WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

A photo exhibition and emotional connections abroad

Luca Bonacini is a very dear friend of mine, and of Expatclic. A longtime expat, professional photographer, father of two beautiful young men, in his experiences abroad, Luca fixes his lens on situations related to the countries he gradually discovers. In particular, he keeps an eye on social issues, suffering and inequalities. Presently Luca lives in Brasilia, where he continues his intense activity as a photographer. This time, however, we met him in the role of curator of a photo exhibition. I interviewed him to introduce you to the wonderful initiative he is dedicating himself to. 

 

Luca has known many countries in the world. Of Belarus, however, he only had childhood memories, when he saw the name White Russia on the atlas and was fascinated by it. With his child’s eyes, he imagined a place of fairy tales, submerged in snow, all white, muffled. That it belonged to the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, added a touch of mystery. When the wall collapsed and things started changing, Belarus remained an unknown and mysterious place for Luca.

Until then, in Brasilia, he meets Olga Aleszko-Lessels, an expat with double nationality, Belarusian and Polish, whose parents live in Minsk.

Photo ©Vadim Zamirovski

The richness and the great privilege of us expatriates are that we not only penetrate deeply into the cultures that host us, but we also come into contact with people of the most disparate nationalities, backgrounds and experiences. From the various pieces that make up the mosaic of our global human experience, sometimes one stands out in a particular way. Olga had this effect on Luca.

She passionately told him about the peaceful protests of ordinary people, especially women, before and after the Belarusian Presidential elections 2020 in August. Olga and her colleague Anastasiya Golets, another Belarusian activist working in the field of art, showed him truly impressive images and documentaries about protests and repression. When they asked him to become curator of an exhibition called “Democracy with a woman’s face“, Luca, of course, immediately accepted:

I was struck by the strength and beauty of the movement. I was very impressed by the massive and peaceful presence of women who have assumed a central role in the struggle for democracy, also thanks to the leadership of Svetlana Tickhanovskaya, the opposition candidate. It should be remembered how Alexander Lukashenko, for over 25 years at the head of the last dictatorship in Europe, dismissed his opponent: “Our constitution is not made for women“.

Anyone who has followed the events in Belarus since the elections knows that the peaceful street protests against the electoral fraud that reconfirmed the outgoing president were followed by a brutal repression: exorbitant fines, arrests, torture, threats and intimidation of demonstrators. Some even disappeared.

The ethical motivation and the values of justice that have always moved Luca were coupled by the professional challenge that curating such an exhibition implies: “I have been involved in projects as a photographer. I have “curated” my own exhibitions but never the exhibitions of others. It is a new and beautiful challenge, that of combining documentary photographs with more artistic ones. And also to look for the right balance between information and emotion. Explaining and mobilizing, making a brain and a heart dialogue… to encourage action”.

Photo ©Vadim Zamirovski

In this regard, I ask Luca how an in-person exhibition and an online exhibition differ with respect to their purpose. And if it will be possible to circumvent the obstacles posed by COVID-19 for the events that physically see us side by side.

There is not doubt that we are going through a particular moment. Still, I find physical presence fundamental. An online exhibitions certainly wins quantitatively and can be seen by many more people. But think of the difference in placing yourself in front of a 40 x 60 centimeter photo compared to a 5 inch cellphone? It is a much deeper effect. The physical space also allows you to put different images “in dialogue”, by complementing each other and connecting one another. The word “experience” is fashionable at the moment: Visiting an exhibition is an experience that involves not only the act of looking but also that of moving around, getting closer to better observe a detail, commenting with those besides you and with strangers. An online exhibition does not have these virtues. It is certainly useful to reach more people, it can last over time, it can be made interactive, but it is not comparable to the live experience in terms of emotions and impact“.

The exhibition that Luca is about to curate is part of a global movement. Exhibitions dedicated to democracy, human rights and peaceful protests in Belarus have already been held in more than 13 countries by Belarusian communities, including Paris, Berlin, San Francisco.

For Luca, contributing to exhibit in Brasilia is fundamental. As a good expat, he notes: “I do love the idea of showing a positive example in the country where I live. A country – Brazil – where most mobilizations are in favour of shutting down the congress and the federal court, and of a military intervention. It seems absurd, but that’s the way it is: a part of the population asks for the reduction of fundamental freedoms…certainly not a numerically major part, but loud, and very present”.

