Thinking Sociologically about Learning to Swim

When making Learning to Swim, our immediate intention was to challenge reductionist representations of refugees and to communicate the fact that the experiences of forcibly displaced youth are much more than short clips of suffering in war-torn regions of the world.

In sharing the everyday lives of the young people in Learning to Swim - and you can read more about how we approached this participation here - and in the subsequent feedback from viewers of the documentary, we felt that we were able to communicate this message to a respectable extent (although there is always room for improvement, and that is something we work towards everyday).

However, at the end of June an opportunity arose that led us to think differently about the documentary for a moment; to think of it not as a documentary on the everyday lives and experiences of its participants, but rather as an entry point into more subtle social processes at play in displacement - processes that we would not necessarily have seen were it not for the camera.

Marie-Eve and I were accepted to present a paper at the International Visual Sociology Association conference on some ideas that only started to become apparent to us during - and after - the documentary had been released. Our paper was titled “Learning to Swim: Visualizing Agency in Displacement”. At this point, Learning to Swim was not only a medium to raise awareness about the experiences of some displaced youth, but also became a source of data to think sociologically about the implications of displacement on the lives of these individuals.

One point of sociological analysis that arose from the documentary was the opportunities that the young people in the documentary have in redrawing their social relationships and social boundaries, which we define as ‘agency’, and how this is captured through the ethnographic camera. Thinking more closely about the presence of the camera, we realized that sometimes there was a certain disconnect between what the young people told us and what was actually captured by the camera.

One specific example of this is Lou’ay, our young Syrian friend featured in the documentary who kept telling us that he did “nothing” with his time in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. And having had the opportunity to spend a few days with him walking around the camp, playing cards, conversing about the subtle differences between various Homsi accents and the social/political boundaries of the camp, we did believe that Lou’ay didn’t do much with his days there.

Except that this wasn’t the case at all. And we only realized that this wasn’t the case during hours spent editing, and then screening, Learning to Swim.

In fact, it turned out that what Lou’ay was doing with his time in the camp wasn’t “nothing” at all. When playing cards with his friends, his demeanor and actions were in fact (re)establishing a sense of companionship within his (new) friendship group. When showing us around the camp, he wasn’t adhering to how the UNHCR divide the different districts (one through 12), rather defining the various unseen borders of the camp through his own interpretations (where people from his town stayed in the camp, where the Homsis stayed and how they spoke, where the network cafes have Counter Strike installed…)

At first, the opportunity to think sociologically about what we see in Learning to Swim more closely, and then to present these thoughts to a conference, was daunting: how would these established academics who are experts in our field respond to all this?

Constructively, was the answer. It was very inspiring to be able to share our thoughts, values and beliefs to an academic audience and to have these reciprocated. We are therefore working on publishing this paper, which will open up new possibilities for LIVED by allowing us the chance to create a dialogue with an academic audience.

In the end, as Lou’ay continues to teach and inspire our activities at LIVED everyday, knowing that there are networks of people out there who can’t sleep because of the same things that keep us up at night spurs us on further, because after all, it is only through collaboration, dialogue and cooperation that we will collectively be able to find solutions to the huge challenge of restoring dignity and humanity to the lives of the many, many forcibly displaced people around the world.

NB. If you don’t know who Lou’ay is yet, you probably also haven’t met Hadeel, Anas, Youssef or Cidra. Please drop us a line, and we’ll send you a link to Learning to Swim. All we ask in return is that you send us your honest feedback and refrain from sharing the link in a public space without our prior approval.

Arek & Marie-Eve