Photographer Stephanie Simpson vividly remembers a photo essay she saw – which she still hasn’t been able to find again – in which recent immigrants were asked to empty their pockets. The photographer then took shots of those objects, laid out, as a way of showing what they carried with them on the journey. She also recalls stories her sister told her about photographing families at Ronald McDonald House in a volunteer capacity. So, when Simpson looked to challenge herself creatively by tackling a new medium, film, it was those memories that sparked her project – she wanted to photograph new immigrants to give them more personal, sentimental photos, to help capture new memories in their new country.
Through the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Simpson met two refugee families who are at the core of her short film, This Is Not A Passport Photo.
“There is so much power in a still photograph, but I don’t think I could have done this story and have it resonate with people emotionally in the same way without their voices, without a look into what their life is like,” says Simpson. While taking their photos, which she would later compile into hardcover photo albums for the families, Simpson and her videographer got the opportunity to chat with the families at length. “I asked both of the guys in the film what their recommendations would be [in regards to what new immigrants need] , and it wasn’t anything tangible. It was ‘Just get to know us. There’s so much that we have in common, there’s so much we can share,'” says Simpson.
One particular clip that Simpson wasn’t able to include in the documentary proves just that. When she was photographing the Al-Mahamid family, a family of five, the daughter was a bit camera shy and reluctant to speak. However, towards the end of the process, she approached Simpson and said she wanted to say a few words on camera. “She said ‘I love you, Canada’ and then she sang the national anthem, and she didn’t know all the words but she knew the tune,” says Simpson. “She already has this song in her heart that she wants to share.”
Simpson’s documentary was awarded the Storyhive female director’s edition top award in Alberta. Storyhive is a community-powered program supporting filmmakers in British Columbia and Alberta.
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.