A final reflection concerns the connections born when living abroad, the emotional, practical and intellectual intertwining that every expatriate can – and in a certain sense must – cultivate.

Photo ©Iryna Arakhouskaya

As Luca rightly says, “An international life puts you in front of many different situations and opportunities and it’s up to you to seize them or let them pass. One of these for me was meeting Anastasiya and Olga. Looking at the photos, the faces and the expressions, and above all listening to the testimonies in the documentaries, I found that typical “Balkan” way of going straight to the essential (Luca has lived in Sarajevo in the past, ed). No frills: Rights, democracy, freedom, future!!! As in Bosnia, I have seen young, indeed very young people fed up with old politicians, asking only for freedom, very ordinary young people with immense courage. They might not be the classic activists but in the interviews of these very young female Belarusian protestors, in their words, in their eyes, we read dismay but also an incredible determination to move forward. This alone makes me think how important this project is”.

If you want to help Luca, Olga, Anastasiya, the Belarusian women who struggle daily, and those expatriates who follow dismay from other countries, you can also make a small donation to the fundraiser promoted to bring the exhibition to Brasilia. You find all details HERE.

 

Claudia Landini
Geneva, Switzerland
May 2021

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The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

 

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

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Linguistic empathy

What is linguistic empathy, and why is it important to practice it?

 

According to a survey of the Ethnologue, there are 7,099 distinct languages in the world, but only 23 of them account for more than half of the world’s population. Mandarin and Spanish rank first and second, but it is English, with its third place on the scale of most spoken languages, which is widely regarded as the lingua franca in most business and human interactions across countries.

Every language is the expression of a culture. Even little heard of languages like Angika, Glaro-Twabo and Tremembé stem from the repeated verbal interactions of the population that speaks them. Every single language in the world has its own particularities, grammatical structure and colloquialisms or slang. Some are common to most languages, some are not. Some languages do not have words for colours, others do not have the past tense. Some need to be reinforced by gestures; others rely only on voice tone.

What must never be forgotten is that language does not only come as a set of sounds and organised terms, but that it tells the story of a whole culture, conveys the feelings, frame of mind, pace, habits and codes of a cultural group. And it should be approached as such.


When a person speaks or writes in a language he has not mastered perfectly, he resorts to what is more familiar to him in terms of written and oral expression. He will transpose the structure of his native language and apply it to the other. When seeking for examples, he will refer to his own experience, and depending on the culture he comes from, he might resort to long words, colourful gestures, or convoluted phrase constructions to make himself understood.

To be understood. Think of a person who lands in a new place, and does not know its rules: What she’ll need is a space to express herself and be taken in. Language is the first vehicle to communicate with people when a culture is still unknown, but it takes time to build the ability to use it in a satisfactory way.

As expats, we know all this. We have both been in a new place without knowing its language, and have welcomed dozens of newcomers into our social circles, who could hardly express themselves. We are used to speaking, reading, writing and listening to foreign languages and going beyond the pure meaning of words, because often-times we don’t know the meaning. We encourage people to express themselves freely when they have not mastered a language, because we’ve been there. We have experienced what it means not to be able to express ourselves or to be understood, and we can therefore practice our linguistic empathy.

Linguistic empathy means never to forget that behind a language lies a culture and a human history, that has influenced the outcome of the use of that language. And that if we stop at what we hear with our ears or read with our eyes, we probably miss what the person is trying to say.

Practising linguistic empathy means never saying “I don’t understand, this is not how you say it in English”, but asking oneself where does the person who speaks come from? What could he possibly be wanting to say? What would he tell me in his language, what is he communicating with his body, eyes, posture, or perhaps in the overall content of the article he wrote?

Practising linguistic empathy requires us to always be connected to the whole of our human experience. It means listening and interpreting using all we know about the culture that person comes from, or the particular situation or experience she is going through.

It requires a lot of creativity, warmth, energy and motivation. And a lot of love for human interaction, and of hope for a better world.

 

Claudia Landini
March 2017

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