How To : Volunteer Abroad and Use Art, Photography and Social Media

By Aviv Hochbaum on 02/11/2016

Though quite an understatement, it is safe to say that one of the most incredible aspects of social media today is that it provides endless opportunities to connect with individuals that otherwise would have been beyond possibility to reach.

Interestingly enough, this recent connection and conversation with Aubrey Roemer (artist/traveler with an impressive record in social impact projects) was exactly about the place social media has in our lives. More specifically, we discussed the impact social media and photography can have on portraying communities worldwide, and the possible role travelers can take on when choosing to share moments of their travels, which they capture through their handy smart phone or camera, with their social media audience.

Aubrey touched on some very interesting points and tips that future travelers and volunteers should consider for their next travels abroad.

Check out parts of the interview with her, and share in the comments below your take on social media when traveling and volunteering abroad.

Let’s start with a short background about you! Who you are? Where are you from? Studies? Travels? Things you are passionate about? Things you love to do?

I am a visual artist that lives and works in Montauk, New York. I am from the FingerLakes region of New York, but lived most of my life in New York City. I studied fine art my whole life, college at Pratt Institute, internships at NYC galleries and with NYC artists. I have traveled A LOT for art – both on residency and for exhibition. I love to paint and I love people – my work is an intersection of two passions filtered through an activist, environmentalist, and journalistic lens. Creating art that is more than an object-making, inclusive and experiential, harnessing community as a platform for creativity, is the crux of my interest.

What is your background with social impact projects? What projects have you been a part of?

I have always worked with social programs, volunteering in high school at senior centers, paying for tuition working with America Reads and AmeriCorps, painting murals in inner city schools with New York Cares, and most recently volunteering in the refugee crisis in Greece. That being said, my recent art projects have delved into social impact work, as they have been in partnership with NGOs or directly linked to working with various communities throughout the globe in socio-political terms. For example, I worked with NGOs La Isla Foundation and World Connect to create artwork that raises awareness for the plight of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes. This  pas August, I  installed a collection of memorial portraits of deceased sugarcane workers in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, and the portraits will be given to the surviving family members after the installation.

Aubrey Roemer and Chichigalpa local and fixer Cristhian Velasquez during week 6 of her portrait project documenting the CKDnT epidemic affecting sugarcane producing communities in Nicaragua. In a colono sugarcane field outside Posoltega, Nicaragua they string up portraits of dead men. Local men and boys come to see the paintings in what became the project’s first exhibition.

In Greece this past winter, I volunteered in refugee camps on Lesvos and with the Greek NGO Metadrasi, mostly working with children, teaching art or providing entertainment / relief to them. Initially, it was a lot of moving boxes, passing out food, as time passed, the focus of my effort was working with kids. In tandem with volunteer work, I created a series of artworks from the refuse of the crisis: life jacket material, emergency blankets, and discarded clothing donated from Dirty Girls of Lesvos, a brilliant non-profit that collects the dirty, wet clothing from incoming refugees, washes and distributes the clean, dry items to the next round of refugees. The artwork was exhibited in two exhibitions in Athens, one in Shanghai, Indonesia, Taiwan, and in New York, so far this year. The a portion of the proceeds from sales of the work will be donated to Greek NGO Desmos for further refugee relief. The volunteer efforts were sponsored by US NGOs Do Your Part and Paddlers for Humanity. The most remarkable part about the process is that a large part of the work was created with the collaboration and participation of the refugees themselves. While working with unaccompanied minors with Metadrasi, there was a 17 year old Afghani girl traveling alone with her 10 year old brother, she is a designer and a young artist. Together, we worked side by side in producing a solo exhibition of the work in Athens, I was able to teach her techniques and speak with her via Whatsapp at the opening night. This experience was one of the most moving and profound moments of my life. It seemed that the most cutting edge contemporary art that I could create was to teach this young creative and engage her while she and her brother are displaced in temporary housing in Lesvos.

How do you use photography as an art medium which helps you convey your messages to your audience? What is the impact of your photographs when you share with the public?

I use photography as a reference for painting and a means of documenting the finished installation and the process, too. The impact of the photography varies from image to image, hard to tell what will resonate with who, but usually images of people are the most compelling. The human element has the most traction in my experience.

How else have you used art to help communities around the world? How have these projects impacted the communities themselves? How have they impacted people outside the communities?

I have used art in communities around the world for celebrating, engaging, educating, and memorializing the people with in the community depicted, none of these things being mutually exclusive, and sometimes the impact is minimal and unnoticed within the community. It depends. For example, I worked with La Isla Foundation in Nicaragua making art about the Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional causes (CKDnT). For the first part of this project, I painted members of the community who have had a membership role in the community and about 30 portraits of men who passed away from the disease. The work traveled to the USA and to Asia to promote awareness and education for advocacy and intervention, in regards to the epidemic and the sugarcane worker’s rights. Next month, the portraits of the deceased men will be given to their families – this is a very different impact – the effect of the work within the community is naturally more personal, intimate. There are faces, names, time, and promises made, whereas the viewers just have content which they may or may not respond to.

What does your “volunteering abroad” portfolio consist of? What is your volunteering experience?

My volunteering abroad portfolio includes: Refugee work in Greece, teaching, cleaning, grunt work, logistics, fundraising, etc. with NGO’s Desmos, Do Your Part, East End Cares, Padddlers for Humanity, Metadrasi, and briefly serving food with Sea of Solidarity; in Nicaragua with La Isla Foundation, the work was focused on art for awareness with some community art lessons; in Taiwan it was education and arts regarding their movements for democracy; in Indonesia with Oceans Care and Artshape Mammoth it writing, content creation, communications, and art for ocean conservation and clean up with a focus on dealing with plastic pollution.

Volunteering is exhilarating, depressing, charging, educating, and challenging. You learn about having, not having, and the stratospheres of social, geographical, political, and economical divisions. This knowledge is humbling and awakening.

Social media is often times chosen as an outlet through which to portray worldwide communities and their hardships. What is your stance on this common form of conduct? Should people photograph and share with the world?

Social media is a wonderful tool, it feels like the only free press sometimes! Anyone and everyone can speak their mind. The ethical danger is when the posts are exploitative, rather than supportive and that line is not binary, it has soft and evolving edges. Photography is always good, but, it may not be good for everyone involved.

Personally, I wrestle many ethical questions with my work, but try to follow my instincts, you can intuit when something is not right.

Most travelers today often travel with their smartphone or camera and post photos of their volunteering experiences across social media. As someone who has vast experience in the field, what would be your “top do’s and don’ts” that would help others post photos online in an ethical and responsible manner? How can we still promote and share, while being as sensitive and mindful of the community we are visiting?

Don’t take photos of other people at their worst moments, it’s just not nice. Do your job first, document second, and have the consent of the subjects before blasting across social threads. Once again, if it feels wrong, it probably is.

Can you share any words of wisdom with our fellow volunteer travelers as they head off on their next journey?

Be kind, be patient, smile – everyone speaks this language – and learn to speak other languages (or try to!). You change the world by changing yourself, as Rumi says.

To check out more of Aubrey’s work, and the organizations she mentioned above, check out these links:

www.aubreyroemer.net

www.facinganepidemic.com

www.laislafoundation.org

www.oceans.care

www.desmos.org

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