotypes related to any refugee crisis.

If you are interested in sponsoring any aspect of ApfaR pls, e-mail me at

Serbia, 2017 – Amir discovered feminism while traveling to Europe. She wants to give a message to all the women: ‘Freedom belongs to a free mind’.
Since this picture, Amir and her family reached Germany.

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